Greek Culture Is Evolving with Prolonged Recession

After five straight years of recession, Greece greets 2013 with an economy set to further contract. Unemployment has increased 13% in the past year, reaching 26%. The largest increase has taken place in the age group 20-24; 55% of people aged between 15 and 24 can’t find work.

Just before these Christmas, the Greek finance minister admitted that despite being the recipient of €240 billion in European Union and International Monetary Fund rescue funds – the biggest bailout in global history – Greece still is in danger of default on its massive debt. About a month ago, The IMF’s top economist acknowledged that IMF policies for Greece and other European economies were not appropriate since they were based on forecasts that vastly underestimated how government austerity efforts would undermine social and economic prosperity.

Presently, a quarter of the Greek population is living in poverty – a proportion worse than Iran’s or Mexico’s. (Eurostat) And with taxes rising, the minimum wage falling, and social welfare being withdrawn, it’s hard to see a bright side. As a result, many Greeks feel depressed, helpless and angry. Worse, many of these individuals are sacrificing the environment in their efforts to survive. National Public Radio reported that as fuel prices have shot up, people have turned to harvesting wood, even burning furniture to keep warm, leading to deforestation, worsened air pollution, and related lung ailments. The Institute of Environmental Research and Sustainable Development measured harmful micro-particle concentration – particles released in the atmosphere through fireplaces – in the atmosphere of larger Greek cities to have doubled this winter.

A part of the population attributes this economic crisis to a deeper social and cultural crisis; the crisis of badly applied capitalism combined with disappearing values and traditions.

The eco-community of Spithari (courtesy of Spithari)

The eco-community of Spithari (courtesy of Spithari)

But the good news is that some of these Greeks are coming to terms with the collapse of the failing social and political system. They are taking matters into their own hands and addressing crucial issues through grassroots activism and local collective action. Signs of lifestyle transformation are starting to appear, integrating both new technologies and traditional values.

Greece has had a history of social movements concentrating on what we now refer to as social sustainability, with most of these developing after the turbulent years of the civil war of 1946-1949 and the dictatorship of 1967-1974.

Strong political action remained within Greek society even after the restoration of democracy. Most of this activity was developed in squats of unused public buildings, renamed “free spaces”, which were colored by the ideology of anarchism and later social ecology. These squats were the first places Greeks would try to escape modern societal norms, where citizens would create, share and live in communities. These squats acted as beehives for participatory processes, involvement in the commons and the promotion of alternative living.

Presently more people are searching for alternative lifestyles to the ones promoted by the capitalist consumer model so fondly followed by Greek society during the last 20 years. Young Greeks, many with postgraduate university education, found themselves unemployed and unable to support themselves. Some immigrated to northern European countries, others remain frustrated and some, instead of being angry and helpless, chose to actively change their lifestyle.

Diverse small collectives are spreading across Greece, mainly ecological communities in rural areas. Contemporary ideas of sustainable living and ethical consumption are being woven into old-style economy and self-sufficiency. This bottom-up transition is pointing to the need for a new model of economy and uncovering the potential for cultural change towards true participatory democracy, equality and ethical living.

Spithari geo-domeEco-living at Spithari

On a hill above Marathon in Attica is situated a transitional eco-community called Spithari (or “Waking Life” in English). Its members, mostly engineers, met during the protests of 2011 and soon realized they shared common values and beliefs. They envisioned a society based on the principles of sustainability, solidarity and self-sufficiency. The team moved to a small farm just outside the city of Athens, practice small-scale natural farming, cover their energy needs partially by wind energy and operate a carpentry workshop.

The people of Spithari aim to create a living model of sustainability by reaching nutritional, energy and housing self-sufficiency. Additionally, they wish to offer a meeting point for the nourishment of participatory processes as well as the creation of a network of Greek eco-communities to help share experiences. Through this cooperation, volunteers in the network even helped install a wind turbine at Spithari.

The Caravan Project

An interesting project taking place in Greece at the present is the Caravan Project. Two artists have set to go on a journey, a passage through Greece with the aim of highlighting the personal stories of the people of the land. Focusing on the richness of human testimony and providing the necessary dialogue that will reevaluate current lifestyles, values and ideals to the ones that can bring us closer to our real needs. The mosaic of images, narratives and documentaries focus on emphasizing a different way of life than the one systematically promoted by the media and has been imposed on Greek society in recent years catalyzing the current economic crisis.  The “Caravan Project” plans to shed light on a land that continues to create, dream, and proclaim that “Another World Is Here”.

Watch 3 minutes from the story of Fred, who fell in love with Greece and is now living with his partner in the island of Mytilene, trying to live an alternative lifestyle (film part of the Caravan Project).

The Time Bank

In Athens, again following the 2011 protests, another group of people fighting for solidarity came up with the ideas of creating a different kind of bank; one in which instead of money you save time. The Time Bank is a network of inclusive economy through which one can exchange knowledge and services through the unit transaction of time.

The content of services one offers is treated with respect, one hour of service is equal to one hour of any other service, regardless of it being mental or manual work. The time gained from each transaction can be spent using the services of any member of the Bank. It all works through an online portal that facilitates the saving and usage of work-time between its members.

Thus, for example, one hour of Spanish class equates to one hour babysitting, one hour visit to the doctor is equal to one hour of self-defense course, one hour of guitar lessons can be exchanged for one hour of cleaning a house.

The motive behind the creation of the Time Bank is to work for the benefit of the community and not for profit. There are no formal requirements for participation in the network but there are some basic principles of respect among its members like the will to offer to the community, creative collaboration, equality and protection of the communities’ members against any kind of discrimination.

