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February 2012 Archives

A Look at Sustainable Procurement

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On February 21, the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise hosted its first in a new series of engagement webinars aimed at exploring in depth one of the many research initiatives NorthStar is currently working on. This first webinar, "Procurement in Sustainability: from Buying Green Products to Creating Green Solutions," discussed sustainable procurement and the issues that arise as government entities and companies try to stimulate "greener" products and supply chains. The webinar evoked stimulating discussion by the three guest speakers - Tim Smith, Nancy Gillis, and Kevin Dooley. It was a successful first webinar, with over 100 registrants and 70 attendees!

The dialogue focused on a two-part hypothesis as to why innovating greener products and supply chains has been met with such difficulty. One reason pertains to the high cost of research and development that goes into creating a greener product; the other alludes to the value of the investment for the cooperating company or institution. The fundamental question the discussion boils down to is: Is it worth the effort to look for greener products?
Kevin Dooley called attention to the lack of demand for green products in the marketplace.

Currently, "green purchasing" is not a strong consumer value because the impacts of that purchasing behavior are neither highly observable nor testable. Thus, it is difficult to measure the impacts and see the visible benefits of green purchasing. Nancy Gillis proposed that other barriers in the way of greener product procurement are factors such as cost, timeliness and quality. Sustainable procurement demands high investment on the parts of both the consumer and the procurer. How can we validate this investment and bring greener products to the marketplace?

A full recording of the webinar is available on the NorthStar Initiative website. You are encouraged to continue the dialogue, ask questions, and leave feedback on our blog. Join us for our second webinar April 17, where we will be exploring "The Energy Efficiency Supply Chain: Disaggregating and Reaggregating a Saved Kilowatt Hour."
Photo by Nadar, used under Creative Commons license

Can We Get More Crop per Drop?

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Thumbnail image for 6287371297_e132e17556_b.jpg My caffeine addiction comes in the form of tea. When I'm being especially productive, I'm up to three or four big cups a day. Add in a few trips to the drinking fountain and some glasses of water ... and it seems like I consume a lot of H2O every day! All in all, I'm told I probably consume around 1,000 liters of water per year. This seems huge, right? Yet it turns out that the rain and irrigation water that goes into our food is much, much more than 1,000 liters ... think 500,000 liters! And that's for a vegetarian. Carnivores have an even bigger water footprint. So it's clear that we need to be paying attention to our food if we are concerned about water. But where do we use water for agriculture? And can we use this water more efficiently?

Kate Brauman, Global Landscapes Initiative postdoctoral fellow at IonE, laid bare the global patterns of agricultural water use with new state-of-the-art crop water use data at this week's Frontiers in the Environment lecture. Kate found that the major cereal crops (maize, wheat, and rice) are the big rainwater consumers across much of the globe, but in arid areas drought-tolerant millet and sorghum dominate rainwater consumption. In irrigated systems, just one crop - rice - consumes a somewhat shocking 70% (!) of global irrigation water.

In addition to laying out consumption patterns by crop, Kate explored the possible impacts of improving the ratio of production to water use in arid areas. Huge variations exist in these efficiency levels, so bringing up the most water-inefficient areas to the 20th percentile level of efficiency can mean big increases in crop production. Such a boost for African maize could immediately increase crop production by 12%. Big opportunities also exist in NE Brazil, Southern India, and Eastern Europe.

Kate ended with an apt metaphor for the complexities in water management. She contrasted our usual simple view of tradeoffs - visualized as a balancing see-saw - with a balancing pogo ball! These are complex, multidimensional issues ... and I'm thrilled that Kate is doing such an excellent job exploring them. Check out the archived video if you missed the talk!
Photo: center pivot irrigation in Bonneville County, Idaho. Sam Beebe @Flickr

AAAS Rating

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vancouver_aaas.jpgGreetings from Canada!

IonE was on the road this past week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Vancouver.

Before I get to the actual conference, I just have to say, "Wow, the city was amazing!" Between the views of the ocean, vast forests and snowcapped mountains, the conference location was a smashing success (despite a few raindrops).

Within the rooms of the conference center, IonE researchers were front and center during a number of fascinating sessions.

