Hey, U.N.: Climate change and population are related

This article was originally posted by Grist.


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On Sept. 22 and 23, the United Nations will host separate daylong conferences on two issues of incalculable importance to the future of humanity: population and climate change. Though the two meetings will take place just one day apart, neither is likely to refer to the other. And that will be a missed opportunity, because scientific research increasingly affirms that the two issues are linked in many ways.

The population gathering in the General Assembly on Sept. 22 will mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994. The next day’s summit has been convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for government and business leaders to brainstorm ideas for addressing climate change.

The coincidence of these meetings occurring a day apart offers a teachable moment for the global decision-makers gathering in New York. Actions to promote the well-being of women might produce mutually reinforcing benefits in both areas.

Population, the lives and status of women, and climate change are rarely linked at the United Nations — or in any other intergovernmental conversations, for that matter. Intuitively, it’s easy to understand that the growth of world population from 1 billion people at the start of the Industrial Revolution to 7.3 billion today has something to do with the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But most of the climate change the world is currently experiencing stems from decades of carbon-intense development by the world’s wealthier countries. These countries’ populations are growing much more slowly (and in a few cases not at all), compared to those of poorer countries with low greenhouse-gas emissions. So what’s population got to do with climate change today?

That’s a question researchers are beginning to answer. Published science presents growing evidence for climate-population linkage that is complex, far more nuanced than the conventional “rich-versus-poor” debate, and worth working to understand.

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment, a project of the Worldwatch Institute, is assembling an international group of researchers to help evaluate recent scientific evidence on how family planning might contribute to environmental sustainability — and long-term human well-being. Our objective is to widen and diversify the scientific discussion, while helping to clarify population-environment linkages for better public and policy-maker understanding.

We are in the early days of this work, but already some conclusions are emerging that are germane to this week’s two U.N. meetings. One is that the body of international research on climate and population is reasonably extensive, and it is growing. Much of this literature is published in peer-reviewed journals, not only in the United States and Europe but in developing countries. Researchers take the linkage seriously and explore multiple aspects of it. The output goes well beyond how population growth might affect emissions. Some papers explore how human density, distribution, and numbers influence adaptation to climate change and contribute to interactions between climate and such critical issues as future food security and freshwater availability.

In just the last five years, scientific reports (such as this peer-reviewed paper and this think-tank report) have suggested that feasible differences in future population growth could make for significant differences in future emission rates. Economic development is anticipated to increase per-capita emissions even in currently low-emitting countries — as demonstrated by the experience of India and China. That makes near-term population growth rates significant for long-term emission trends.

On a more positive note, one recent think-tank study suggests that recent reductions in fertility in Brazil, China, and some other countries help explain why global deforestation has slowed — and thus contributes a lower share of global greenhouse gas emissions today than in the past.

And recognition of such links is not restricted to researchers. Many governments of least-developed countries themselves recognize population size or density as impediments to climate-change adaptation, as noted by these two peer-reviewed studies.

case study in Ghana concluded that gender also matters to adaptation. (Samuel Codjoe, coauthor of this post, is also a coauthor of the Ghana study.) As women gain power in their societies — for example, through education and the capacity to decide for themselves whether and when to have children — they may be able to enhance the resilience of those societies in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Though our project has much work ahead to assess the scientific evidence on this linkage, what we have seen so far at least suggests that the United Nations and other world bodies would do well to open both minds and conference venues to the question of how population and climate might influence each other.

Population growth and global warming are both likely to continue for many decades. Yet both trends can be slowed through programs that improve reproductive and sexual health while helping women make their own choices about childbearing. It makes sense to see how the trends relate, and to what extent improved reproductive health and family planning access might carry mutual and synergistic benefits in both the population and climate arenas.


Robert Engelman, former president of the Worldwatch Institute, now directs the Institute’s Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. Samuel Codjoe is director of the Regional Institute for Population Studies at the University of Ghana, and a collaborating researcher in the assessment.

To see the original article on Grist, click here. Grist is a source of intelligent, irreverent environmental news and commentary that’s been around since 1999. They cover climate, energy, food, cities, politics, business, green living, and the occasional adorable baby animal. Their goal is to get people talking, thinking, and taking action. They now reach a community of more than 2 million people a month. Want more stories like this? Get Grist’s free email newsletter.


China Takes Greater Steps to Reduce Climate-Altering Emissions


In the first half of 2014, energy intensity in China declined 4.2 percent, and the carbon intensity of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell 5 percent, compared with the same period in 2013. These are among China’s biggest “green” achievements since 2011, the first year of the 12th Five-Year Plan, which guides the nation’s economic development. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which announced the progress, slower growth of heavy industry and rapid expansion in the country’s service sector were the main forces behind these trends.

According to data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), industrial output continued to grow during the first half of 2014. However, the growth of some greenhouse gas emissions-intensive industries was lower during 2013–14 than during 2012–13. Among the major industries experiencing slower growth are paper making; oil processing; cement, glass, iron, and steel production; and automotive production. Some industries, such as crude oil and chemical fertilizer production, even showed negative growth. (See Figure 1.)


Figure 1. Growth of Selected Greenhouse Gas-intensive industries In China, 2012–2014
Note: The Figure compares production data for the first two quarters of the given years. Oil processing includes the production of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and coke.
Source: NBS China

Noticeably, the production of air pollution control equipment has grown dramatically in China. NBS data for the first half of the year indicate that production increased 8.0 percent between 2012 and 2013, but then surged more than 35-fold to grow 288.8 percent between 2013 and 2014. According to a report released by Zhiyan Consulting Group, growth in this industry comes mainly from flue gas desulfurization systems and particulate collection devices.