Finding the many initiatives like these in communities around Greece, it becomes clear how many people are striving to build a different future. These people visualize a world of peace and freedom, with technological development that operates as an extension of human potential, a world that will strategically and consciously manage with balance earth’s natural resources; a world where social reality is healthy living conditions, equality, free spirited people and real incentives away from modern city-living, complete with the social isolation, artificial barriers, and work-spend cycle that it brings with it. And they do not stop at visualization, they take action—taking the best from both modern Greek culture and technologies but also from the traditional ways of their grandparents.

–Written by Eirini Glyki


Eirini Glyki is the Research Coordinator for Worldwatch Institute Europe

Suntech May Set, But Solar Will Still Grow

On March 15, Suntech Power Holdings Co., one of China’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers, failed to pay its US$541 million convertible debt, causing its stock price to bottom out. (See Figure 1.) Three days later, eight Chinese banks filed a petition asking for the company’s main operating subsidiary, Wuxi Suntech, to be declared insolvent and proceed to restructuring. With Wuxi Suntech owing the banks 7.1 billion RMB (US$1.14 billion), the company was forced to declare bankruptcy on March 20.

Figure 1: Stock price of Suntech Power Holdings Co. (Unit: USD) (Source: Google Finance)

There was discussion about whether the Chinese central government would rescue the former star of China’s solar sector, but the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), abiding with its new policies for renewable energy, said the government “wouldn’t and shouldn’t intervene.”

This put the municipal government of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu Province, in a dilemma. On the one hand, Suntech had become a model enterprise showcasing Wuxi’s sustainable development success; it would be extremely difficult for the local government to let it go. In 2012, a proposal from Suntech Power to shut down Wuxi Suntech had distressed the local government so much that the municipality made an effort to save the company, securing an additional 200 million RMB ($32.2 million) loan from the Bank of China.

But this time around, having lost the creditworthiness to receive strong support from state banks, government bailout options were limited. Wuxi Guolian Development Group, a financial company controlled by the municipal government, was expected to take over Wuxi Suntech. On March 20, a former senior executive of Guolian was assigned to be the new president of Suntech Power. This marked the official entry of local government into the restructuring process for the suffering Chinese solar company.

Suntech’s distress was not a surprise to many observers. The president of Canadian Solar, a leading PV manufacturer in China, said that Suntech’s earlier business scandals had prepared the industry for the company’s bankruptcy. And the president of Yingli Green Energy, another top PV manufacturer in China, observed that the entire industry had been struggling.

Founded in 2001 by Dr. Zhengrong Shi, Wuxi Suntech grew rapidly during the golden period of solar PV development in China. Suntech Power was formed in 2005 and was the first Chinese solar company to go public on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). In the ensuing two years, the company’s profit rocketed from $30 million to $170 million, making Suntech the largest solar company in China and the fourth largest in the world.

So what led to Suntech’s rapid fall? Key factors include the global economic backdrop, the company’s own management problems, and an over-heated solar industry.

Figure 2: Suntech’s total net revenue gained from different regions (2005–11)

In late 2011, the United States and the European Union—the two largest markets for China’s PV products––successively applied anti-dumping measures against China to protect their own domestic PV manufacturers. Suntech, like other Chinese PV manufacturers, was heavily dependent on exports (see Figure 2), and faced significant challenges as a result of these adjustments to international trade rules.

Suntech’s own operational strategy was not healthy, either. China uses a tax rebate policy to incentivize exports, providing a 17 percent tax rebate for PV modules being sent out of the country. Taking advantage of the policy, Suntech had received an estimated $1.9 billion in refunds over the past seven years, according to data from the company’s 2007 and 2011 Annual Reports. Suntech had been increasingly relying on these tax refunds: in 2011, the estimated rebate it received was 22 percent higher than the company’s gross profit. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3: Comparison between Suntech’s gross profit and tax rebate values (2005–11)

Weak management of accounts also threatened the company’s capital chain. In 2011, the accounts receivable from investees of the Global Solar Fund (GSF, a problematic subsidiary of Suntech that was once subjected to a fraud investigation) reached $19.5 million, 58 percent of the total annual sales to GSF investees.

These factors rendered Suntech’s operation unsustainable. If the tax benefit dropped due to either policy change or reduced exports, the company would not be able to support itself, nor continue to operate under the huge debt it was bearing.

Moreover, Suntech’s misjudgment of the market had more than once resulted in huge losses. Examples of reckless market behavior included buying silicon polycrystal at unreasonably high prices and choosing to pursue expansion even after the market limit had been reached. Business scandals such as related-party transactions with Shi’s private companies, tax evasion, and possible tax fraud, as well as a public letter of complaint against the senior staff, further exposed the mismanagement inside the company.

Beyond these internal problems, Suntech found little support from regulatory policies. The rampant pursuit of GDP growth among local governments in China was a primary contributor to the overproduction of solar PV products in the country. In the midst of the large-scale curtailment in domestic PV production in 2011, the Wuxi government still encouraged Suntech to keep expanding, providing land and requesting that the company build another factory requiring 50,000 employees. Such practices, fueled by cheap credit from state banks, made Suntech’s failure almost inevitable.

Suntech is only one example of struggling PV manufacturing in China. LDK Solar, a company of similar scale, was caught in the same curtailment. However, through support from local government and foreign investors, the selling of subsidiaries, and better debt management, LDK is recovering.

The story of Suntech’s failure is complicated, but it reflects the urgent need for China’s solar industry to reorganize.  As the demand for PV products shifts from a handful of European countries to other emerging markets, fluctuations in the market have taught PV manufacturers to manage risk more carefully. Right now, an industry-wide consolidation is in process, not only in China, but also elsewhere in the world, including in the United States. As the market cuts out the least efficient firms, as with Suntech, a healthier and more mature solar industry will emerge.

Wanqing Zhou is an intern with the China program at Worldwatch Institute. Haibing Ma is the China Program Manager at Worldwatch Institute.

