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June 2011 Archives

Update From India

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acara drydrip.jpgThe seeds of change are in the ground!

Seven teams of students and other budding social entrepreneurs began building skills for success this week as the three-week Acara Institute 2011 kicked off in Bangalore India.

The institute, led by the IonE-supported Acara Program, provides training in all aspects of social entrepreneurship, from design thinking to finding financial support. Most participants are college students who successfully competed in the Acara Challenge, a semester-long competitive program that challenges interdisciplinary, international teams to develop projects that could  become viable businesses aimed at empowering local people to improving social conditions in developing countries. 

Students started the week with a lessons on story-telling in seven sentences and discovery-based planning. The days to come will include field trips, workshops and lectures on design thinking, rural innovation, community relationships and more.

Vishy Kuruganti, an Indian blogger, is attending portions of the institute and providing updates at TechSanGam. Sign up for the TechSanGam RSS feed and watch those seeds of change sprout and flourish.

Photo detail of Acara-catalyzed MyRain drip irrigation project courtesy of Acara Challenge participant and administrative fellow Sri Latha Ganti

From Here to Sustainability

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What if we could get top thought leaders from business, academia, non-government organizations, and government agencies to work together to identify and capitalize on opportunities to enhance return on investment while building a sustainable global economy?

Turns out we can. Since it was founded in 2009, IonE's NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise has been building a new model for cross-sector collaboration that is starting to bear some remarkable fruit.

NorthStar brings together executives from top-tier corporations such as Best Buy, Medtronic, General Mills and Andersen Corp. with sustainability experts from the University of Minnesota and environmental NGOs to identify knowledge needed to develop practices that both strengthen enterprises and boost sustainability. Initiative staff conduct research to fill in the knowledge gaps, then present their findings to the consortium members who can transform them into innovative on-the-ground solutions. NorthStar helps make the right connections, spark innovation and deliver.

Next week's consortium meeting, to be held June 28-29 on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus in St. Paul, promises a bonus benefit: a keynote speech by internationally renowned green biz guru Joel Makower. Co-founder and executive editor of Greenbiz Group, Inc., and author of more than a dozen books on sustainable enterprise and related topics, Makower will help consortium members take advantage of top strategies for moving forward on their journey to sustainability.

Interested in learning more? Sign up here to attend a late afternoon reception that will offer an opportunity to meet Makower as well as visit with NorthStar consortium members and learn about the role sustainability plays in their business success.

Photo: Joel Makower



Take-Home Lessons

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BY BETH MERCER-TAYLOR
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Just home from three weeks exploring sustainability in Denmark and Sweden as the faculty leader for a group of Minnesota students, I am so encouraged by their delight in Danish bicycle culture and their desire to see, in their own country and in their lifetimes, a broadly shared vision for a green energy future.  

My students observed the inviting infrastructure for bicycling in downtown Copenhagen and its neighborhoods, with separate blue painted lanes, lights timed for bicycles, double-decker cycle parking at transit hubs and delineated signs for different transportation modes.  We all noticed the incredible volume of cyclists, who make up more than a third of the daily commuters, and the huge variety in age, clothing, speed and attitude.  As for cycling garb, high heels and formal dress draw no more notice than cargo boots and leather.  Cargo bikes bearing a couple of brightly outfitted preschoolers or a new shrub for the garden are a common site, and bikes range from functional battered to handcrafted funky to commuter luxury models.   More than 90 percent of the residents of Copenhagen cycle, and fancy gear is definitely not the norm.  In Denmark, high taxes on cars and thoughtful bicycle planning lead to a smaller per-capita carbon footprint than Europe as a whole, and in the eyes of many of my students, to vibrancy in city life and freedom in mobility that benefits, rather than burdens, society.

The students and I experienced community-based sustainability firsthand during our four-day tour of a carbon-neutral island in the middle of the windy Baltic Sea.  Samso Island features a diverse agricultural economy, with grain crops, pasture and potatoes known throughout Europe, as well as a unique conserved marsh, medieval  towns, white sand beaches, easygoing hotels and hostels, and about 5,000 residents.  About 15 years ago, a group of particularly resourceful, adaptable and persistent Samso residents decided to lead a transition toward local, carbon-neutral energy for the island's heat, electricity and transportation.  At that time, more than 90 percent of their energy came from fossil fuels.  Now Samso produces more electricity from wind than it needs, with dozens of turbines on and off shore, and efficiently burns biomass from agricultural residues in a half dozen combined heat and power plants connected to nearby homes and businesses. Samso still uses fossil fuel for transportation, but invests in offsets from off-shore wind.

We heard pride in and commitment to Samso's nearly complete energy transition.  In interviews with a local farmer who invests in turbines, a journalist, a teacher, wind-inspired artist, a brew-pub owner and the director of the new Energy Academy, we heard over and over that Samso was successful in using economically viable local energy resources and involving community members in energy production and investment.  The leaders on Samso are working with the Energy Academy to share Samso's experience with other small but resourceful communities around the world.

Photo of students on Samso Island by Beth Mercer-Taylor

Get Your $300 Billion Here

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wasteheatsmall.jpgIf someone offered your business a chance to save tons of money and improve your overall efficiency too, would you take them up on it?

That might seem a bit of a no-brainer, but it's not. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, U.S. industry has the opportunity to reduce annual energy consumption 18% by 2020, saving more than $300 billion in the process. Some companies have already leaped at the opportunity - Minnesota-based Cypress Semiconductor, for example, has reduced its use of natural gas at least 80 percent through energy efficiency measures such as heat recovery. But for the most part, change is slow to come.

