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September 2011 Archives

A Golden Opportunity


How do corporations embed sustainability into their businesses?  How do they change and learn with regard to sustainable practices?  What feedback loops exist to enable or inhibit corporate sustainability efforts?

The NorthStar Initiative at the Institute on the Environment has joined with the Global Organizational Learning and Development Network for Sustainability (GOLDEN) to address the above questions and more.

Many businesses today are engaging in sustainability initiatives such as energy conservation, reducing waste, monitoring carbon footprints and instituting socially responsible purchasing policies. However, how these actions are integrated and managed within a business model is not well understood. GOLDEN seeks to fill this knowledge gap and study corporate sustainability activities through a multi-stakeholder research collaboration that, like NorthStar, brings business and researchers together to tackle sustainability challenges.
NorthStar is excited to collaborate with the GOLDEN initiative and bring expertise on environmental aspects of business performance that meld with GOLDEN's expertise on organizational learning and change. While there are many interesting components to the GOLDEN initiative, NorthStar is particularly interested in its global nature. GOLDEN's research plan calls for companies from 10 different worldwide geographic locations and seven sectors, with a goal of studying more than 100 companies. A study of this magnitude and scope has not been undertaken before. The insights on business sustainability it yields will be invaluable in highlighting how global sustainability leaders achieve success and how other companies can improve their efforts.
The first GOLDEN pilot study has launched with CODAN, a Denmark based insurance company.  Another half-dozen pilot studies are expected to begin sometime after our next international meeting in early November in Boston.

NorthStar is working with its interested partners on this GOLDEN opportunity and is interested to learn how sustainability has permeated your organization. For more information or to share your story, please contact Jennifer Schmitt.

Photo courtesy M. Buschmann 

In the Eye of the (ILUC) Storm

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Biofuels have suffered through some stormy weather in the past few years. The controversy over biofuels' effect on global land use change (often referred to as indirect land use change, or ILUC) has been one of the most severe of these weather events. As the summer came to an end, much of the heat in the ILUC debate seemed to dissipate.

It is in this period of relative calm (the eye of the storm, if you will) that the Institute on Agricultural Trade Policy and the Institute on the Environment jointly convened a meeting of biofuel producers, environmentalists, farmers, regulators and assorted policy wonks last week to sit down and discuss where we have been and where we want to go in resolving this contentious regulatory problem.

While we may not have "solved" the ILUC question, we did manage to achieve a level of civility that has often been missing as regulators have moved ahead with new laws that translated indirect land use change into a tangible financial and environmental reality. It was great to see organizations like the Renewable Fuels Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council sitting at the same table and discussing areas of common understanding if not complete agreement.

So what did we agree on? First, we all agreed that a sound renewable fuels policy should reward real performance - whether that be measured in terms of energy security or climate change impacts. Secondly, we agreed that the time is right to work together to find regulatory and policy paths that accelerate the nation's progress toward its sustainable biofuels goals. Finally - and in my opinion, most importantly - we all recognized that sustainable biofuels rely on our ability to create a sustainable global agricultural system.

These are very broad areas of agreement. There is much to be done to translate these statements into concrete actions.

Consider the performance criterion. Right now, the carbon intensity of biofuels estimated by regulators at EPA and in California carries with it a significant amount of burden associated with carbon emissions caused by the potential pressure to clear more land as biofuels demand grows. Our ability to clearly articulate this land use impact is poor at best. So we must find new analytic tools that offer a more common-sense approach to such measurements.

Likewise, the biofuels industry needs more arrows in its quiver when it comes to improving its global sustainability. We need more than just technology innovations within the industry.

This brings me to the third point of agreement. The real issue uncovered in the debate about biofuels' indirect land use change is the challenge facing global agriculture. To put it bluntly, the global food system is broken. No amount of technology tinkering within the limited purview of biofuels producers can make up for the technical, social and economic problems that keep us from sustainably meeting current and future needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel.

Given the size and scope of the sustainable agriculture challenge, it is no surprise that some of the analysts involved in the research on land use change impacts admitted that capturing such effects may be more relevant to understanding problems at the policy scale and less useful at the level of regulating individual producers of biofuels.

John Sheehan is science director for IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment

On Board the Blue Heron

blue_heron.jpgWho are these people, and why are they posing on a boat with a bright yellow torpedo?

Erik Brown, Tom Johnson and colleagues of the University of Minnesota Duluth's Large Lakes Observatory invited friends of the Institute on the Environment aboard the research vessel Blue Heron on Lake Superior recently to showcase research being carried out by the LLO.