NBS data also show that, in the first half of 2014, the value-added of the service sector exceeded that of the manufacturing sector. (See Figure 2.) (The service sector overtook the manufacturing sector in annual total added value for the first time in 2013.) This also contributed to the reduction in energy intensity and carbon intensity, since the service sector was less energy-consuming in general. Data suggest that the main drivers behind the growth between 2013 and 2014 were the wholesale and retail industry, and the financial services industry.


Figure 2. Value-added of China’s Manufacturing and Service Sectors
Note: The Figure compares data for the first two quarters of the given years.
Source: NBS China

Reduced growth in energy-intensive industries was accompanied by a greening of China’s overall energy mix. NBS data show that renewable energy sources—particularly wind and solar power—are gradually edging out fossil fuels in electricity generation. (Note that in the first half of 2014, curtailment of wind power was down 33 percent compared with the same period in 2013, saving 3.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and ameliorating China’s wind curtailment problem; see the earlier Worldwatch post on this issue.)

If the trends in industrial growth and energy mix continue, China may be able to achieve its near-term goals for reducing climate-altering emissions. The country’s 12th Five-Year Plan aims for a 16 percent reduction in energy intensity and a 17 percent reduction in carbon intensity during 2011–15, with the goal of fulfilling a 2009 pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40–45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. According to the NDRC, by 2013, China had achieved a 28.6 percent reduction in carbon intensity from 2005 levels, hitting 63 percent of its goal in just four years.

However, in one report, an NDRC official observes that further reductions remain challenging, and risks of rebound exist. Some regions that currently face the prospect of economic decline have plans for energy-intensive projects, and the per-unit energy consumption of some industrial products is likely to rise. Yet, from the national level to the enterprise level, China is making efforts to provide long-term momentum to the low-carbon transition.

Policies and legislation  

In August 2014, the NDRC issued the Method to Assess the Accomplishment of Unit GDP Carbon Dioxide Emission Reduction Goal. Consistent with the Work Plan of Controlling GHG emissions during the 12th Five-Year Plan Period, issued by the State Council in 2011, the Method builds a connection between a region’s carbon reduction outcome, its system for assessing integrated socioeconomic development, and the track records of local government officials.

This more-detailed scoring system represents a step away from China’s near-singular focus on GDP as a measurement of progress. Local governments can now earn credits for actions such as reductions in carbon intensity, increasing the share of the service sector in local economic growth, increasing the share of renewable energy in primary energy consumption (and reducing the burning of coal), forest planting, and capacity building. The local government must meet both the annual and cumulative carbon intensity goals in order to pass the assessment.

To provide a solid legal basis for these climate-related efforts, the NDRC has reportedly completed a draft of the Climate Change Response Act, which could be released next month for consultation. The draft is based on an earlier version of the Act released in 2012, following a two-year drafting process led by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The latest draft highlights air pollution control as the major entry point to tackling climate change.

Local markets and standards

China has adopted carbon intensity goals, rather than absolute emission reduction goals. However, the country’s emerging cap-and-trade carbon market can act as a bridge between the two. The development of regional and national emission trading systems is on the agenda, with calls for comprehensive standards, industry leadership, and public engagement.

In April, to support development of the emission trading market, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform released a set of standards called “Advanced Carbon Emission Intensity Values” for 23 major energy-intensive industries, including power generation, heating, paper making, automotive production, electronic devices/component manufacturing, food processing, brewing, and a variety of services. The mandatory emission trading system will allocate carbon credits to newly added facilities based on these advanced standards.

In December 2013, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) China office released the country’s first ranking of enterprises based on their carbon intensities, to encourage non-fossil fuel companies to pursue higher energy performance and lower carbon intensities. When comparing the performance of WWF’s top-ranked enterprises with Beijing’s advanced values, most electronic device manufacturers on the list showed leadership, with carbon intensities 80 to 98 percent lower than the advanced value; however, the carbon intensity of even the best telecommunication services companies was 88 percent higher than the advanced value, showing significant room for reduction.

Carbon intensity, or absolute emission reduction?

Through its carbon market, China is implementing a system to encourage companies to make absolute reductions in their emission levels; however, it seems unlikely that a national commitment of this kind could be made at or before the informal United Nations climate summit on September 23. Although it was initially reported that China could introduce an absolute cap on its greenhouse gas emissions under the 13th Five-Year Plan, Chief Climate Negotiator Su Wei recently reaffirmed that the country would stick with the carbon intensity target, as China still expects significant economic growth in the future. Nevertheless, the country’s effort and accomplishment should not be underestimated.

According to PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC’s) Low Carbon Economy Index 2014, in order to keep the rise in global temperature below two degrees Celsius while maintaining economic growth, the world needs to reduce its carbon intensity by 6.2 percent annually through 2100. The current five-year worldwide average is merely 0.6 percent annually, whereas China’s average was 1.6 percent during 2008–13. During this period, none of the countries with the highest reduction rates had an annual GDP growth above 4.5 percent, whereas China’s growth was 8.9 percent. (See Figure 3.)