Why?

Last November, IonE's NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise took a "deep dive" into that question during a three-day gathering of corporate, nonprofit and public-sector heavy hitters at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in Racine, Wis. Some of the reasons the group tendered revolved around complex issues such as risk, uncertainty, legal infrastructure, awareness, and financing mechanisms.

NorthStar is not just about questions, however. It's about finding answers. What, NorthStar leaders wondered, can we do to help reduce the risk and uncertainty associated with investments in energy efficiency so more businesses can take advantage of the huge return they offer?

Cindy McComas, formerly head of the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (helping industries reduce waste and conserve water and energy) and now researcher with NorthStar Initiative, is using last November's conversations as guides to discovering mechanisms that could help make energy efficiency more attractive to business. Among the issues she's exploring: What do businesses consider when making decisions about energy efficiency? Are risk and uncertainty handled differently for energy efficiency than they are for other investments? What are ancillary costs and benefits of boosting efficiency? What role do things like information, finance, insurance and image play in decisions to adopt or not adopt energy efficiency measures? What role might entities like energy service companies play in tipping the risk - benefit balance win energy efficiency savings for industry?

Armed with answers that emerge from McComas' research, NorthStar hopes to provide specific recommendations for the finance industry that businesses can use to improve their bottom line while at the same time building a brighter future for all of us. 

photo by Stefan Gara

Accounting for Nature

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Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily was in a storytelling mood yesterday afternoon.

Co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, Daily told some amazing tales of ecosystems threatened by development - and rescued by a new business model - as the fifth presenter in the Moos Family Speaker Series, co-sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the U of M College of Biological Sciences.

The premise behind the Natural Capital Project is simple: Nature provides valuable life support to humans in the form of goods (such as forest products) and services (such as flood control and recreation). Why not assign economic value to those goods and services, so they can be factored in dollars-and-cents terms into management decisions?

"It's a little scary to think about valuing something as complex and deeply meaningful as is embodied by nature," Daily told her audience. "But if we don't pay attention, if we make decisions without accounting for nature, we lose sight of our greatest gift."

Daily described a variety of initiatives in which the Natural Capital Project - a partnership of Stanford University, the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment - is doing just that. The project has developed a planning tool called InVEST that creates a detailed picture of the extent to which nature's services are protected (or not) under various scenarios applied to a particular setting. Governments, nongovernment organizations, and for-profit businesses around the world  are starting to use InVEST to guide decisions about how to meet human needs while protecting nature's integrity, too.

Like to learn more? Check out the video of Daily's talk, "Harmonizing People and Nature: A New Business Model."


 

Buddy, Can You Spare an Ecosystem?

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Forests that store greenhouse gases. Wetlands that purify water. Oceans that supply, well, oceans of biodiversity. There's really no end to the services nature provides to us.

What do we provide in turn to nature? In many cases, the answer is, "not much." We're happy to reap the benefits of ecosystems, but we rarely pay nature back - or even consider, in economic terms, the services rendered as valuable. As a result, when nature and profit bump into each other, nature's often the one to give way. Which, in the long run, gets to looking a lot like shooting ourselves in the foot - because when nature gives way, so do all those free services we've been taking for granted.

The Natural Capital Project is doing something about that.

A collaboration of Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, the project is developing and field-testing a system for assigning monetary value to the services nature provides. Doing so makes it possible to include nature in the calculations when determining whether and how to alter natural systems.

The Natural Capital Project is currently applying its nature-valuing efforts to finding the sweet spot for balancing ecosystems and economics at 19 sites on four continents. Initiatives include developing a forest carbon offset system in Hawaii, establishing a value for nontimber forest products in Borneo, and minimizing impacts of mining on biodiversity in Colombia.

Sound intriguing? If you're in the Twin Cities, register to attend a free talk by project founder Gretchen Daily of Stanford Monday, June 13, at the University of Minnesota. Daily will speak on "Harmonizing People and Nature: A New Business Model."

Whether or not you can make Daily's presentation, check out this three-minute animated video to learn more about what nature provides for us - and how we can provide for nature, too.



A Fact-Based World View

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Hans Rosling has a way with numbers. Professor of global health at Karolinska Institute, he uses brilliant animated graphics to depict the economic, social, and environmental changes we've seen around the world in past decades - and to help us visualize what future changes are likely looming on the horizon.

Rosling brought his energy, enthusiasm and expertise from Sweden to Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis to wow the crowd at the second event in the Institute on the Environment's Momentum 2011 series earlier this spring. View a 3-minute sneak peek of his talk, "A Fact-Based World View," above, or watch the full 30-minute video. Prepare to be amazed!



Insights From Aspen

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What do you get when you combine Bill McGibben, Marcia McNutt, Daniel Nocera, Jon Foley, Amory Lovins, Esther Sternberg and 100 other top thinkers and doers at the leading edge of environment, energy, population and health?

One amazing event, and about a million insights worth sharing.

Today is final day of the four-day 2011 Aspen Forum, an environmental thought free-for-all held in Aspen. Colo., by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic. The goal of the annual gathering is to boost awareness and understanding of the environmental challenges the world faces through conversations across a broad range of topics. This year's theme: How can Earth's finite resources meet expanding human needs?

Transformational conversations involving pundits and public alike have been focusing on five key areas: cities, energy, food, goods and nature. Sessions include coping with calamity, clean coal, the climate change conversation, taming sprawl, the business of sustainability, the future of forests, reinventing cars, rethinking plastic, food security and more.

Good news for those of us not there: Videos of a number of the sessions are available for viewing online. Check them out, then start some transformational conversations of your own.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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