During two separate symposia, IonE director Jon Foley pitched a plan for increasing food production while decreasing agriculture's environmental impacts. One of his more memorable quotes: "Two billion more people are coming to dinner ¬- but even so, changing diets is, and will be, a bigger driver of food demand globally."

IonE resident fellow and College of Science and Engineering professor Julian Marshall gave a talk titled, "Verifying Health and Emission Improvements from Stove Change-Outs." One of the main takeaways from Julian's presentation was that the team's research is primarily "market-driven" rather than "research-driven" - which means much of the work is being done on the ground in the community of Karnataka, India. Julian also spoke about the success of the Acara program in a separate symposium focused on addressing grand sustainability challenges through global cooperation.

Dominic Travis in the U's College of Veterinary Medicine presented an overview of the One Health Central and East Africa Network (OHCEA). Global Health and the Environment in Africa - part of OHCEA - was one of the earliest Discovery Grants funded by IonE (along with others, including USAID). The project researchers work at the intersections of animal health, human health and environment

One of the greatest things about the AAAS meeting is the diversity of topics on display. It's a science geek-fest in the best possible way! Some of my favorite sessions covered geo-engineering, marine biological diversity, the atlas of Islamic world science, planetary boundaries, indigenous perspectives on climate change and more.

The most fun I had, though, was during a session titled Bad Presenter Bingo: The Science Communication Game You Don't Want to Win. My favorite comment by presenter Monica Metzler: "You're not dumbing down science [by simplifying your slides]. You're making it accessible to your audience." Great advice, indeed.

New! One-Stop Shop for Sustainability Ed

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Thumbnail image for goldy_at_ northrop.jpgBARRETT COLOMBO

The University of Minnesota offers students world-class opportunities to study sustainability through many disciplines and across several colleges. With the number of sustainability-focused courses, programs, and other learning opportunities growing rapidly, a new Sustainability Education website offers a valuable one-stop shop for sustainability education opportunities.

Supported by the Institute on the Environment, the new site includes resources for the undergraduate Sustainability Studies Minor and the faculty-based Sustainability Education Network, and compiles opportunities for graduate and professional students. It also provides up-to-date announcements about sustainability-related events, innovative classes and other opportunities.

Both faculty and students have expressed the need for increased communications about sustainability courses and programs. How does a water resources student interested in legal issues surrounding water quality learn about courses available at the Law School?  How might a faculty advisor in the English department better direct students interested in sustainability communication to opportunities to study the ecology of landscape change? A highlight of the new site is a powerful search tool for finding sustainability courses across the University. The Sustainability Course Search allows Google-style searching for keywords (such as energy or water) while also tailoring to departments, schools, and other criteria. The database is continuously updated with input from faculty and students.

The sustainability studies minor immerses U of M students from any college and major in the study of the real-world challenges of sustainability. Faculty from five colleges govern and teach courses in the minor and more than 600 students have participated since its launch in 2007.

The Sustainability Education Network is a group of faculty interested in improving curricular opportunities around issues of sustainability.  More than 50 faculty and staff members from 12 colleges across the University are now active network members.  They represent disciplines within the humanities, design and architecture, and professional schools, as well as the natural, physical, and social sciences.  

To learn more about these opportunities and more, check out the new website: susteducation.umn.edu.

Barrett Colombo is a graduate sustainability coordinator for the U of M.

Questions Without Borders

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02-13-Gutmann.jpgHow can higher education become more interdisciplinary? Myron Gutmann, head of the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences sparked a lively conversation at the University of Minnesota Feb. 13 on the challenges of developing more interdisciplinary education in large research universities where established disciplines have traditionally been dominant.

Read all about Gutman's talk, Questions Without Borders, on the new Sustainability Education website, www.susteducation.umn.edu.

Clearing the Air

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cookstove.jpgBY STEPHEN HAWLEY

Throughout the world people burn wood, crop residues and dung in their homes for cooking and heating; the fire is often the center of home life. Fuel burning provides warm homes and hot meals, but at a price--a price I first learned about as a graduate student volunteering with Engineers Without Borders. I worked with other students at the University of Washington on a stove replacement project in the highlands of Bolivia. The community had requested this project for the benefits of reduced fuel use and comfort working in their kitchens, and we knew it would have respiratory health benefits as well.