Figure 3. Annual Average Changes in Carbon Intensity and GDP, World and Selected Countries, 2008–13.
Source: PwC

That being said, China still has the second highest carbon intensity among the Group of 20 countries, just below South Africa. As China adopts new policies and market systems in an effort to pursue less-energy-intensive economic growth, the effectiveness of its emission reduction initiatives remains to be seen.

Wanqing Zhou is an intern with the China Program at th Worldwatch Institute and an associate with Brighter Green.


LEGOs, LEGOs, Everywhere, & a Partnership with Shell

Fill ‘er up? (Image from Danjam via Brickipedia)


That LEGO is partnering with Shell is nothing new. From 1966 to 1992 LEGO regularly produced Shell-themed LEGO sets. You might even remember them from your childhood:

  • There’s the 1981 Shell Gas Pumps set;
  • And the Shell Service Station from 1983;
  • And then there’s the rare, cross-over Pirates/Town set, “The Shell Pirates’ Illegal Offshore Exploration Ship” (see below);
  • And the even rarer Shell Death Star commanded by Shell CEO Darth van Beurden.

Well, as you might have heard, LEGO has recently renewed its partnership with Shell, producing a new line of Shell branded LEGO sets. Fortunately Greenpeace has rocked the oil platform a bit with its excellent cartoon about Shell’s destruction of the Arctic (made with LEGOs of course), claiming that “Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations”: Greenpeace’s cartoon and campaign raises the important question of whether LEGO should partner with an oil company or not. But without too much reflection it seems clear that this type of partnership is not appropriate—for the very simple reason that LEGO blocks imprinted with the Shell icon help create a positive association in children’s minds between Shell and the enjoyable hours spent playing with LEGOs. The more positively oil companies are viewed (at a primal, deep brain level) the harder it’ll be to convince people that fossil fuels (and the companies that profit from their extraction) are not compatible with a survivable future. So in other words, yes, Shell—and LEGO through its partnership—is polluting our kids’ imaginations.

Shell Pirate Ship-6285
“Ahoy maties! Let’s go find some new offshore oil deposits to exploit!” cries out Captain van Beurden from the crow’s nest.


So should parents stop buying LEGOs? Notice that not even Greenpeace suggests that—LEGO is a powerful brand, one that kids love. So parents would be reluctant to abandon this reliable brand, let alone try to explain to their kids why they can’t play with their LEGOs anymore. Probably why Greenpeace simply encourages parents to sign this petition to LEGO. Perhaps enough parental anger will make LEGO reconsider whether this brand taint is worth the $116 million its deal with Shell is estimated to be valued at. But then again, considering what LEGOs are made out of, I don’t imagine LEGO is really averse to oil drilling and might as well find a partner to make its company even more lucrative (at least until the end of the fossil fuel era takes it down). But yes, parents should probably think twice about supporting LEGO and honestly, all toy brands.

My son, Ayhan, is only 2 and already we have two big boxes of toys (and that’s with aggressive efforts to discourage people from buying us any new stuff). The key for me will be to redirect Ayhan beyond the exaggerated period of extended childhood that Americans prefer and get him playing with/building real stuff sooner. Why assemble LEGO sets when you can assemble a meal to serve to your family? Why arm a hundred LEGO knights when you can build your own bow and arrows? Why wage LEGO battles when you can hunt down a squirrel and make stew from its meat and a pouch from its hide?

Yes, Ayhan is a few years from that, but by six he should be a competent squirrel hunter or at least a squirrel trapper and at that point hopefully any LEGOs we’ve accumulated will be collecting dust in the closet. I admit all that sounds primitive, but then again, primitive skills will probably be an integral part of the post-oil, post-plastic, post-LEGO future that’s speeding toward us like a derailed LEGO train (probably loaded with unreinforced Shell oil tank cars). “All aboard! Next stop: New Miami” (since old Miami will be long submerged by then). —

Reposted from Raising an Ecowarrior

Photo Credit: Sean Peoples and Michael Miller/Wilson Center.

Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment Aims to Shed Light on Pop-Environment Link

This blog post is reposted on our blog with permission from the New Security Beat

Photo Credit: Sean Peoples and Michael Miller/Wilson Center.

As global environmental change accelerates, understanding how population dynamics affect the environment is more important than ever. It seems obvious that human-caused climate change has at least something to do with the quadrupling of world population over the last 100 years.

But the evidence that slower population growth is good for the environment – logical as that statement may seem – has never been extensive, with conceptual models, empirical research, and data often lacking on key issues.

An ambitious new Worldwatch project, the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment, hopes to help redress this, shedding light on how increased access to voluntary family planning services can support environmental sustainability.

Assessing the Field

Arguments that family planning is environmentally beneficial mostly rely on its role in slowing population growth. For 40 years the IPAT equation (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) has been a useful teaching tool, but beyond this simplistic formula, the development of models and conceptual frameworks for population-environment connections has been limited.

In the mid-1970s, some of the Worldwatch Institute‘s first reports explored the connection between the environment and population dynamics, including women’s status, girls’ education, and family planning. By the early 1990s, Population Action International and some of the largest U.S. environmental organizations had small programs devoted to population and the environment. Around the same time, the population-environment link was firmly embedded in the Wilson Center’s work through ECSP.

In the 1990s, a handful of important reports and papers made a reasonable case based on data that slower population growth could slow certain kinds of environmental degradation – for example, Nancy Birdsall, then of the World Bank, on population and greenhouse-gas emissions, and Malin Falkenmark, a Swedish hydrologist, on population and water availability.