The bright yellow device in front of the group is LLO's Webb Research Autonomous Underwater Glider (UAV). The glider measures temperature, conductivity, water clarity, oxygen content, chlorophyll abundance and other water quality parameters. It is the first instrument of this type built specifically for use in freshwater. It propels itself by adjusting its buoyancy and tilt, and glides forwards, stabilized by its wings. It comes to the surface periodically to communicate with scientists back on shore, sending data and receiving new commands.The extreme efficiency of the glider's propulsion system allows the glider to work in the lake for up to 35 days on a  single set of batteries.

blue_heron2.jpgLLO guests also got a drink of what could be the world's freshest freshwater - a sample of  ice-cold water taken from the bottom of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee by another device, the LLO's Seabird 911+ CTD profiler (right). The profiler measures surface-to-bottom profiles of the lake's conductivity, temperature and depth as well other parameters, such as clarity, chlorophyll abundance, and oxygen content. Researchers deploy it off the stern of the ship using a fiber-optic conductive cable, and can monitor its output real-time in the ship's laboratory. In addition, the platform includes 12 bottles that can be triggered to collect subsurface waters at depths the scientists select.

Guests were also treated to a fascinating presentation by Tom about the global work of the Large Lakes Observatory, especially work on Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika. They wrapped up the adventure-filled day with dinner at the historic Kitchi Gammi Club in Duluth, which opened in 1883 in the Grand Old Opera House on Superior St.

Why study great lakes? Check out the cover story of the brand new issue of IonE's Momentum magazine for some intriguing answers.

Photos courtesy of Blue Heron ship's cook and ordinary seaman Lisa Sundberg (top) and Chris Mayr  (lower)

Activation Energy

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hillmyer3.jpgMost plastics are made from nonrenewable fossil fuels, are not biodegradable and in some cases release chemicals that can harm humans. But in recent years, a number of innovators have begun developing more sustainable plastics from renewable, bio-based materials instead. Three years ago, University of Minnesota chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer decided to direct his research down that innovative track.

To pursue his ideas for  making more environmentally friendly plastics, Hillmyer needed financial support. Unfortunately, many funding sources require preliminary evidence that novel ideas have merit - the classical university research Catch-22. Fortunately, Hillmyer was at the U of M. And the U of M has something other universities don't: the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

A signature program of IonE, IREE disburses funds from Xcel Energy's Renewable Development Fund and Conservation Improvement Program to support innovative renewable energy and environmental research and demonstration projects. IREE awarded Hillmyer $800,000 to establish a Center for Sustainable Polymers and pursue his idea of creating plastics from renewable, sustainable resources instead of finite fossil fuels.

This week, thanks to the "activation energy" provided by IREE, the University announced that Hillmyer had received a three-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to continue his work. 

"We are tremendously excited about this new support from the NSF," Hillmyer said. "With Minnesota's leadership in the area of biobased materials and the University's breadth of expertise, we are well positioned to make significant and important research contributions."

A great success story for the value of funding innovation - and just one of many IREE has to tell. Just within the past few weeks, for instance, Stephen Campbell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received word that he was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant to advance the development of more efficient solar cells - thanks in part to preliminary support from IREE. 

All told, since it was founded in 2003, IREE has invested nearly $30.7 million in more than 200 renewable energy and environment research projects. Those funds have helped leverage an additional $63 million in funding from external resources to pursue technologies for a better world. Good for the researcher, good for the U, and good for all of us who stand to benefit from building a more renewable, sustainable world.

In Memoriam: Suzanne Holmes Hodder

sue_hodder1.jpgThe Institute on the Environment lost a dear friend and supporter when Suzanne "Sue" Hodder passed away on July 5 at age 79.

Sue was born in Kearney, Nebraska to her parents, Ruth and Kenneth Holmes. She graduated from the University of Nebraska and married her college sweetheart, Bill, in 1954.

Sue was also a devoted mother and a highly engaged volunteer with many community, environmental and arts organizations. In recognition of her outstanding volunteer contributions Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich designated a special day in recognition of Sue Hodder in 1989. Sue was also honored with the Junior League of Minneapolis Volunteer of the Year Award, University of Nebraska Alumni Achievement Award, MPLS/St. Paul Magazine's Volunteer Hall of Fame, and JLM's Katherine Phelps Lifetime Achievement Award.

"I just love people," Sue would often say, but if anything, that was an understatement. She greeted every person whom she encountered with great warmth and sincere interest. A friend wrote, "Sue fills a room! She is full of warmth, kindness, and patriotism!!"

sue_hodder_momentum.jpgOn May 25, 2011 Sue hosted an evening event at her home for the Institute on the Environment and members of the community. Forty guests including members of the Minneapolis Junior League, Edina Go Green and others were introduced to IonE Director Jon Foley and heard his presentation "Living on a Shrinking Planet: Challenges and Opportunities for a Sustainable Future."