In this week's Frontiers on the Environment lecture, IonE global renewable energy leadership fellow Jill Baumgartner described the great health benefits of reducing indoor air pollution. Her research provides designers with a measurable indicator that can predict health impacts of a stove design.

A few things I found interesting:

•    The risks of respiratory health problems from smoke are well established. Jill's research has shown for the first time that cardiovascular health is also significantly impacted.

•    This is a problem of impressive scale: The cardiovascular disease caused by indoor air pollution may account for 230,000 deaths each year in China alone.
•    To work, solutions must meet all the needs these indoor fires satisfy--cooking, boiling water, heating--and be socially acceptable.

•    Black carbon emissions are a significant indicator of the quality of the stove with respect to health and should be used in evaluating stove designs.

Jill was an expert on the health effects of indoor air pollution before coming to the Institute on the Environment. Through her fellowship at IonE she has expanded her expertise to leading interventional studies needed to prove efficacy of a solution before wider deployment. As an IonE fellow, Jill works to turn research insights into practical solutions for the people of the developing world.

You can view Jill's talk in the Frontiers on the Environment video archive here.

Stephen Hawley is a global renewable energy leadership fellow with the Institute on the Environment. Photo by Karan Singh Rathore (www.sanjhi.org)

Of Democracy and Science

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capitol.jpgBY JOEY REID

I have a friend who likes to argue for the sake of argument. I once had an argument with him about Newton's laws of physics. Although he had never taken college physics, he had very passionate arguments. It should come as no surprise that he became a lawyer. After all, lawyers are not trained to argue the truth, but to convince a jury that they are right.

Of the 535 representatives in the U.S. Congress, 222 are lawyers, three are scientists and six are engineers. The heavy bias towards lawyers would suggest that Congress makes decisions based not on truth but on conviction. In fact, many politicians are proud of just that, shunning scientific knowledge as elitist while embracing religious and emotional sources of knowledge. Of course, science does not prescribe policy; it provides facts that get combined with other considerations. The use of emotion and faith in policy formation is both unavoidable and necessary, but the policy must be built on fact for emotion and faith to be useful. So, why has science been shunned? What threat does it pose to the powerful people who run our country?

In last Wednesday's Frontiers on the Environment talk, and in his book "Fool Me Twice, Fighting the Assault on Science in America," Shawn Otto claims science is not partisan, but is always political. As a scientist, I was initially taken aback by that statement, but it's not hard to see why it's true. Science is a process for knowing reality. As such, it is inherently anti-authoritarian. In an authoritarian world, knowledge comes from an authority, like a king, or a priest. But science is a process that is open to anyone, not just a small handful of priests and rulers. So through the power of knowledge alone, science disrupts the power of vested interests.

Thumbnail image for fmts.jpgThe question Otto posed was, "Can democracy survive the age of science?" I initially thought that was backwards. Isn't science the one at risk as policies dilute and distort science education, science funding and the availability of scientific knowledge to our leaders? However, the threat to democracy doesn't come directly from science, but rather through the threat its anti-authoritarian nature poses to vested interests. As these powerful interests are threatened by scientific knowledge, they put enormous effort into distorting the "virtuous circle of democracy." In a healthy system, a governance problem is put to members of an informed public, who rely on scientific knowledge to debate the best policy. This in turn leads to effective governance and an informed public. By replacing the power of an informed public reliant on scientific knowledge with vested interests who use authoritarian knowledge, that loop is reversed into a vicious circle that degrades both science and democracy.

Otto is not content to simply illustrate the problem and sit back. He presents an array of solutions for turning the vicious anti-science and democracy circle back into the virtuous circle of democracy. First, scientists need to engage with the public. Second, we need to reform the tenure system to allow and encourage scientists to do so. Third, we need to hold the media accountable for distorting the balance of evidence and failing to hold politicians accountable to reality. Fourth, we need to speak up for tolerance and reason. Fifth, we need to reform education to emphasize the importance of scientific knowledge in healthy civic life. Sixth, we can demand that candidates for office sign the American Science Pledge to vote based on knowledge, rather than unsubstantiated opinion. Finally, we should encourage candidates to return to a rational debate based on scientific knowledge, as proposed by sciencedebate.org.

