Blogs > Sara Gutterman > November 2013

A Sincere Thank You

 

 

I have a lot on my mind during this week of Thanksgiving—another round of disappointing climate talks in Warsaw, the topic of product transparency (which took center stage last week at the Greenbuild conference), the extreme weather that is battering the east coast.

But the sentiment that is most prevalent for me this week is gratitude. I am truly grateful to be a part of a rapidly growing community of passionate individuals who are dedicated to affecting positive change in the world. I am honored to participate in the ongoing debate about the actions necessary to address climate change, restrained resources, increased pollution, diminishing habitat, and other sustainability related realities.

I am particularly thankful for the chance to work with my incredibly talented, creative, and committed team members at Green Builder Media. You inspire me on a daily basis and challenge me to become better every day.

I offer a wholehearted thank you to our readers, advertisers, partners, and colleagues for all of the big and small things you do. It is a herculean task to transform an industry, but we’re successfully doing it together. Through your hard work and perseverance, we’re starting to move beyond the price per square foot metric, redefining value in the built environment to incorporate quality and sustainability.

I feel lucky to live in a world where people have the depth of courage and breadth of imagination to dedicate themselves so vigorously to improving the health of the world around us. I’m encouraged by your imagination, excited by your enthusiasm, and awed by your ingenuity.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again— our goal at Green Builder Media is to affect positive change within the building industry and beyond. Our mission is to increase awareness that the natural and built environments are intricately linked, and that the improvement of one restores the other. Our mantra is to constantly reinvent ourselves, remaining on the leading edge of sustainability so that we can deliver relevant, interesting, and visionary content to our community.

Our commitment is unwavering and our task is clear: to continue exploring the frontiers of sustainability. We are pleased that you’re here to join us for this wildly exciting journey into the future.

What are you thankful for this holiday season? Write to me at sara@greenbuildermag.com or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit www.greenbuildermag.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 11/27/2013 12:02:02 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments



Moratorium on Excess?

 

 

While it seems that Americans have become more fiscally aware since the recession, we certainly can’t be accused of embracing a culture of frugality. Our excesses are well known by societies across the planet, idealized and emulated by some, hatefully condemned by others.

One consequence of our throwaway economy is a gargantuan amount of trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each person in the U.S. generates a daily average of 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste—a collective total of approximately 1.35 billion pounds every day, or over 250 billion tons per year. It’s estimated that Americans spend $100 per ton to dispose of this waste, or over $250 billion per year.

Food is a major contributor to the waste stream. Each year, Americans waste approximately 33 million tons of food—the equivalent of $165 billion. Even though getting food to our tables accounts for 80% of our freshwater use and 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, 40% of our food is wasted.

Since composting remains rare in our country, food leftovers are the single-largest contributor of the waste stream by weight, comprising 20% of the total material that goes to landfills according to the EPA. To add insult to injury, decaying food in landfills produces 34% of all methane emissions (methane is considerably more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide).

Another significant product of our device-driven economy is electronics waste. As Americans have increased their use of consumer electronics (it’s estimated that each U.S. citizen owns an average of 24 electronic devices), the volume of e-waste has skyrocketed. 50 million tons of e-waste is produced each year globally, a number that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) expects to grow by 500% over the next decade.

The EPA estimates that only 15% of electronics are recycled. Apparently, the U.S. is the world leader in e-waste production, discarding approximately 3 million tons each year (we dump 30 million computers on an annual basis), wasting valuable, scarce, and sometimes toxic materials (70% of heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics).

The building industry is an obvious perpetrator in any discussion about waste generation. Construction and demolition activities contribute up to 80% of the total landfill waste in some municipalities. Every year, there is approximately five billion square feet of new construction in the U.S., even though nearly 13 million housing units remain vacant (on an annual basis). The 2012 vacancy rate lingered around 14%, and the Metropolitan Institute forecasts a surplus of nearly 22 million homes over the next few decades (as a point of reference, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser estimates that if we stopped building today, it would take three years for newly formed households to occupy all of the current vacant units.)

As we drown under the tidal wave of our own waste, I can’t help but wonder—what if we decided to just say no to the opulence of waste? What if we, the building industry, decided to simply say no to new, greenfield developments that devour pristine habitat, exacerbate sprawl, and utilize far more resources than are necessary?

What if we could refocus the attention of the multi-billion dollar building sector on urban infills, adaptive reuse, and infrastructure upgrades? What if we insisted that all structures, whether new or retrofit, be net zero waste, emissions, energy, and water? Would that decrease resource use, eliminate sprawl, increase property values, and enhance communities?

