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January 2012 Archives

What the President Didn't Say

president.jpgBY JOHN SHEEHAN
As someone who has been engaged in the development of biofuels for almost three decades, I was struck most last night in President Obama's State of the Union address by the big gaping hole he left in his list of clean energy technologies. I'm referring to the one where biofuels and bioenergy used to sit. The President talked wind, solar, batteries and even efficiency. But in his laundry list of technology frontiers that he refused to cede to China or Germany--nary a word about biomass.
Just an oversight in a packed one-hour speech? Unlikely: We all know that every single word of the State of the Union address is thoroughly vetted both inside and outside the government.
What, then, does this lacuna mean? My diagnosis is CDS--Chronic Disappointment Syndrome. After investing more than $1 billion in partnerships on advanced biofuels, the government has nothing to show. Yes, that might change (and I hope it does, soon). But the annual disappointment we have now come to expect as EPA revises downwards its targets for cellulosic ethanol in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a regular reminder of our failure to deliver.
Add to that disappointment our inability to address the genuine questions that continue to be raised about the ethics of burdening our food system with energy demands, and it comes as no surprise that biomass has lost its place at the table.
I believe biofuels and biomass are a crucial part of a sustainable energy future. But hype and dogma have clouded our vision. Let's change that. Now is the time for the biomass community to come together to develop a feasible and ethically sound vision for biomass energy that is fully integrated in a sound and sustainable vision for global agriculture.
The only thing worse than a passionate battle over the good, the bad and the ugly of biomass energy is silence and dismissal. That's what we got last night. We know there is a need for energy that can only be filled by biomass-derived fuels. We know that there are very real trade-offs and risks associated with burdening agriculture with yet one more demand. We need a bold and courageous approach to building a vision for biomass. So, let's reinvigorate the debate. I miss it already.
John Sheehan is science director for the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, a program of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Environment, Economics, EPA

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jackson.jpgCan strong environmental protection and a healthy economy be compatible? Absolutely, Lisa P. Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told a crowd of several hundred several hundred environmental leaders, faculty and students last week at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Memorial Union Theater.

In town to launch a new program aimed at enlisting farmers to improve water quality in lakes and rivers, Jackson took the opportunity to share her thoughts in conversation with Deborah Swackhamer, EPA Science Advisory Board chair and University of Minnesota Water Resources Center co-director,  at a forum hosted by the University of Minnesota's Center for Science, Technology & Public Policy; Water Resources Center; Office of the President; Institute on the Environment; Consortium on Law and Values, on Health, Environment & the Life Sciences; and School of Public Health. Among Jackson's key points:

* Science, policy and technology are all critical to environmental protection. Science is at the core of EPA's  mission. Policy has resulted in huge environmental quality gains, most visibly through the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Technology not only offers new approaches to environmental protection, but also stimulates the economy by creating a need for new products. For example, the new national fuel economy standards call for new engineering to meet new goals, and the new mercury and air toxics standards will require job-creating upgrades to many coal-fired power plants.

• Environmental issues are also health issues, jobs issues, faith issues. "We have to remember to expand the conversation," Jackson said, to people who don't see themselves as environmentalists, but whose areas of concern align with those of the traditional environmental arena. "I'm all about broad coalitions."

* Knowledge is important - but even more important is a sense of service. Jackson encouraged students in the audience to develop a service mind-set, and to take their resource-protecting values and low-footprint way of living into the world with them when they graduate.

* The EPA plays an important role in modeling and motivating environmental protection for developing nations, in particular, China, India and Brazil. 

* With limited ability to get things done at the federal level, states and communities are critical to continuing the quest for environmental protection, from toxic substances control to climate change.

Like to learn more? Watch the recorded conversation here.

Photo courtesy of Sophia Ginis

How to Change the World

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What do you get when you mix students from civil engineering, international development, landscape architecture, agronomy, business, and several other disciplines together? What if you add a veteran engineer as the instructor, throw in a teaching assistant with an MBA and a BA in anthropology, and season with a couple of designers, business people, and non profit founders as guest speakers?

You get a lot of plans for how to change the world for the better through social ventures.

The scenario I'm talking about took place last week at the Institute on the Environment in a course called Social Entrepreneurship: Environment and Health. Offered through the University of Minnesota's Department of Civil Engineering, the one-week course was developed and taught by Fred Rose, co-founder of Acara, an IonE program whose mission is to develop sustainable business solutions to global societal and environmental problems. I had the pleasure of serving as TA.

DSCN3055.jpgThe only prerequisite for the class was that students have a social problem in mind, and an idea for how to solve it.

Unlike many courses, which focus on theory, we wanted students to walk out of the class with a concrete plan for how to proceed with their social venture, whether it be a Minneapolis after-school racquetball program or a produce-delivery service in New Delhi. This posed a bit of a challenge because every team was in a different stage, from early idea to up-and-running. However, with a lot of individual working time, and a flexible schedule, we tailored the class to accommodate varying needs.

The framework we used was the Business Model Canvas from Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder et al. This canvas uses nine "building blocks" essential to running an organization and allows entrepreneurs to start from high-level concept and get increasingly more detailed. The most important - and most difficult to understand from a seat in the classroom - is the customer. We drew on ethnographic and design-thinking principles to teach students to identify potential customer wants and needs through observation and interaction. Only after a compelling customer need is identified can financially sustainable solutions be developed.