In the end, reality exists, there is a world out there that we can know through endless probing and interaction. That probing and interaction is what we call science. It's the best game in town for generating reliable knowledge. When we ignore that, we ignore reality, and we create policies the make our problems worse, often to the benefit of a few vested interests. My lawyer friend eventually did take a college physics course, and was floored by the ability of Newton's laws to explain the world he interacted with. Scientific knowledge is empowering, and it is the ultimate basis of a functioning democracy.

Joey Reid is a teaching assistant with the Institute on the Environment's Boreas Leadership Program. Photo of full moon over the U.S. Capitol by dbking, reused under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

On the Way to India

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acara-group.jpgPlans for businesses that would organize benefit dinners for good causes, convert waste into fuel, and improve the safety of street food took top honors last week at the Acara Challenge Finals, a competition held each year by the IonE-sponsored Acara program to discover and encourage international teams of student social entrepreneurs.

This year's competition involved 12 finalist teams made up of students from 10 universities and other institutions across the U.S. and India. The winning teams receive scholarships to the Acara Summer Institute in Bangalore, India, where students will refine their business plans for real-world application.

Winning projects teams and the goals of their proposed enterprises:

Gold ($1,500 cash award, up to $1,500 matching award, Summer Institute tuition and room and board for two):

Eat4Equity (University of Minnesota) - bring a community-driven model for organizing monthly benefit dinners to raise money for good causes to cities across the country. (A team from Acara's recent Winter Institute, E4E is not eligible for the scholarships, but Acara will work with the team to acquire other scholarships.)

Rot2Roti (U of M, TERI University in India) - convert compost waste from the Azadpur Mandi market in Delhi into fuel for the adjacent Shalimar Slums.

BlueFood (University of Minnesota, TERI University in India) - provide consulting and marketing services to street food vendors in Delhi communities to improve the safety of street food for consumers.

Silver ($750 cash award, up to $750 matching award, Summer Institute tuition and room and board for two)

Ujjwal (Cornell University and K. J. Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, SIMSR) - address the gap in prenatal care knowledge and guidance among pregnant women in Mumbai, India.

Nirmal (Xavier Institute of Management, XIMB) - purify and remove excess iron content from drinking water.

Bronze (up to $1,000 matching award, Summer Institute tuition for two)

Renew Waste Compactor Service (University of Cincinnati and IIT Roorkee, India) - provide an efficient, profitable way to collect waste while providing income to community members.

Green Caps (Vellore Institute of Technology) - develop biodegradable lids for plastic water bottles.

Aahar (Tata Institute of Social Sciences,TISS) - improve the condition of landless marginalized poor in Odisha by allowing them to farm on leased land.

Anvita (TISS) - develop low-priced splints and distribute them in Tier II and Tier III cities in India to address disability due to amputation, paralysis or deformity.

Honorable Mention (invitation to the Summer Institute)

Food Miles (TERI University, U of M) ­ ­- mitigate the effects of food on the wallets of New Delhi consumers while increasing the income of farmers through a produce-delivery service.

Dharohar (Xavier Labour Research Institute) - provide producer groups and artisan clusters in Jharkhand with marketing linkages and training modules to enhance their skills.

Vidyut (XIMB) ­- increase processing speed and efficiency and reduce waste for post-harvest processing of chilies and turmeric.

Congratulations and best wishes to all!

Less Energy, More Jobs

franken.jpgWhat's the cleanest, cheapest and most benign source of energy available in America today?

If you guessed it's the energy we don't use, you're right on the mark. You're also right up the alley of U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who has been promoting building retrofitting as a source not only of energy but also of jobs as part of the "Back to Work Minnesota" initiative he launched last October.

Franken brought his energy- and economy-boosting ideas to the University of Minnesota last week in the form of a Forum on Energy Savings and Retrofitting sponsored by the Institute on the Environment, the Energy Service Coalition, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Urban Land Institute, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's "Minnesota Waste Wise" affiliate, the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Clean Energy Resource Teams.