Since the turn of the millennium, however, empirical research outputs have been few and far between. Even harder to find is data and other evidence for assertions that family planning helps improve the environment, whether through demographic pathways, non-demographic pathways (e.g., empowering women and girls to become better stewards of the environment or opening up educational opportunities that build appreciation of sustainability), or both.

Building a Network of Collaborators

Few if any researchers specialize in family planning and environmental sustainability combined. The linkage cuts across multiple disciplines in the social, biological, and physical sciences. Academia rarely rewards such holistic work. And although there has been an uptick in recent years in funding for community-building fieldwork related to population, health, and environment (PHE) programs, there remains no significant body of peer-reviewed literature assessing the effectiveness of PHE as a concept.

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment project aims to change this by identifying the strongest and most recent research on how increased use of family planning might strengthen or accelerate a transition to environmental sustainability, with a focus on work that is peer reviewed and published in academic journals. The project also seeks to build an international network of collaborators to assess the existing literature and advance new research on the linkage, with special emphasis on engaging researchers who are women and/or in developing countries.

To date, we have assembled a network of 20 collaborating researchers from 11 countries and a literature inventory of well over 200 reports and papers, most from peer-reviewed journals, that mention family planning or population along with environmental topics. Many of these papers involve mere mentions of the terms, but some examine the connections between them.

For example, one paper by Nigerian researchers and another by an Ethiopian author find correlations between household and family size and food insecurity. A case study of a small rural community by Ghanaian researchers suggests that gender matters significantly in how such communities can adapt to climate change. And a paper out of Canada pursues a rather novel aspect of the link, exploring how the use of hormonal contraception affects water quality and the health of aquatic species, and concluding that the net effect is positive due to demographic impacts.

Making the Link

We are also building a conceptual framework illustrating the many ways in which improved access to family planning services and increased use might contribute to the attainment of environmental sustainability. Despite the complexity of the draft framework, we’re still missing many aspects. For example, where is consumption? As women give birth to fewer children, might their families increase their consumption and thus counterbalance any gains to the environment from adding fewer people to the population? These are just two among the many questions we’ll explore.

There has been a recent proliferation of output that at least mentions family planning or population in environmental contexts, much of it coming out of developing countries. But few of the papers we’ve seen so far try to puzzle out how family planning or population-environment connections actually work. Fewer still test hypotheses with data, randomized trials, control groups, cross-country comparisons, or other methodologies that can be replicated to falsify or lend further support to hypotheses. Moreover, little of the research we’ve seen explores micro-scale or non-demographic pathways from family planning to environmental sustainability.

While this may be a long journey, we’re taking first steps to better understand the population-environment link and help build a research base supporting that understanding. We’re speaking with researchers and think tanks in developing countries about the possibility of joining us in active partnerships to expand this work. The project is drawing growing interest from funders and accomplished researchers with diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps the most encouraging comment we’ve received, despite the hurdles, is “what you’re doing is really important.”

That much we do know.


If you are interested in working with the project, contact Yeneneh Terefe at

This article was written by Robert Engelman — who is directing the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) initiative at Worldwatch Institute, and published at the New Security Beat. It is reposted on our blog with permission from the New Security Beat.

Photo and Video Credit: Sean Peoples and Michael Miller/Wilson Center.

Spain: From Boom to Bust to Sustainable Prosperity?

This year’s Spanish edition of State of the World 2013, published by our partners FUHEM-Ecosocial and Icaria Editorial, included a special appendix exploring the sustainability of the Spanish economy. Here, Óscar Carpintero and José Bellver outline the essential dimensions of unsustainability in the Spanish economic model as it has developed over the last two decades, before suggesting some guidelines for a more environmentally sustainable and socially just alternative. Below is a shortened English version.

The ongoing crisis in Spain, while undoubtedly economic and financial in nature (as with the world economy as a whole), is also environmental and social. This current crisis certainly shares common features with its predecessors (excessive debt, speculation, fraud, falling production, unemployment, and so on). Along with this, we have seen a sharp increase in social inequality, gender discrimination, and the environmental deterioration brought about by a model of production and consumption (“the treadmill of production and destruction”) that seriously jeopardizes the very survival of not just Spain but our species.

Long before the onset of the crisis, many critical economists in Spain had been warning about the unsustainability of the Spanish economic model, above all when environmental costs are considered along with the high social and financial costs of this “development” strategy. The unsustainability of the Spanish model is evident both in terms of the consumption of resources and their waste/disposal (a type of analysis synthesized through the concept of the social or economic metabolism, in this case of Spain).

Of all the natural resources consumed and valued in the last two decades, 50 percent correspond to the products of quarrying and mining and are destined to feed the successive housing and infrastructure booms. This is absurd in both ecological and economic terms, and even more remarkable given that two-thirds of the buildings were built not in response to demand for homes, but rather as speculative construction of empty homes in expectation of their revaluation and subsequent sale to materialize the investment, or as secondary homes used on average just 22 days a year.

An even more striking illustration of this absurd situation is the fact that, at the height of the housing boom, more new homes were under construction in Spain than in France and Germany combined (about 900,000). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the bubble wreaked enormous harm on the physical landscape, at the same time as the Spanish model of development based on real-estate and tourism has seriously undermined Spain’s hydrological ecosystems, especially on the coast.