What if we developed new success metrics—ones that weren’t defined by short-term financial gain and lowest upfront cost? What if we instead based all of our decisions on long-term performance, life-cycle cost, and sustainability?

I know that this idea may seem unrealistic and even radical, but it’s offered not with any expectation that it will be realized, but simply as food for thought. At the end of the day, I’m thrilled that we live in a society that enables people to realize their dreams through passion, hard work, and innovation. I’m certainly not advocating that we return to Depression Era ethics, but should we use the last barrel of oil, the last drop of clean water, the last acre of raw land simply because we can? There must be some reasonable middle ground between the extremes of extravagance and deprivation. If you find that place, please let me know. I'll gladly meet you there.

Have you found that reasonable middle ground? Write to me at sara@greenbuildermag.com or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit www.greenbuildermag.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 11/20/2013 1:36:55 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments



The Dark Shadow of Climate Change Politics

 

 

It’s disheartening that climate change remains a politically charged issue, particularly since its consequences affect everyone, everywhere, in all geographies and walks of life.

Just this week, I’ve seen stories about how the Chamber of Commerce is now lobbing against the Environmental Protection Agency, backing legislation that would diminish the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions from power plants, claiming that the Clean Air Act is “not the appropriate vehicle to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.” Huh?

Despite the elephant-sized disconnect in the Chamber of Commerce’s argument, the organization asserts that limits on greenhouse gas emissions for power plants will raise power prices with “negative implications extending to nearly every segment of the economy.” Clearly, these folks are so blinded by their struggle to cling to remnant business models that they are missing the beckoning call of innovation. Rather than engaging in what will inevitably be a losing battle, it seems they’d be better off investing their time and capital into developing disruptive technologies will open up new opportunities for enhanced financial gain.

In other recent politically-charged climate related news, two Senators from Ohio have proposed a ban on the use of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system for public buildings. The stated argument is that LEED does not follow American National Standards Institute (ANSI) consensus procedures and therefore should not be used as a rating system of record. However, the scuttlebutt among the greenies is that these Senators are simply leveraging this line of reasoning as an easy way around the mandating of high performing buildings, which seems to be a valid assessment since they’re pushing for a ban altogether as opposed to the acceptance of equivalent programs or rating systems.

In actuality, the political slant of the climate debate has become nonsensical, filled with rhetoric and emotion that is extraneous and, ultimately, distracts us all from the real issues at hand.

Whether we like it or not, everyone is already affected by climate change. Climate change has no concern or proclivity for gender, race, class, occupation, or sexual orientation. It should not be a political issue. But, it is a social and financial one, which means that the dark shadow of politics inevitably follows.

Which is wholly ironic, since those who are most affected by climate change have the least amount of political currency. Poor people and developing countries are expected to bear the brunt of climate change, since they lack the resources necessary to adequately deal with reconstruction, migration, or adaptation. Because of this lack of resources, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that consequences of climate change will exacerbate poverty in low income countries and create new poverty pockets in middle and high income nations.

In fact, only four developed nations are included in the top 20 countries that are expected to be hit hardest by climate change. According to Germanwatch, a Berlin-based environmental organization that releases an annual Global Climate Risk Index, Honduras, Myanmar, and Haiti suffered the most from climate related disasters between 1993 and 2012.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) forecasts that, over the next decade, Bangladesh, Sudan, Siberia, Australia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, and the Philippines will be most severely affected—environmentally, socially, and economically—due to rising sea levels, escalating drought, increased flooding, and, in Siberia’s case, melting permafrost.

In the face of accelerating frequency and severity of devastating natural disasters (there was one single billion-dollar storm event per year in the 1980s, two per year in the 1990s, five per year in 2010 in 2011, and fourteen in 2012), I can’t help but wonder—will climate change be the thing that ultimately unites or divides us? Will it be the great equalizer that levels the playing field between rich and poor, black and white, Muslim and Jew, or will bring out the savage instincts that degrade us into hatred and spite, civil war and further global destruction?

I suppose that we’ll find out soon enough in our own country. According to a report commissioned by Congress entitled Climate of the Southeast United States: Variability, Change, Impacts, and Vulnerability, temperatures in the Southeast are expected to warm as much as 9 degrees, stresses on the water supply are projected to increase significantly, and sea levels are expected to rise up to 5 feet by the end of this century, effectively flooding communities up and down the coastline. The report, which reviewed data from 13 southern states and territories (Florida to Virginia, Puerto Rico to Kentucky), is likely the harbinger of a massive northern migration of apocalyptic proportions (for those who chose to flee from the swelter), and it also sets the stage for a raging bout of horrendous infighting (for those who want to go down with the ship).