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Advertising Adapts and Grows, Spreading Consumerism Ever Further

It’s always striking to see how well marketers adapt to changing environments, keeping ahead of consumers’ changing attitudes and behaviors—attitudes they of course help to shape in the first place. As consumers have found ways to avoid and resist traditional forms of advertising (using digital TV recorders and Adblock Plus, for example), advertisers have turned to more subtle techniques such as promotional material on blogs, product placement, ads in suprising places, and interactive advertising on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Lockers from 15 St. Francis

School districts like this one in Minnesota, use advertising revenues to supplement funding, but inadvertently promote unsustainable consumption in the process.

Advertising in schools is one particularly pernicious example of ad creep in public spheres, in some cases infiltrating nearly all aspects of student life. Examples of this include free book covers featuring Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Fox TV characters, nutrition curriculum provided by Hershey’s, business course curriculum from McDonald’s that gives students instructions for applying for a job at the fast-food chain, and a video on environmental issues produced by Shell Oil.

And the global bombardment of ads has gone up significantly in the past year. In 2012, advertising expenditures grew 3.3 percent worldwide, continuing the gradual rebound in global ad spending since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. While the United States remains the world’s largest ad market by far, advertising spending is growing fastest in the Asia/Pacific region with 7.9 percent growth last year (excluding Japan).

Gap Jeans Ad

Advertising like this Gap Kids ad for children’s jeans shape girls’ body image from a young age.

While some analysts hail the recovery of ad spending as a sign of economic recovery, the current trajectory has serious negative implications. The impacts of advertising and consumerism on all aspects of society and culture—from food choices to young girls’ self-image—are well documented. Advertising targeted at children is particularly penetrating and influential, defining their identity as consumers from an early age and interfering with normal childhood development. Evidence has shown that children are experiencing increased physical, emotional, and social harm as a result of consumerism through advertising.

Advertisers have also sought to capitalize on growing public concern over environmental threats through “green” marketing. However, false advertising and deceptive environmental claims have become so rampant that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission established updated Green Guides in 2012 that will allow it to take enforcement action against deceptive environmental marketing.  The guidelines discourage the use of general and unsubstantiated terms such as “eco-friendly” and include strong guidelines for use of terms such as “biodegradable” and “recyclable.”


Dawn—made from petrochemicals itself—offers to help save wildlife from oil spills in its newest ad campaign. Greenwash, good will, or penance?

While regulatory controls on false advertising such as the Green Guides are a positive development, true sustainability will ultimately require less material consumption and therefore stronger overall limits on advertising to stem its global growth and increasing presence in everyday life.

–Written by Shakuntala Makhijani

Shakuntala is a research associate at Worldwatch Institute and contributing author to State of the World 2013.

Aquaponics: An Interview with Sweet Water Organics’ Matt Ray

Nourishing the Planet’s Kimberlee Davies spoke recently with Matt Ray, the principal farmer for Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics training organization in Milwaukee, about his experience in the field of aquaponics.

Sweet Water Organics uses aquaponics technology to grow food in downtown Milwaukee.

What is aquaponics? How did you become involved?

Aquaponics has been around for centuries. It was traditionally a technique in tropical climates, using floating bamboo rafts with vegetation in fresh water pools. This was simply the adaptation of agriculture to the tropics. The technique has become cutting edge over the last 20 years. We can adapt aquaponics to today’s geographies and culture.

Aquaponics is a blending of aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil). In aquaponics, aquatic animals serve as the nutrition base for the plants. The great thing about aquaponics is that it is a closed system; it doesn’t have to flow in one pipe and out of another.

I saw it begin to pop up in the late 1980s, starting with the Virgin Islands, Australia, and even Asia, where fish are grown symbiotically with rice paddies. Forward-thinking farmers and activists began to develop the practice in non-tropical climates, and academics began researching the field. Twenty years later, we have a lot more people doing it. Scientific data has emerged to support the spread and success of this technique. It’s possible to take the nuts and bolts and adapt them to wherever you are. It’s going to work and it can be replicated.

My background was originally as a Montessori teacher for the 7th and 8th grades. I began a transition to aquaponics in 1996. Will Allen—a leader in the aquaponics field and chief executive officer of Growing Power—became my mentor. Milwaukee has a strong history in aquaponics, and Will has always been on the forefront. From Will’s tutelage, I moved into my own classroom—a natural move with my background in Montessori. I am now both an educator and a farmer.

At Sweet Water Organics, we built our first system in 2008, and we recently put up our first satellite aquaponics system at a local school building. Aquaponics provides endless educational content: worldwide food distribution, cooking, microbiology, food handling, fishing, marketing, and economics. It’s everything. It puts the students in a real-life situation. Plus, the system doesn’t require machinery, permitting students to participate.

How has the local community responded to Sweet Water?

I think all-in-all, the feedback is positive. You have to look at what your true impact on a community is: people asking when you’re going to hold a workshop; when you’re working with graduate students; when restaurants are dedicated to using our local products, and they understand we’re just getting into this. Even the public school system has picked up on our work. A high school is about to roll out a whole aquaponics program. Aquaponics offers the opportunity to empower the everyday citizen. It is personal and natural: something that can feed yourself and your neighbors.

We also engage the community in several ways. Most recently, we have challenged local architecture students to redesign our 40,000-square-foot indoor facility. The designs must incorporate our multiple forms of community outreach, including: a culinary facility, a learning lab (with an open classroom dynamic), a tinker lab (for hobbyists and entrepreneurs), a research lab (to encourage good data collecting), an innovation hub (to demonstrate design, similarly to living art), an area to grow commercial sprouts, food storage (something more concrete), and an area for art experimentation. This facility even includes performing arts.

A modern farmer looks for multiple outreaches and income streams. You’ve got be engaged in the community.