Zaragoza Train Station, Spain (image courtesy of Efraimstochter via Pixabay)

Zaragoza Train Station, Spain (image courtesy of tpsdave via Pixabay)

Another feature of the Spanish model has been a pattern of territorial development based on the dispersion of urban centers and spaces, requiring the construction of major transport infrastructures to connect them. In this process, individual motorized transport and, on the collective side, high-speed transportation have been favored above all else. By way of example, while the Spain ranks 13th among the world´s economy (9th before the crisis), it now has the largest high-speed rail network in Europe, and the third largest in the world! Apart from the environmental destruction involved, both solutions have proved to be as costly, in both financial and quality of life terms, as they are ineffective in resolving the problem of traffic congestion. They also contribute to the territorial polarization of economic activity.

It should be stressed that this domestic unsustainability is matched by the international unsustainability of the model as a result of Spain´s increasing dependence on the rest of the world for both resources and disposal. Take for example, the fact that for every ton that leaves Spain in the form of exports, nearly three tons more enter as imports. Or consider that in order to offset its ecological footprint, Spain would require forests covering three times the entire country. These are some of the reasons why the ecological-economic model of a country like Spain cannot be reproduced worldwide, since, obviously, not all countries can at the same time run a deficit in material, territorial and financial terms.

The crisis that began in 2007 is exacting a huge social cost, in terms of unemployment as well as the decline in basic public services directly associated with social welfare. However, the drop in economic activity has also brought a change in the composition of the natural resources consumed by the Spanish economy: the use of non-renewable primary (extracted) materials and the emissions of greenhouse gases have shrunk dramatically, while the relative importance of renewable energy and materials has increased. These are “paradoxical” tendencies that might nonetheless point us in new directions, providing opportunities for quiet reflection on the necessary change of economic model.

spain-379535_1280 - Copy

Spanish Flag courtesy of Efraimstochter via Pixabay

Ideas on moving to a more sustainable and equitable scenario

If, beyond a certain level, the increased consumption of goods and services does not necessarily increase the welfare of the population, it would not appear very reasonable to increase indiscriminately the production of these goods and services. Thus, the economy should not be focused on first and foremost on growth, but instead on four principles of sustainability that would serve as guidelines for change: renewable energy; closed material cycles; sufficiency, redistribution and self-restraint exercised through democratic regulation; and the precautionary principle.

Introducing these principles into the Spanish economy would require implementing a battery of strategies and measures in different fields, ranging from the overall institutional framework (involving economic planning and its objectives with respect to the ecological footprint and material requirements, policy incentives and penalties favoring sustainable production, a more rational work-time policy, the development of information systems and data corresponding to new priorities) to sector-specific measures necessary for the  economic and ecological conversion of the Spanish economy, such as:

  • Spatial planning based on the characteristics of the soil, climate and available resources.
  • Introduction of disincentives to the construction of new housing and infrastructures while providing incentives to efficiently manage the existing housing stock.
  • Integrated policies for energy and water management: driven by demand-management and consumption reduction, and, in the case of energy, faster replacement of fossil fuels and nuclear power by renewable energy (solar and wind).
  • Coherent waste management policies: prioritizing prevention, reduction and reuse rather than recycling and incineration, and ensuring organic nutrients are composted and returned to land to grow our soil reserve.
  • Transition to organic farming and animal husbandry: radically changing the bias of current public subsidies and policies for the sector.
  • Internalizing the basic principles of clean industry, for example, by generalizing pollution prevention and savings strategies and designing products that takes account of the entire life cycle of the product.
  • Job creation in the sustainable economy and the social economy: stimulating those sectors that help create generate employment, improve social cohesion, and do so with either minimal or even a positive environmental effect.

How should this be funded?

Of course, the kind of economic and ecological conversion we are talking about necessarily requires funding. This can largely be obtained by implementing many of the major reforms required in the Spanish financial and tax systems.

Recent events have clearly demonstrated the need to restore some of the old regulations and guarantees governing many types of financial transaction. Moreover, the reestablishment of a public bank would help not just to limit the huge economic power of private banks, but also to reorient economic activity and investment with sufficient financial independence. Recent nationalization processes resulting from bank bailouts have provided (and may still provide) opportunities for this.

Reform of the tax system, in order to make this both more solid and truly progressive, in terms of both the collection and the use of resources, is essential if we are to achieve effective economic transition and social welfare and equality. This system must be able to finance a series of public services (education and health) and quality social benefits. Several measures are necessary in order to meet these goals: a) adoption of a strategy based on more and better taxes, correcting the regressive character of the current system that benefits the rich; b) decisive action against tax fraud (estimated to amount to over 6 billion Euros, or around 6% of Spain’s GDP); c) equal treatment of gross labor and capital incomes, eliminating the deductions that lead to outrageously low effective rates on business income; d) launch a genuine ecological tax reform, focusing on the environmental impacts of production and consumption and thereby generating additional resources for the transition to the new model and a dissuasive effect on unsustainable behavior; e) elimination of the fiscal advantages for contributions to private pension systems to strengthen the public system, thus reducing the pressure for profitability in the financial markets, and hence the speculative movements associated with the operation of these funds.

All of these proposals show that it is technically possible to introduce substantial changes into the Spanish model of production and consumption. Unfortunately, that is not enough: change also requires political will, and above all, sufficient social support. Neither are easy to achieve in a context like that of Spain today, where many of these proposals imply breaking with the modus operandi of the economic powers, that is, with precisely that which explains Spain´s disastrous environmental-economic development in recent decades.