What makes social ventures different from average for-profit business and many nonprofit organizations is that they seek to fulfill a social need through earned revenue. They are hybrids; social entrepreneurs consider both the financial feasibility and the impact their venture will have on a problem such as contaminated drinking water or poor sanitation. Some social ventures will choose to become for-profit enterprises, while others will become nonprofits or some hybrid of the two; we recommend only that the form it takes fits what the organization does.

Even within our group of 20 students, there was potential for a variety of different forms. Emily Torgrimson's Eat for Equity is a 501(c)3 and has been raising money for various other charities through large pay-what-you-wish group dinners (and recently appeared on the NBC Today show!). Alex Strachota plans to form the Chequamegon Wood-Heat Cooperative, avertical.jpg worker-owned business that will produce wood pellets and firewood for home heating in northern Wisconsin, plus provide local, land-based employment. Nick Ollrich wants to start an interdisciplinary design firm that has developed a cost-effective approach to designing and retrofitting homes with integrated passive solar design principles to significantly reduce residential energy use.

Entrepreneurs have to be salespeople, whether they are pitching their ideas to would-be funders or their products to potential customers, so we spent a quite a bit of time building communication skills. We wanted to be sure the students could effectively explain the problem they were trying to solve and how they would do it. In this respect, having such varied backgrounds was helpful, because specialized jargon was quickly spotted and changed to plain language for a general audience. Each team developed a short elevator pitch and a longer presentation, along with accompanying slides, and delivered it in front of the entire group for feedback several times. It was amazing to watch the transformations from shy and stumbling to poised and polished as they incorporated their peers' comments into their talks.

We also know the importance of having a community with which to share ideas, so we tried to foster that as well. We started with ice-breakers so that students would get to know each other. Those students working without other teammates paired up with other solo entrepreneurs to go through exercises together. We spent a lot of time in small working groups and then coming back together as a class to discuss and share feedback.

We hope that the students continue to call on one another and on the other entrepreneurs they met in the class as they bring their plans forward. We have a follow-on one-credit class this spring, to provide a structure for these budding social entrepreneurs to continue to meet and refine their venture idea.

Abigail Sugahara served as teaching assistant for Social Entrepreneurship: Environment and Health.

Krafting a Sustainable Future

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kraft.jpgBY PAUL WEST

With input from IonE's Global Landscapes Initiative, Kraft Foods recently completed a "farm to fork" analysis of the company's land, water and climate footprint. This undertaking was significant because it's a big departure from most environmental footprint analyses, which typically focus on one product and one aspect of the environment, and the scope is limited to what the company can directly influence. By widening the scope of analysis, Kraft Foods determined that the bulk of the negative environmental effects of the company's goods happen on the farms during production. I suspect this finding would be common to all major food companies.

A big challenge for many companies and retailers that aim to reduce their environmental footprint is determining how to affect the parts of the supply chain over which they have little to no direct control. Certification programs for meeting environmental and social goals exist for a few commodities, such as coffee, cocoa and palm oil. But this list will need to expand and other mechanisms are needed to drive broader scale change.

The press release for the Kraft Foods analysis can be found here. Please share your examples or ideas of how companies, NGOs and others are influencing sustainable production of major food commodities.

Paul West is chief collaboration officer for the Institute on the Environment's Global Landscapes Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @coolfireconserv. Photo by Matt MacGillivray from Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture? Check.

grain.jpgWould introducing irrigation on a particular farm increase or decrease its overall sustainability? How about using genetically modified crops, hiring local workers, increasing mechanization? The ability to answer questions like these correctly is critical as we work to boost food production to meet the needs of a growing global population without compromising the well-being of people or the planet. Yet it's also a huge challenge. Literally thousands of indexes have been developed to assess the sustainability of agricultural systems - yet none has been found sufficiently simple and useful to gain widespread acceptance.

Until now. Taking a cue from Harvard Medical School faculty member Atul Gawande, famous for his application of checklists to improving safety of surgery, IonE resident fellow C. Ford Runge and co-author Juan Gonzalez-Valero have developed an innovative sustainability index for agriculture that provides a simple, measurable and on-the-ground applicable protocol for ranking the sustainability of agricultural projects.

Known as the integrated sustainability index, the evaluation framework uses a 1-10 scale to incorporate various indicators of sustainability along three dimensions:

resource efficiency index - weighing benefits of increased agricultural production against impacts on soil, water and biodiversity

better solutions index - weighing benefits of increased reliable profitability to farmers against impacts on human health and safety

rural economy index - weighing benefits of increased human development in rural economies against the extent to which benefits are shared broadly in the community

The result is a clear depiction of the merits of a proposed farming system with respect to the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability that can:

  • - help planners visualize trade-offs when comparing options or approaches
  • - show how the relative balance of production, environmental impact and social impact change over time
  • - show progress toward sustainability
  • - bring considerations to planners' attention that might otherwise escape notice.

Like to learn more? Check out The Theory and Practice of Performance Indicators for Sustainable Food Security: A Checklist Approach - just published in Environmental Economics, Vol. 2, Issue 4, 2011.

IonE resident fellow C. Ford Runge is a distinguished McKnight University professor of applied economics and law. He holds appointments in the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Department of Forest Resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

  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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