What are the biggest challenges to local food production? How does aquaponics address these issues?

I don’t know if aquaponics has answered the substantial global needs: food, shelter, health care, water, etc. I don’t know if one agricultural technique can solve these problems. The potential is there, but to say it can completely offset traditional farming is a big step. What aquaponics does do is provide local food. It also provides brownfield remediation. In more dense urban areas, it reclaims buildings and revitalizes real estate. Plus, it causes a ripple effect (people notice and get involved). People gravitate toward things that are nurturing, providing hope and an alternative answer.

Our disconnect to our food is one of the biggest challenges. This connection is directly related to our children’s health. The further we get removed from agriculture, the greater our reliance on big producers, which use a lot of water and pesticides. We have to change how we view agriculture; farmers can be smart, educated producers. In urban areas, we’re bringing farming to the people, solving the disconnect. It’s kind of like the neon sign. People naturally want to check it out. We create citizen ownership and pride.

Could such facilities potentially feed, or supplement the diet of, large populations?

I think so. It depends on how active any particular urban area is on pursuing local production. I think of total diversification: fruit trees and nut trees in parks; vertical aquaponics; remediate a part of the city and turn it into an intensive gardening plot; etc. Hit it hard. Our city has to commit to urban food production.

By creating consistent, fresh, and local products, you can gain institutional players—assistant living accounts, hospital accounts, school accounts. In my mind, this motivates me to do what I’m doing. These people—children, the recovering, the elderly, the poor—need the healthiest food. Let’s open to these accounts, knowing that they don’t pay the same premium as fancy restaurants. I’d love to see aquaponics hit the public school market. I know a charter school and high school that already participate. Even universities and business owners can get involved and become suppliers.

In my opinion, aquaponics does bring some consistency that outside farming cannot. At the very least, you can say, “who else can grow lettuce in January?” By repurposing an old factory, aquaponics is able to consistently produce healthy lettuce in the off-season.

Based on your work over the last several years, what advice do you have for those interested in working in aquaponics?

Read. And visit.

Do a little bit of both. Take a course if you can. And tinker. Use the gentle assets you have or those of your loved ones (if you know a plumber, ask for help). Most importantly, follow the yeses. One of my mentors told me that. You take stock of what you need and what you have. If somebody says no, you ask if they know somebody. If you get a no, find a yes. Follow those yeses.

What can individuals do to support your work?

If we’re doing a workshop, certainly sign up. Also, we’re always looking for funding for the work we do with the community through the Sweet Water Foundation. We are also looking for grant partnerships as well as contracting with schools and community organizations.

On a bigger level, learn about it, decide what you want to do with it, do it well, and teach others. The Internet allows people to check it out, so learn. We’re working on one of the major global issues. It’s more than how you can make money. If you want to do alternative energy, or waste management, it’s more than about you or your organization. We’ve got to get on the ball. Leave your ego at the door.

Kimberlee Davies is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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Centroamérica Se Une En El Camino Hacia Las Renovables

The English version of this blog is available here.

Por Cinthya Alfaro Zúñiga

Al ser costarricense y becario de investigación para Worldwatch Institute/INCAE, me brindó mucha satisfacción asistir al 21 Foro Regional de la Alianza en Energía y Ambiente con Centroamérica(AEA) que tuvo lugar en Costa Rica a principios del mes de marzo. El objetivo principal de la AEA es brindar financiamiento para proyectos de energía renovable, sin embargo también busca desarrollar capacidades al explorar diversos temas como las diferentes tecnologías energéticas, las políticas requeridas para una implementación exitosa y los obstáculos y oportunidades regionales por medio de diálogo entre las partes involucradas.

Worldwatch e INCAE presentan la primera fase del proyecto “El Futuro de la Energía Renovable en Centroamérica” en Costa Rica en Marzo.

Worldwatch e INCAE presentan la primera fase del proyecto “El Futuro de la Energía Renovable en Centroamérica” en Costa Rica en Marzo.

Bajo el título de “Biogás y Eficiencia Energética en Centroamérica”, el más reciente Foro reunió a un grupo de 200 expertos, desarrolladores de proyectos, representantes gubernamentales, financistas y el público en general. Los ponentes se refirieron a temas como la contribución a la reducción de emisiones de carbono por parte de las políticas de eficiencia energética y de la energía renovable. Otros tópicos importantes incluyen el estado de la eficiencia energética y del biogás en Centroamérica, así como un recorrido por los proyectos de la AEA en ambos temas.

La actividad de tres días contó con ponentes de la Agencia de Cooperación Alemana (GIZ), el Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), la Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL), el Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica (BCIE), y el Worldwatch Institute, entre otros.

Por parte de Worldwatch Institute, el Presidente Emérito Christopher Flavin hizo una presentación sobre el estado global de la energía renovable, y el Director de Clima y Energía Alexander Ochs resumió los resultados de la primera fase del proyecto Worldwatch Institute/INCAE “El Futuro de la Energía Renovable en Centroamérica”, que aplica la metodología de Hoja de Ruta para la Energía Renovable del Instituto a la región. La Dra. Ana María Majano, Directora Adjunta del Centro Latinoamericano para la Competitividad y el Desarrollo Sostenible del INCAE Business School, acompañó a Ochs al ser INCAE el socio local principal para la implementación del proyecto.

Este es un momento importante para el proyecto centroamericano Worldwatch/INCAE, pues su primera fase está por terminar. Durante el año pasado,  a través de extensa investigación, entrevistas, visitas a los diferentes países y talleres de consulta, nuestro equipo ha explorado la situación energética actual en Centroamérica, enfocándose en el estado actual y en futuros potenciales de las tecnologías de energía renovable. El proyecto analizó las oportunidades socioeconómicas relacionadas con la energía renovable, evaluó las barreras y facilitadores financieros y de inversión, y desarrolló recomendaciones de políticas para acelerar soluciones energéticas que sean socialmente, económicamente y ambientalmente sostenibles.