"Creating jobs and cutting energy costs is a win-win situation for Minnesota and for the United States, and we badly need to do both," Franken told the more than 100 business leaders and local government officials participating in the forum. "In communities of all sizes across Minnesota, people are realizing that retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient will have both short- and long-term benefits that will more than pay for themselves over time.  By partnering with business and city leaders, we can overcome the barriers to making buildings more energy efficient."

U.S. deputy energy secretary Daniel Poneman joined Franken at the forum to speak about the federal Better Buildings Initiative, a public-private program that aims to save more than $40 billion by increasing energy efficiency of commmercial buildings 20 percent by 2020.

Dick Hemmingsen, managing director of IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, says Franken's focus dovetails with IREE's growing emphasis on conservation and energy efficiency. The NorthernSTAR Building America Team at the University of Minnesota, supported by IREE and the U.S. Department of Energy, is bringing together researchers, builders and owners around energy conservation strategies for existing and new homes. A few additional examples of IREE-supported research include novel utility interfaces for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, a solar daylighting project and utilization of corncobs in biomass gasification systems.

Interested in learning more? View a video of last week's Franken forum here. Then check out IREE's projects database for details on these and other energy efficiency and clean energy projects.  

Photo courtesy of Al Franken

Networking 101

Networking.pngIf the title of this post caught your eye, you've probably been there: walking into a room full of strangers and wondering how to start a conversation, or joining a gathering people in your field and wanting to connect but not sure how.

University of Minnesota career advisor Maggie Kubak offered some valuable tips recently at the Boreas Leadership Program's first networking session of the spring semester.

Kubak started by noting that the word "networking" has some bad connotations, evoking visions of creating conversations and connections for personal gain. But, she said, that's not what it's all about. Rather, it's getting to know people - people who might be able to help you, yes, but people you might be able to help, too.  It's about meeting friends you haven't met yet, making others feel welcome and valued, and giving them a chance to make you feel welcome and valued as well.

To start things off on the right foot in a networking situation, Kubak recommended keeping three things in mind: Who are you connecting with? What is the setting?  What is your objective? Sometimes you're just passing time before a program begins. Other times, you're wanting to meet key people in your field who may play an important role in your career. The answer to those questions will guide your approach.

Small talk is an important part of networking, Kubak said.  It helps people get comfortable around each other and provides them an opportunity to get to know each other. Some "small-talking" tips, adapted from CareerBuilder.com:

1. As you prepare for a function, come up with three things to talk about and four generic questions that will get others talking.
2.  Be the first to say hello. If you've met before but you're not sure the other person will remember you, introduce yourself.
3.  Take your time. Make a point to remember names, and use them frequently.
4.  Get the other person talking by leading with a statement about something you have in common - perhaps the event or location - and then ask a related open-ended question.
5.  Stay focused on your conversational partner by actively listening and giving feedback.
6.  Listen more than you talk.
7. Have something interesting to contribute. Keeping abreast of current events and culture helps. Ask questions like, "What do you think of ... ?" "Have you heard ... ?"
8.  If there are specific people you want to meet, ask someone to introduce you.
9. Watch your body language.
10. If you'd like to join a conversation that's already in progress, observe and listen for a good time before you jump in.

Kubak also offered some special advice on relationship-building for introverts:

• Start with email instead of phone call.
• Be patient; think long-term gain.
• Pace yourself so you don't burn out.
• Keep at it so you're recognized.
• Find and connect with key people who can connect you with many contacts.
• Arrive early at a gathering, before clusters form. 

How do you exit a conversation gracefully when the other person is getting restless or you need to move on? Kubak suggested having some lines ready: "I need to check in with a client over there." "I skipped lunch today, so I need to visit the buffet." "I have a meeting with a colleague soon so need to say goodbye."  Always end with thanks and a comment tailored to your conversation.

Looking for some great networking opportunities and other tools to hone your leadership skills? Check out IonE's Boreas Leadership Program.

Now if you'll excuse me ... I skipped lunch today and need to visit the buffet.

Image courtesy of Koreshky via Wikimedia Commons

  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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