In current circumstances, not trying would not appear to be a valid option. Nor can we place our hopes in a return to the “good old days” or the false promises of technology, when what we really need is progress towards a radically new model that prioritizes the ecological and social dimensions over just the economic.


Óscar Carpintero is an Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Valladolid. José Bellver is a research fellow at Fuhem Ecosocial, where he coordinates the Spanish edition of State of the World. Both of them are members of Transdisciplinary Research Group on Socioecological Transitions (GinTRANS2) at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

The More the Merrier for Sustainability?

My alarm goes off; I turn it off and toss to my left. I feel the cool breeze coming from the air conditioner. I am grateful to have a device like this that can regulate the room temperature to on optimal level with the press of a button. As I leave the cool air of my apartment, I realize how hot and humid it is outdoors in this month of July. I am now convinced the most indispensable equipment for survival in my apartment is the air conditioning unit.

Now imagine a world in which the average global temperature is ever-increasing, and the goods and services we take for granted become more and more expensive and limited. Demand for energy and other resources exceeds supply. We find ourselves consuming more energy to use our air conditioners as global temperatures keep rising to unprecedented levels. Add population growth into the mix, and we have a vicious cycle where that growth encourages increases in energy consumption and other human activities that intensify climate change.

According to the United Nations medium population growth projection, the scenario UN demographers describe as most likely to unfold, human population will grow to 9.6 billion by 2050. This is a substantial amount of growth and is likely to have detrimental effects on our environment. Green technology is certainly one solution, but there is also an approach to addressing climate change that most environmentalists and policy-makers ignore: improving access to voluntary family planning.

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project, directed by the Worldwatch Institute, seeks to gather peer-reviewed articles shedding light on the linkage between voluntary family planning and environmental sustainability. This linkage is not simple, and research often treats single aspects of a relationship of many parts. For example, researchers may focus specifically on demographic change or on the empowerment of women and improvement in household livelihood.

This project is an international collaboration of researchers coming together to test the hypothesis that family planning matters to sustainability. They work to assess the rigor and quality of recent published research. The objective of this assessment is to provide a robust evidence base that can be useful for environmental leaders, policymakers and other potential allies in advocacy for improving access to family planning services.

We plan to report our findings this February, with a thorough bibliography and textual narrative on the family planning-environmental sustainability linkage.

Follow us in this important journey to safeguard our future and that of our children!

Yeneneh Terefe is a research assistant in Worldwatch’s Environment and Society Program.

The Tragedy of Conservation Treaties

In 1968 Garrett Hardin published a seminal article in the journal Science. In it, he explored a social dilemma called “the tragedy of the commons.” Hardin pointed out that if individuals act in a rational way, with an eye towards their own best interests, common resources will be depleted. For example, it is in an individual rancher’s best interest to graze as many cattle as he can on common grazing land. However, when each rancher acts in that individually rational way, the grazing land is soon overused. If the ranching community enacts rules, and manages the land as a community entity, then the land can be sustainable grazed. The tragedy of the commons is one challenge facing the development and implementation of multilateral environmental agreements.


Image courtesy of Pavlos Stamatis via flickr

Many environmental issues cannot be addressed only at the nation-state level. Greenhouse gases (GHGs), for example, travel across political and geographic boundaries. Because of the trans-boundary issue of greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 as an attempt to lessen GHG emissions across the globe, in a politically and economically fair way. A healthy atmosphere is perhaps the most common and important of all resources, as the future of the entire human population is dependent on how well we protect our atmosphere. However, due to the fact that there is no ownership of the atmosphere, there is little incentive for individual nations to sacrifice anything in order to protect it. The same issues apply to other common resources, such as ocean waters or biodiversity.

In addition to challenges presented by the tragedy of the commons, concepts of responsibility present another layer of difficulty to international environmental agreements. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, developed countries have spent years emitting gasses while developing countries are only recently increasing their emissions.

The question of responsibility looms over all climate negotiations. In the initial Kyoto negotiations, for example, Brazil proposed that countries set emission reduction goals based on their historical contribution of emissions, therefore ensuring that developed nations such as the United States have more ambitious reductions than do developing nations. There is also the economic argument, that imposing reductions on developing countries limits their ability to economically develop and grow. The tragedy of the commons and issues of responsibility and equity make international environmental agreements very challenging to develop and enforce.

Participation in environmental agreements stagnate

Other multilateral environmental agreements include issues dealing with fisheries, water pollution, carbon markets, and trade agreements. The latest study of the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project measures participation in multilateral environmental agreements by 41 countries in the OECD and European Union. It found that in general participation in such agreements has not changed since 2009. Not a single country showed any significant change in its rate of participation, indicating that perhaps these ambitious attempts at global and regional environmental protections are generally not successful. Additionally, political machinations may be preventing increased participation, as countries struggle with the concept of fair and equal actions in such agreements.

However, simply because multilateral agreements are difficult, that does not mean it is impossible to come to agreement. The European Union, for example, has several fisheries partnerships formed to improve fishery management and share sustainable management ideas. Indeed, it is likely the case that the smaller the agreement (i.e., the fewer entities involved), the easier it is to enact and implement. A fishery that spans two countries, for example, requires only cooperation between those two countries. Communication between two entities is far easier than communication between 20 countries, and it has been shown that communication is an integral part of common resource management. When parties of an agreement communicate and build a trusting relationship, it becomes easier to create a legally binding agreement with the knowledge that each party will follow the rules.