Ambos Ochs y Majano presentaron casos de éxito así como las limitantes para el acierto futuro del sector de energía renovable en Centroamérica. Actualmente la región se apoya fuertemente en grandes hidroeléctricas para la generación eléctrica y en el uso de biomasa tradicional para cocinar, y su dependencia en combustibles fósiles crece para poder satisfacer sus necesidades de transporte y energéticas en general. La región centroamericana también es líder mundial en la generación eléctrica geotérmica, sin embargo tiene un potencial significativo sin explorar en geotermia, eólico, solar, biomasa y pequeñas hidroeléctricas.

El estudio de Worldwatch/INCAE encontró que una planeación integrada es necesaria en el sector energético de la región, ambos entre países y entre tecnologías. Encontró, además, que actores claves del sector necesitan coordinar sus actividades y compartir información. El reporte también identificó la necesidad de llevar a cabo análisis de costo nivelado de la energía (LCOE en inglés) para poder comparar con precisión los costos financieros, ambientales y sociales de las diferentes tecnologías de generación eléctrica.

Dr. Ana María Majano, Directora Adjunta Centro Latinoamericano para la Competitividad y el Desarrollo Sostenible (CLACDS), acompañó en la presentación como socio local principal para la implementación del proyecto.

Este reporte contiene un amplio análisis sobre el estado actual de los combustibles convencionales y de la energía renovable en Centroamérica, así como el potencial de cada uno. El panorama más amplio de este análisis indica que el periodo de 1990 a 2011, la generación eléctrica (que representa un 12% del consumo energético final de la región) incrementó de menos de 15,000 gigawatt-hora (GWh) a más de 40,000 GWh. La región actualmente genera un 62% de electricidad por medio de energía renovable, mucho menos del inicial 91% en 1990. El aumento en generación a base de combustibles fósiles ha crecido dramáticamente de un 9% en 1990 a un 38% en el 2011.

El estudio continúa con un detallado análisis del potencial de las diferentes tecnologías. Por ejemplo, los fotovoltaicos están sub-utilizados. Únicamente hay dos plantas de escala-comercial en operación, en Nicaragua y Costa Rica, y aún no son competitivas en términos de costos con otras tecnologías de generación.

El reporte explora las oportunidades socioeconómicas que ofrecen las renovables, teniendo una clara ventaja sobre los combustibles fósiles al considerar externalidades como los costos en salud e impactos del clima, entre otros. Dado que la región requerirá de 6,300 megawatts (MW) – 7,300 MW de capacidad instalada adicional para el 2020, estas oportunidades socioeconómicas deben ser consideradas en los procesos de toma de decisiones.

Los hallazgos también incluyen información importante respecto a las inversiones realizadas en energía renovable, así como las necesidades financieras futuras del sector. Por ejemplo, si la región ha de cumplir su Estrategia Energética Sustentable Centroamericana 2020 – estrategia convenida por los Directores de Energía, los Directores de Hidrocarburos y los Ministros de Energía de la región en el 2007 para asegurar la calidad, cantidad y diversidad de fuentes para el abastecimiento energético – para el final de ese año, aproximadamente de $12 – $18 mil millones deben ser invertidos. Esto será influenciado mayormente por el clima general de inversión del país. El reporte también analiza los mecanismos de apoyo existentes para la energía renovable de varias fuentes, tales como públicas y de financiamiento de clima.

A lo largo del reporte hay ejemplos de casos de éxito y mejores prácticas, ya sean iniciativas rurales solares en Nicaragua y micro finanza verde en Honduras. El documento termina con recomendaciones dirigidas a impulsar la energía renovable en la región, así como las prioridades identificadas durante la fase inicial del proyecto para Centroamérica.

La primera prioridad es ampliar el acceso a la energía para aquellas comunidades marginadas por medio de energía renovable distribuida y el uso sustentable de leña. La segunda prioridad es revertir el crecimiento en electricidad generada con combustibles fósiles y satisfacer la demanda energética futura en áreas conectadas a la red con energía renovable y eficiencia energética.

¿Cuál es, entonces, el camino por delante? Durante la segunda fase del proyecto (2013-2014), Worldwatch e INCAE desarrollarán Hojas de Ruta de Acciones para la Energía Sustentable para la región. Estas explorarán la electrificación, uso sustentable de la leña y la disminución del crecimiento en el consumo de combustibles fósiles por medio de fuentes renovables de pequeña y grande escala. La tercera fase (2014-2015) constará de entrenamiento y ejercicios de aprendizaje uno a uno. Aunque el “Futuro de la Energía Renovable en Centroamérica” es ambicioso y falta camino por recorrer, el resultado se espera que sea transformador para la región.

Cinthya Alfaro Zúñiga es becario de investigación para Worldwatch Institute/INCAE en el proyecto “El Futuro de la Energía Renovable en Centroamérica”.

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Central America Comes Together on the Way Forward for Renewables

By Cinthya Alfaro Zúñiga

As a native Costa Rican and Worldwatch Institute/INCAE Research Fellow, I was excited to attend the Energy and Environment Partnership’s (EEP) 21st Regional Forum in my home country earlier this month. EEP’s primary objective is providing finance for renewable energy projects, but it also seeks to build capacity by exploring diverse topics such as different energy technologies, policies needed for successful implementation, and regional obstacles and opportunities through stakeholder dialogues.

Worldwatch and INCAE presented Phase 1 of "The Way Forward for Renewable Energy in Central America" in Costa Rica in March.