Following a lively discussion, the night was capped off with the inaugural naming of an Institute on the Environment "Momentum Maker" to Sue for her pioneering work creating the Minnesota Adopt-A-Highway program and Minnesota Beautiful and leading the Minnesota Highway Beautification Commission and Wild Flower Task.

Sue Hodder will be greatly missed by her family, friends and members of the IonE community who had an opportunity to meet her.

The Other Inconvenient Truth

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TED, ("Ideas Worth Spreading") chose IonE director Jon Foley's TEDxTC presentation on agriculture and the environment as an Editor's Pick of the week recently. In this 18-minute talk, Foley offers a startling view of the impact of agriculture on Earth's landscape - what he calls "a world transformed" - and proposes a strategy for creating a future in which we can feed the world while protecting the planet.

"Without a doubt, agriculture is the single most powerful force unleashed on this planet since the end of the Ice Age - no question," Foley says. But, he adds, it's also integral to our existence. "We completely depend on it. It's not optional, it's not a luxury, it's a complete necessity."

How can we reconcile the need to feed 9 million people with the need to sustain the ecosystems that sustain us? Watch the video above to find out.  

Population Heroes

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soapbox_population_numbers.jpgThink getting older is a pain? Your troubles are nothing compared to those of the planet.

As world population begins to stabilize, an interesting thing is happening to the distribution of age groups. With fewer babies are being born and longer lives being lived, humanity as a whole is aging. That means more pressure to pay for pensions, medical benefits, and other pledges society makes to caring for older people - at the same time slower workforce growth means relatively fewer taxpayers to foot the bill.

In an article for Momentum magazine last year, IonE program coordinator Kate Knuth labeled the trend "a perfect fiscal storm" and called for "a new kind of courage" by population heroes who are brave enough to take on the looming fiscal implications and do something about them before it's too late.

"The world's population transition will need superheroes, but their suits won't be made of spandex," Knuth wrote. "The heroes will be public leaders preaching about demography and economics, politicians bearing the scars of campaigns based on this fiscal reality, and an electorate willing to vote those politicians into office and help them govern."

Read Knuth's insighful article for more thoughts on global demographic trends and what we might do to prepare for them.

From Art to Zeolite

What do moonshiners, climate change, Union Carbide, the tides, Yogi Berra, the concept of the Sublime and river deltas have in common?

All have a place in this fall's lineup for IonE's Frontiers in the Environment lecture series. Held Wednesdays at noon at IonE (LES Building, University of Minnesota, St. Paul), Frontiers brings top thought leaders from across the University of Minnesota and beyond to offer a brief talk on a diverse array of topics of environmental concern followed by a lively Q&A and a casual get-together in the IonE Commons.

Not in St. Paul? No problem. All conversations are webcast live on UMConnect with access via the Frontiers web page, and comments are welcome from the online audience as well as from those in the room. (Sorry, innovative though we are, we still haven't figured out how to share the snacks with our virtual participants.) Programs are also archived for anytime viewing here.

Add the Frontiers calendar to your calendar now, and get ready for some thought-provoking insights. Dates, talk titles, and presenters are listed below, or read detailed descriptions here.

When: Wednesdays, noon to 1 p.m. Fall series starts September 21, 2011.
Where: IonE Seminar Room (R380 Learning & Environmental Sciences Building. 1954 Buford Ave., St. Paul) or online at umconnect.umn.edu/IonEFrontiers

SEPTEMBER 21 - Better Still: Zeolite's Promise As an Energy-saving Molecule Sorter
Michael Tsapatsis, University of Minnesota

SEPTEMBER 28 - Coal, Climate, Health: Broadening the Public Dialogue on Energy Policy
J. Drake Hamilton, Fresh Energy

OCTOBER 5 - Wind and Solar on the Power Grid: Emergence of Mainstream Renewable Energy
Mark Ahlstrom, Windlogics

OCTOBER 12 - Entrepreneurship and Environment: Innovative Business Leaders Can Positively Impact Our Environment
Todd Taylor, Fredrikson & Byron

OCTOBER 19 - Helping Forests Thrive in the Face of Global Change
Anthony D'Amato, University of Minnesota

OCTOBER 26 - Closing the Loop in the Product Life Cycle
Leo Raudys, Best Buy

NOVEMBER 2 - Harnessing the Power of Waterways and Oceans: Challenges and Opportunities
Fotis Sotiropoulos, University of Minnesota

NOVEMBER 11 - The Frugal Future
Chris Farrell, American Public Media

NOVEMBER 16 - Collaboration for Environmental Protection: Integrating Knowledge, Communication and Process
Carissa Schively Slotterback, University of Minnesota


NOVEMBER 30 - Cultural History Meets Natural History
Richard Leppert, University of Minnesota

DECEMBER 7 - Why Don't River Deltas Drown?
Chris Paola, University of Minnesota

  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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