Geography and the scope of the environmental issue also play roles in the difficulty of establishing multilateral agreements. An issue such as climate change, that spans the globe, requires action on a global scale. Smaller-scale issues, however, are easier to negotiate, as building trust between fewer nations is simpler than building global trust. The United States and Canada, for example, came to an air quality agreement in 1991 to address trans-boundary air pollution.

Despite the challenges to successful multilateral agreements, a number of efforts are underway. Greenhouse gas emissions negotiations are ongoing, of course. Additionally, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification seeks to “forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.” While it remains to be seen what policy results will emerge from this effort, it is an indication of the international efforts to create regional and global agreements. However, based on SGI’s analysis, the attempts may be futile. It is far easier to create a partnership than to create tangible, enforceable environmental regulations and laws.

Indeed, a new study identifies three common issues that characterize the ineffectiveness of international law when it comes to environmental protection: treaty congestion, a lack of recognition of the relationships between environmental issues and other issues, such as human rights; and the emergence of a global legal regime that encompasses relationships between government and non-government entities. It may be that until nations learn to trust one another, and build genuine, honest relationships, international environmental protection will continue to stagnate.


Alison Singer is a former intern with Worldwatch’s Is Sustainability Still Possible? project. This article was first published on the Sustainable Governance Indicators blog.

The sustainable food movement has pioneered labor-sustainability collaboration. Image courtesy of Wisely Woven via Flickr

Labor and Sustainability: Together at Last

The sustainable food movement has pioneered labor-sustainability collaboration. Image courtesy of Wisely Woven via Flickr

It has become almost a cliché that unions and environmental activists don’t get along. Environmentalists want environmental protection; unions want jobs. The longstanding assumption that these two goals are contradictory underlies the conflict between the two lobbies.

Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer, authors of Chapter 21 in State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, contest this assumption, however. They write that there are “no jobs on a dead planet,” and that, ominously, “38 percent of all workers worldwide are employed in carbon-intensive sectors.” Rallying for better pay, working conditions, and other standard labor requests will do little to avert environmental degradation (and mass worker displacement). Yet a smooth transition to sustainability will not be possible without unions to back up the vast numbers of workers who work in industries which are simply unsustainable. We need unions, but not unions as usual.

A resolution to this paradox has developed in the labor-sustainability collaboration which has helped propel the sustainable food movement to prominence in the last few years. For example, at every “real food” conference I have been to – and these are conferences dealing mostly with sustainability issues – there has been a presentation on labor and the importance of unions. We have even had union representatives speak before. Unions and environmental activists have worked together in pushing the agricultural and food-service sectors towards sustainability, including persuading nearly 30 colleges to transfer large percentages of their food purchases to sustainable sources. Highlighting the mistreatment of farmworkers inherent in mechanized mass agriculture has been as helpful as discussing toxic pesticides. Perhaps nothing shows the success and the depth of the labor-sustainability collaboration like an incident I remember from my first year in the food movement. The national company which provided my college’s dining services refused to work with us on our campaign to serve more local and organic food in our dining halls. Their excuse? We were allegedly a front group for a union!

Dozens of Real Food Challenge student activists at a food sustainability conference. One of the activities was attending a workers' rally. Image courtesy of Real Food Challenge

One reason this symbiosis works so well is that industries with poor working conditions are also often environmentally damaging. This is especially so with mass agriculture. It is really, in fact, the same tendency towards penny-pinching and profit maximization which results both in horrible labor conditions and in environmental harms, such as those resulting from cheap, mono-crop farming. In other words, labor issues and environmental issues are (often) inseparable. When an industry is structurally unsustainable, labor and environmentalists can agree that the only real solution is to fundamentally reshape it. This need not mean fewer jobs, but new jobs. It is an opportunity. In fact, at least in agriculture, more sustainable production methods often  require more, and more skilled, labor. Workers and the environment can both win.

It is encouraging that every year, “real food” or “sustainable food” continues to grow and become more recognized. We thus already have a successful, working model of labor and environmental cooperation, holding together over many years. This cooperation is a milestone in labor-environmental relations. There has previously been some cooperation in opposing “free trade” deals, but in the food movement, there is a largely new understanding that the fates of labor and the environment are linked.

The challenge is to replicate this success in other industries, where it may admittedly be more difficult. For one thing, food must be produced no matter what. There are, however, entire industries which may not survive a transition to sustainability, such as oil refining. Gouverneur and Netzer write that within unions, “[t]he …system-challenging question of sufficiency – how lifestyles and business need to change to end the overuse of goods, resources, and energy – has been largely neglected.” In other words, unions may need to readjust their entire understanding of how an economy runs.

The good news is that is not just theory. We can see it beginning now. More change will be required – of unions and of the economy as a whole – but given decades of operating experience and recent successful work in the sustainability arena, there is no question that unions and and will be part of a sustainable future.

Following Solar Roadways to Sustainability?

The Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways video is wonderful. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re going to love it. The technology is impressive, and the narrator promises clean energy, safer roads, healthier communities, and much more – very convincingly. The Solar Roadways Indiegogo campaign has been a huge popular success – crowdsourcing more than $2,000,000 so far for their silver-bullet idea for saving the planet.

Not so fast. I too enjoyed the video, but was compelled to write up my thoughts on the problems with this idea:

1)      There is no silver bullet. The Solar Roadways video is powerful because it has attracted so much attention from folks outside of the traditional environmental or cleantech realms. Family members who I thought only followed sports have been sending this video to me as if they found the solution for saving the planet! What a waste of a captive audience. Viewers will come away with a reinforced notion that technology can solve all of our problems, a false notion. Climate and population stabilization, let alone universal food and water security, will require a heavy dose of values adjustment and behavior change.