Under the title “Biogas and Energy Efficiency in Central America,” the most recent Forum convened a group of 200 experts, project developers, governmental representatives, financiers, and the general public. The speakers addressed topics such as the contribution of energy efficiency policies and renewable energy toward carbon emissions reductions. Other important themes included the status of biogas and energy efficiency in Central America, as well as a run-through of EEP energy efficiency and biogas projects in the region.

The three-day event featured speakers from the German Cooperation Agency (GIZ), the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), and the Worldwatch Institute, among others.

On behalf of Worldwatch, President Emeritus Christopher Flavin presented on the global status of renewable energy and Climate & Energy Director Alexander Ochs summarized the results from the first phase of the Worldwatch/INCAE project, “The Way Forward for Renewable Energy in Central America,” which applies the Institute’s sustainable energy roadmap methodology to the region. Dr. Ana María Majano, Associate Director of the INCAE Business School’s Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development (CLACDS), joined Ochs as the lead in-country implementation partner.    

This is an important time for the Worldwatch/INCAE Central America project, as its first phase comes to an end. Over the last year, through extensive research, interviews, country visits, and consultation workshops, our team has explored the energy situation in Central America, with an emphasis on the current status and future potential for renewable energy technologies. The project analyzed the socioeconomic opportunities associated with renewable energy, assessed finance and investment barriers and enablers, and developed policy recommendations to accelerate energy solutions that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.

Both Ochs and Majano presented success stories as well as the limitations to future success in Central America’s renewable energy sector. The region currently relies heavily on large hydropower for electricity generation and on traditional biomass for cooking, and it is increasingly dependent on fossil fuels to meet transportation and other energy needs. It is also a world leader in geothermal electricity generation and has significant untapped potential in geothermal as well as wind, solar, biomass, and small hydro resources.

The Worldwatch/INCAE study found that integrated planning is needed in the region’s energy sector, both across countries and across technologies, and that key actors in the sector need to better coordinate their activities and share information. The report also identified the need for country-specific levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) analyses in order to accurately compare the financial, environmental, and social costs of different electricity generation technologies.

Dr. Ana María Majano, Associate Director of the INCAE Business School’s Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development (CLACDS), presented as the lead regional implementation partner.

The report contains a rich analysis of the current state of conventional fuels and renewable energy in Central America, as well as the potentials for each. The broader picture for this first analysis indicates that in a period from 1990 to 2011, electricity generation (which accounts for 12 percent of the region’s final energy consumption) has increased from less than 15,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) to over 40,000 GWh. The region currently produces 62 percent of electricity from renewable energy, down from 91 percent in 1990. The increase of fossil fuel-based generation has grown dramatically from 9 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 2011.

The report continues with a detailed analysis of different technologies’ potential. For example, solar photovoltaics (PV) are underutilized. Only two utility-scale PV plants are in operation, in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and are not yet cost-competitive with other generation technologies.

The report explores the socioeconomic opportunities that renewables can offer, having a clear advantage over fossil fuels when considering externalities such as health costs and climate impacts, among others. Given that the region will require 6,300 megawatts (MW) – 7,300 MW additional installed capacity by 2020, these socioeconomic opportunities need to be considered in decision-making processes.

The findings also include important information regarding investments that have taken place in renewable energy, as well as future finance needs of the sector. For example, if the region is to fulfill its Central American Sustainable Energy Strategy 2020 – a strategy agreed upon by the Directors of Energy and Hydrocarbon and Ministers of Energy of the region in 2007 in order guarantee the quality, quantity, and diversity of sources for the region’s energy supply – by the end of that year, an estimated $12-$18 billion must be invested. This will be influenced largely by each country’s overall investment climate. The report also analyzes existing renewable energy support mechanisms, from various sources, such as public and climate financing.

Throughout the report are examples of success stories and best practices, whether for rural solar initiatives in Nicaragua or green microfinance in Honduras. The document wraps up with recommendations aimed at moving renewable energy forward in the region, as well as the main priorities identified for Central America during the project’s initial phase.

The first priority is to expand access to energy in underserved communities through distributed renewable energy and the sustainable use of fuelwood. The second is to reverse growth in fossil fuel-generated electricity and to meet future power demand in grid-connected areas with sustainable energy and energy efficiency.

So what is the way forward? During Phase Two of the project (2013–14), Worldwatch and INCAE will develop more detailed Sustainable Energy Action Roadmaps for the region. These will explore electrification, sustainable fuelwood use, and decreasing growth in fossil fuel consumption through development of small- and large scale renewable energy sources. Phase Three (2014–15) will consist of training and peer-to-peer learning exercises. Although “The Way Forward for Renewables in Central America” is ambitious, and we still have a ways to go, the outcome will hopefully be transformative for the region.

Cinthya Alfaro Zúñiga is a Worldwatch Institute/INCAE Research Fellow for “The Way Forward for Renewables in Central America” project.

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Hunting Musk Oxen and Building High Tunnels in the Arctic

In the words of one Arctic native, “the earth is faster now.” Rapid changes such as melting sea ice, rising temperatures, drying lakes, and melting permafrost threaten Arctic natives’ ways of life, particularly their traditional food systems based on hunting and fishing. Environmental changes may be reinforcing broader cultural and economic shifts in Arctic communities, accelerating the transition away from traditional foods. However, recent research indicates that declines in traditional foods have not been adequately compensated for by imported store-bought foods, as indicated by rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and economic and psychological stress. Climate change may thus be contributing to declining food security and health in many native Arctic communities.

Inuit elders eating Maktaaq (bowhead whale blubber), (photo by Ansgar Walk)

Inuit elders eating Maktaaq (bowhead whale blubber), (photo by Ansgar Walk)

Food security” is defined as the ability of individuals and communities to reliably access food, and for that food to be of sufficient quantity and quality. Traditional food systems in the Arctic, largely based on hunting, rely heavily upon environmental conditions to ensure their food’s quantity, quality, and access: they are dependent upon consistent animal populations, migration patterns, and physical access to hunting grounds.