I suspect that when the tide rises—literally and figuratively—the sizzle of leveraging the issue of climate change to push a political agenda will become as stale as yesterday’s breakfast. At that time, perhaps we will divorce ourselves from the shackles of our old story, and free ourselves to marry the truth.

How can we more fully embrace the reality of climate change? Write to me at sara@greenbuildermag.com or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit www.greenbuildermag.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 11/13/2013 2:05:05 PM by Mary Kestner | with 1 comments



Wide Awake

 

 

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first installment of a three-part climate assessment report. As I wrote last month, this report focused on the physical science of climate change, confirming that global warming is “unequivocal” and that humans are without doubt responsible.

Last week, a draft of the second section of the report was leaked, well before its intended release next March. This part of the report focuses on the impacts of climate change and vulnerability of human and natural systems. While the report will certainly be edited and refined between now and its official publication date, the overarching message is undeniable: “human interface with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems.”

Some of the key findings from the report include:
• Climate change will impact lives and livelihoods in almost all areas throughout the 21st century—costal zones will face rising sea levels; urban areas will grapple with extreme heat and inland flooding; and rural areas will struggle with insufficient access to drinking water.
• Climate change will reduce energy demand for heating and increase energy demand for cooling in the residential and commercial sectors.
• Agricultural production will continue to be negatively affected due to warming, drought, precipitation variability, and climate extremes, which will lead to ongoing increases in food prices. Yield from major crops (namely, wheat, rice, and maize) is already suffering from increasing temperatures and is expected to decline by 2% by 2050, even while demand is anticipated to increase by 14% during the same timeframe due to population increases.
• Melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water availability and quality.
• Climate change is likely contributing to increased human sickness and mortality rates, mostly attributable to extreme weather events, diminished food production, and lack of clean water.
• In response to climate change, animals have been forced to shift their seasonal activities and migration patterns. Many species may not be able to find enough suitable habitat to avoid extinction during the 21st century.
• Throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts will slow down economic growth, expand poverty in urban areas and emerging “hunger hotspots”, and trigger new poverty pockets. Financial losses will increase exponentially with each degree rise in temperature.
• The time to act is now—the opportunity to reduce climate change risk will diminish over time and, in some parts of the world, has already expired.

The report goes on to explore adaptation and mitigation options, noting the general lack of action in this area to date and calling for a blend of technological innovation and ecosystem-based, institutional, and social measures. In the report, the IPCC emphasizes that “incremental” adaption and mitigation strategies will not be enough based on the “large consequences, persistent uncertainties, and long timeframes” related to climate change.

To deal with the realities of heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and costal flooding, drought, water scarcity, and food security, the report encourages the building of resilient infrastructure; shared action between the public and private sector; and even the formation of new systems of governance.

The report cites a deficit between the cost estimate for global adaptation and the current level of funding and investment. To help bridge the gap between long-term adaptation needs and current financial realities, President Obama announced an executive order last week that would incorporate resilience considerations into publicly funded projects (such as roads, bridges, and flood control), enabling states and communities to develop more durable and resilient infrastructure.

Scientists from the IPCC did find that reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades can substantially reduce the risks of climate change. The good news is that humans may still yet have a future on this planet. The bad news is that we likely won’t see any real positive change in pollution levels and the general health of our planet until the second half of the 21st century.

Which begs the question—in our super-sized, techno-based, fast-paced, consumerist society, will we have the discipline to pause and consider our critical next steps? Will we do what’s right for future generations and the planet, even if many of us won’t see tangible results in our lifetimes? Has the time come to set down our addition to immediate gratification in favor of a more sincere zeitgeist?

Perhaps the IPCC’s third installment of their climate change report (to be released in April), which will analyze ways that we can limit greenhouse gasses and mitigate risks, will provide us with some answers.

Do you think we’ll display the long-term vision needed to adequately prepare ourselves for climate change? Write to me at sara@greenbuildermag.com or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit www.greenbuildermag.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 11/5/2013 10:09:40 AM by Mary Kestner | with 1 comments



About Me

 

Sara is the Co-Founder and CEO of Green Builder Media.  An experienced entrepreneur, investor, and sustainability consultant, Sara specializes in developing companies that are simultaneously sustainable and profitable.  Sara is a former venture capitalist and has participated in a portion of the life cycle (from funding to exit) of over 20 companies.  Sara graduated Cum Laude from Dartmouth College and holds an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance from the University of Colorado.

 

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