2)      Car-centrism gets us nowhere. The video narrator invites you to imagine safer driving, snow-melting roads, and programmable parking lots, all attractive prospects for people whose lives revolve around car travel – which, admittedly, is most of us. However, for the globe’s 7 billion people to actually live within the biocapacity of a single planet, there would have to be almost no private vehicles on the road. A study on one-planet living in Vancouver showed that even if Vancouverites cut car-driving completely from their lifestyle, the still could not bring their ecological footprint within range. Yes, the video mentions bike travel and sports arenas, but its car-centrism makes the concept sustainababble on the whole.

3)      Appropriate Scale. I am not anti-technology, and I do not doubt that solar road tiles will make their way into many useful applications, building from the popularity of this video. But the mass consumption and globalized economy required to pave entire freeways with these tiles is only possible within first-world economic rules—rules that are at the heart of our march toward an ecocidal future. A just world requires rules that incentivize technological and political development on what E. F. Schumacher called an “appropriate” scale. And considering at the heart of Solar Roadways is cars, this idea does not currently meet those requirements.

But what if we repackaged Solar Roadways as an appropriate technology? Introducing:

Solar FREAKIN’ Pathways!


Solar Roadways no. But Solar Walkways and Bikeways–absolutely! (Image from Solar Roadways)

As walkways, trail networks, and bike highways proliferate, these systems too could benefit from the same sturdy and programmable pavement technology – not to mention the energy generating capability.

Technology will play an important part of our future, but true sustainability is only possible if we make the huge cultural and behavioral leaps necessary to get from green technologies promising to save us in one fell swoop to appropriate ones like cradle-to-cradle bicycles and sneakers. And once we’re all living small footprint lifestyles, we’ll have an easier time meeting our transportation and energy demands with Solar Pathways!


 John Mulrow is the Business/Industrial Sustainability Specialist in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Emerging Technologies and Technical Assistance Program. He is a former fellow of Worldwatch Institute.

Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community


The fields of Konohana Ecovillage all lie under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji (Image courtesy of Karen Litfin).

After twenty years of teaching global environmental politics at a major research university, watching the state of the world go from bad to worse, I became increasingly curious: “Who is devising ways of living that could work for the long haul?” My research led me to ecovillages: communities the world over that are seeding micro-societies within the husk of the old. I traveled to 5 continents, living in 14 ecovillages and doing in-depth interviews with their members over the course of a year, and publishing the results in Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. My sampling reflects their diversity: rural and urban; rich, poor and middle class; secular and spiritual. I was also curious to know what, if anything, unifies the astonishingly diverse Global Ecovillage Network.

I learned that “sustainability” varies with context. Ecovillagers in the Global North focus on reducing social alienation, consumption and waste, whereas those in the Global South focus on village-based employment, gender equality and food sovereignty. Los Angeles Ecovillage, for instance, is an island of frugality in the heart of Southern California’s consumer culture, whereas Colufifa, a Senegal-based village network, is primarily concerned with hunger prevention. Yet both are drawn to bicycles and permaculture, suggesting that ‘sustainability’ has some common ground in east Hollywood and west Africa.

Most important, I found evidence of an emerging common worldview in the global ecovillage movement, including these basic tenets:

  • The web of life is sacred, and humanity is an integral part of that web.
  • Global trends are approaching a crisis point.
  • Positive change will come primarily from the bottom up.
  • Community is an adventure in relational living—ecologically, socially, and psychologically.

As a consequence of these beliefs, ecovillagers are unusually sensitive to the consequences of their actions, both near and far, and unusually open to sharing. If I had to choose one word to express the essence of ecovillage culture, it would be sharing. Because ecovillages in the Global North share material resources, both their consumption and incomes are quite low compared to their home country averages. At Earthaven in North Carolina and Sieben Linden in Germany, for instance, members had annual incomes of less than $12,000. Despite being far below the poverty line, they described their lives as “rich” and “abundant.”

Material factors like self-built homes and home-grown food tell only part of the story. A more encompassing explanation is the prevalence of sharing—not only of property and vehicles, but of the intangibles that define community: ideas, skills, dreams, stories, and deep introspection. Ecovillagers consistently reported that human relationships are both the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of ecovillage life. “Being here is like being in a fire,” said one. “Your lack of trust, your anger, your family neuroses—everything that separates you from the world comes out here!” Ecovillages are, as much as anything, laboratories for personal and interpersonal transformation.

In many ways, my global journey was a paradoxical one. As an international relations scholar acutely aware of the global nature of our problems, why was I touring micro-communities in search of a viable future? Even including the 15,000 Sri Lankan member villages in Sarvodaya—by far the largest member of the Global Ecovillage Network—less than 0.05% of the world’s population lives in an ecovillage. Time is far too short to construct ecovillages for 7 billion people but not—as the book’s final chapter, “Scaling It Up,” suggests—too short to apply their lessons in our neighborhoods, cities and towns, countries, and even at the level of international policy. Given that some of Earth’s life-support systems may have passed the tipping point, success is far from guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, is a sense of shared adventure and worthy purpose—qualities I found in abundance in ecovillages.


This post was written by Karen Litfin, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. You can read the first chapter of her book Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community here.


Vision for a Sustainable World