Over the last two decades, average Arctic temperatures have risen by 2-3O C, twice the rate of lower latitudes. Associated physical changes include melting sea ice, melting permafrost, and changing weather patterns. Animal populations such as caribou, whale, and fish are declining in health and quantity, and their migration patterns are shifting, affecting both food availability and food quality for Arctic communities. Access to food is also affected; in some areas hunters have greater difficulty getting to hunting grounds due to reduced sea ice or variable weather events. These changing conditions lead people to feel that they “can’t use this [traditional] knowledge now.”

Environmental changes are not the only threat to Arctic peoples’ traditional food systems. Climate change interacts with already-present cultural and economic shifts away from traditional subsistence lifestyles. Research has documented that younger generations of Arctic natives consume greater amounts of store-bought food than their parents. This trend is partly cultural and economic, but also partly driven by environmental change; some research has found that when traditional foods are scarce, Arctic communities increasingly rely upon purchased food.

Musk Oxen (photo by Hans Grobe)

Musk Oxen (photo by Hans Grobe)

The concern is that as environmental changes make traditional foods increasingly scarce, the resulting food insecurity will not be resolved by a shift to purchased foods. In remote regions of Alaska and Northern Canada, purchased foods also have unreliable access, quality, and availability. Because they are shipped long distances by air or boat, these foods are often expensive, of low nutritional quality, and environmentally costly. The transition to consuming greater quantities of purchased food has been linked to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and nutrient deficiencies in native Arctic communities.

Imported food is also vulnerable to unpredictable disruptions and variability in supply, pricing, and quality—a reality that will only worsen as climate change increases the severity of storms, fog, and reduces sea ice further.

The shift away from traditional food systems has accompanied a loss of cultural identity, affecting community ties, traditions, gender roles, and psychological well-being. The complex relationship between food and culture indicates that strategies for improving health and food security in Native Arctic communities may require the strengthening, not the weakening, of local culture and knowledge. Efforts in this direction could include knowledge sharing between Arctic communities, increasing knowledge transfer between generations, and strengthening community health education.

High Tunnel in Homer, Alaska (photo by Eve Kilcher)

High Tunnel in Homer, Alaska (photo by Eve Kilcher)

Other adaptation strategies on the table include efforts to diversify food sources, such as shifting from hunting caribou to hunting musk oxen, and introducing greenhouse garden programs to increase the availability of fresh and affordable vegetables. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, for example, could serve as a model for expansion to native villages.

Arctic native peoples may be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine signaling how climate change disrupts human communities. Because the Arctic has warmed more rapidly than lower latitudes, the difficulties experienced by Arctic natives may indicate broader challenges for food security in a warming world. Their story suggests a dual imperative of both urgent climate change mitigation and greater attention to culturally specific adaptation processes.

—By Jessie Luna

Jessie Luna holds a Masters in Sustainable Development from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and is currently a PhD student in Environmental Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She researches food systems and sustainable development.

The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity

By Supriya Kumar

Some 1.2 billion people—almost a fifth of the world—live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion face what can be called economic water shortage. The situation is only expected to worsen as population growth, climate change, investment and management shortfalls, and inefficient use of existing resources restrict the amount of water available to people. It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, with almost half of the world living in conditions of water stress.

Global water scarcity map. (Photo credit: International Water Management Institute)

Water scarcity has several definitions. Physical scarcity occurs when there is not enough water to meet demand; its symptoms include severe environmental degradation, declining groundwater, and unequal water distribution. Economic water scarcity occurs when there is a lack of investment and proper management to meet the demand of people who do not have the financial means to use existing water sources; the symptoms in this case normally include poor infrastructure.Large parts of Africa suffer from economic water scarcity.

World population is predicted to grow from 7 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050, putting a strain on water resources to meet increased food, energy, and industrial demands. But there are many other pressures, including increased urbanization and overconsumption, lack of proper management, and the looming threat of climate change. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Water, global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.

At the global level, 70 percent of water withdrawals are for the agricultural sector, 11 percent are to meet municipal demands, and 19 percent are for industrial needs. These numbers, however, are distorted by the few countries that have very high water withdrawals, such as China, India, and the United States.

Agricultural water withdrawal accounts for 44 percent of total water withdrawal among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but this rises to more than 60 percent within the eight OECD countries that rely heavily on irrigated agriculture. In the four transitional economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, agriculture accounts for 74 percent of water withdrawals, but this ranges from 20 percent in Russia to 87 percent in India.

Policymakers must introduce a variety of measures to address global water scarcity. One important initiative is to support small-scale farmers. Much of the public investment in agricultural water management has focused on large-scale irrigation systems. Farmers can also use water more efficiently by taking a number of steps, including growing a diverse array of crops suited to local conditions and adopting irrigation systems like “drip” lines that deliver water directly to plants’ roots.

Climate change will affect global water resources at varying levels. Reductions in river runoff and aquifer recharge are expected in the Mediterranean basin and in the semiarid areas of the Americas, Australia, and southern Africa, affecting water availability in regions that are already water-stressed. In Asia, the large areas of irrigated land that rely on snowmelt and high mountain glaciers for water will be affected by changes in runoff patterns, while highly populated deltas are at risk from a combination of reduced inflows, increased salinity, and rising sea levels. And rising temperatures will translate into increased crop water demand everywhere.

To combat the effects of climate change, efforts must be made to follow an integrated water resource management approach on a global scale. This involves water management that recognizes the holistic nature of the water cycle and the importance of managing trade-offs within it, that emphasizes the importance of effective institutions, and that is inherently adaptive.

Read the full report at Vital Signs Online.

Supriya Kumar is Worldwatch’s Communications Manager.

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Viva PetroCaribe?

With Chavez gone, what will become of his PetroCaribe program? Photo credit: Valter Campanato, Agencia Brasil

Among the questions arising after the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is what will become of the PetroCaribe program he started in 2005 and upon which many Caribbean economies have become dependent. Since it began, PetroCaribe has become a much-needed lifeline to countries in the region that are overly reliant on fossil fuel imports to supply their energy and transportation sectors. However, it has also increased the unsustainable debt levels of these countries. What comes next is uncertain as Venezuela prepares to elect Chavez’ successor as president of Venezuela next month.

Chavez started PetroCaribe with the aim of helping neighboring countries bear the burden of oil dependence at a time when oil prices began to rise sharply. Touted on its Web site as a “shield against misery,” the program allows participating Caribbean countries to purchase Venezuelan oil under preferential conditions. At the outset, 50 percent of the payment was due within 90 days with the remainder being financed over an extended period, sometimes up to as long as 25 years. The interest charged on the balance was at 2 percent but fell to 1 percent once oil surpassed US$40 per barrel.

In some instances, countries have been allowed to exchange goods for oil. For example, the Dominican Republic pays for a share of its Venezuelan imports with a yearly supply of 10,000 tons of locally grown black beans. And although it was not officially part of PetroCaribe, Cuba has a bilateral arrangement with Venezuela where the latter supplied the former with oil in exchange for things like medical services.

PetroCaribe has meant relief for small-island and other developing economies in the region that were (and still are) overly dependent on pricey fossil fuel imports and it has been said that if it were not for PetroCaribe, the Caribbean region would be in economic freefall. It has allowed countries to keep energy slightly lower than they would have otherwise been, a fact that was especially beneficial when oil prices topped $140 a barrel in 2007. And after the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Chavez forgave that country’s US$295 million PetroCaribe debt.

The program is not without its critics, however. Some argue that it has been nothing more than “oil diplomacy” and Chavez’s attempt to make the region reliant on Venezuela and to sign up to its anti-U.S. rhetoric. Others have noted how the agreement has further saddled countries with high levels of external debt. For example, the Dominican Republic, already beset with financial troubles in the energy sector, owes Venezuela US$3.3 billion for its PetroCaribe deals alone.

Jamaica’s agreement with PetroCaribe calls for 60 percent of the import value to be paid up front, with the remaining 40 percent being converted to a long-term loan with 1 percent interest. Instead of paying down the debt, the proceeds go into the country’s PetroCaribe Development Fund. Although the fund has supported various infrastructure projects in Jamaica, including the expansion of the island’s utility-scale Wigton Wind Farm, it has also left the island with a roughly US$1.9 billion debt to Venezuela, a 4 percent rise from 2011.

Nicolas Maduro, Chavez' hand-picked successor, will participate in the upcoming presidential election. Photo credit: Prensa Miraflores.

With Chavez no longer at the helm, uncertainty over PetroCaribe’s future has some indebted countries worried. Existing long-term deals will likely be honored but if the program is modified to demand larger upfront payments and less-generous financing (or if it is scrapped altogether), some of PetroCaribe’s participants will not be able to afford the oil they need at current world prices. It seems unlikely that Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor and current acting president, will make any radical changes before the upcoming April 14 election. Venezuela’s next president, however, will face an economy that has suffered greatly during the profligate spending of the Chavez years and is sporting a worrisome fiscal debt, a factor that may contribute to the end of the program as Venezuela seeks to shore up its finances.

Assuming that PetroCaribe remains in place for the time being, participating countries would do well to heed this latest wake-up call and more aggressively pursue sustainable domestic energy solutions. Although PetroCaribe has been beneficial in some ways (Jamaica’s current dealings with the International Monetary Fund would have been much more agonizing had the country been purchasing oil without preferential financing costs all these years), the arrangement may have dulled regional urgency to address fossil fuel reliance.

Given the abundant renewable energy resources of Caribbean islands – including wind, solar and geothermal – and the enormous potential of energy efficiency, ambitious pursuit of sustainable energy solutions would severely reduce fossil fuel dependence and could have avoided the need for the PetroCaribe short-term fix that never really addressed the long-term problem of energy import dependence. Going forward, participating countries should examine closely the factors that hinder domestic sustainable energy development and work diligently to resolve them.

In some cases, a country’s fiscal situation is one of its biggest barriers to such development. Carrying a large amount of debt is often seen as too risky for investment, a problem that is only exacerbated by continued reliance on an expensive commodity whose price will most likely rise in the long run. Other times, ineffective or antiquated legislation and special interests that profit from the status quo present a very large barrier to renewable energy development. As usual in these cases, political will, strong leadership, and an effective country strategy rooted in the socio-economic and security interests of its people are necessary to forge a new way forward.

For more than three years now, the Worldwatch Institute has studied the potential of sustainable energy options for individual countries, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica. Recently, the Institute expanded that work to include a region-wide study for the Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) being conducted by the Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM). With this work, Worldwatch is helping to set bold but achievable targets for sustainable energy growth in the region by 2030.

At a recent meeting of CARICOM’s Council for Trade and Economic Development, energy ministers from member countries agreed to adopt a regional energy policy and provisional targets for renewable energy over the long-term, both region-wide and in their respective countries. These targets were prepared with input from the Worldwatch Institute and it was an encouraging sign that Caribbean leaders are taking their energy challenges seriously and see the advantages of adopting sustainable energy solutions. Continuing down this path could go a long way toward reducing reliance on petroleum imports, increasing the health of their people and environment, shoring up domestic finances, and becoming the model of what other countries need to do in the fight against global climate change and fossil fuel dependence.

Mark Konold is the Caribbean Program Manager for Worldwatch’s Climate & Energy Program.

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