1% for the planet. Why Davos doesn’t matter

Today is the last day of the 2015 World Economic Forum, a weeklong meeting of the global elite addressing the biggest issues we face: climate change, inequality, and terrorism, among others. Politicians, business leaders, diplomats, and a few celebrities paid about $40,000 each to attend the gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where they’ve yakked about how to solve problems like how 2014 was the hottest year on record and how the richest 1 percent of humanity will own more wealth than the other 99 percent combined by the end of 2015.

One question: Who decided we should listen to proposed solutions from the same movers, shakers, and money makers whose decisions got us into this mess? Around 2,500 attendees flew in on 1,700 private jets and a few hundred helicopters, yet the media hangs on their every word, certain that these high-society, high-carbon elites have smart things to say about stopping climate change.

Jo Confino of The Guardian recognizes the problem:

Despite all the talk, the wealthy elite gathered in Davos gain too much status, wealth and power from the maintenance of our destructive economic system to spearhead its transformation.

Not only has the Davos crew has reaped enormous riches from the way things are, but these plutocrats’ obscene affluence also shields them from the negative ramifications of their choices and actions.

Confino illustrates this “prosperity trap” beautifully by detailing how massive cannons shoot artificial snow above Davos to create immaculate ski slopes for the rich and powerful, even as the sky becomes more and more reluctant to coat mountains in white, thanks to the atmospheric warming for which this jet set is disproportionately responsible.

How can we trust these people to fight a problem that hardly affects them? Climate change ranks so low among business leaders’ concerns that this year’s global survey of CEOs failed to even included it among the top 19 issues.

What’s more, money and status effectively segregates the elites from the less fortunate billions who do suffer as the climate changes and the economy takes over the earth.

The 99 percent are not represented at Davos, much less the vulnerable populations whose poverty the forum aims to tackle by any means short of sharing their vast wealth. Women make up just 17 percent of participants, despite the forum’s focus on creating social inclusion. And two-thirds of conference-goers hail from just two continents, Europe and North America, but in reality the global super-elite have more in common with each other as one-percenters than with fellow citizens of their home countries.

Because radical options are off the table at a discussion of delegates so heavily invested in protecting brutal business-as-usual, German journalist Christiane Kliemann wants us to forget Davos:

“It is high time to take our future in our own hands and to realize that our current economy is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.”

This post purposefully does not include anything anyone said at the World Economic Forum. I don’t care what they say, and neither should you. I’ll be done thinking about the whole shindig forever one more paragraph from now.

In case you’re curious, the conference’s discourse is summed up best by this satirical video entitled, “Growth first. Then these other things can be dealt with, whatever they are.” (Think I’m exaggerating? Break the no-paying-attention-to-Davos rule for one moment and scan this summary.)



This fellow’s on hiatus

So I’m writing for Grist for the next five or so months as a Gristfellow. That’s why I’m not doing anything right now at the bliss point. I’ll probably cross-post anything that’s boring enough for this site, but please check out what I’m creating in the fellowship. And I don’t mean just right now — I haven’t written anything super-cool yet anyway. Pass by Grist regularly or sign up to receive one of their digests. It’s all good stuff. I’m just hoping I learn a bunch from the editorial team while I’m part of it!

SolarCoin and social equity, part II

This is the sixth post in the Electricity-Backed Currency blog series — check out the SolarCoin page to learn the basics and link to the first five posts in the series

Originally posted at Triple Pundit on June 24, 2014

Our energy systems must transition away from fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate chaos. What’s more, this shift to carbon-free energy has to happen fast — even more quickly than the rate at which renewables are currently replacing oil, gas and coal.

SolarCoin-accepted-here3SolarCoin is a novel strategy for accelerating investment in solar power. If it scales up — meaning that people begin treating SolarCoins as money — then it could work toward achieving the clean energy economy we need to save the climate.

But it’s not inherently socially equitable. In fact, as I show in SolarCoin and social equity, part I, SolarCoin has the scary potential to contribute to accelerating the growth of wealth inequality.

Getting SolarCoins

There are two ways to be eligible to claim SolarCoins: you can have a roof or yard with solar panels or you can own a solar project with capacity greater than ten kilowatts (kW). (The cutoff was set at 10 kW to distinguish household solar systems from commercial arrays.) Each megawatt-hour (MWh) of solar electricity generated earns one SolarCoin.

Beyond claiming SolarCoins for generating electricity, there’s a third method for getting some of the digital money: you can trade for them in online currency markets.

All three ways to acquire SolarCoins for your digital wallet present substantial barriers to the poor. People with no roofs, no yards, no access to credit, and no dollars to trade (nor experience using the interwebs for currency exchange) stand to benefit most from holding SolarCoins, especially if they get them while they’re cheap and the currency gains value in the future. Yet society’s least wealthy populations have scarcely any chance to put up solar panels, own a solar power installation, or trade for SolarCoins online.

Fortunately, there are ways to increase access to SolarCoins through each of these pathways.

Residential solar

The explosion in leased solar power systems means more people have access to earning  dollars and SolarCoins for producing solar electricity. Graph: Climate Policy Initiative

The explosion in leased solar power systems means more people can earn dollars and SolarCoins for producing solar electricity. Graph: Climate Policy Initiative

For residential solar systems (under 10 kW capacity), SolarCoins are earned by the resident of that property, not the owner of the solar panels. This way, the solar leasing boom gets SolarCoins into the hands of all the people using that power, instead of just piling up digital money in the coffers of companies like Sungevity and SolarCity that put panels on homes and rent them to the residents.

Each solar generating facility has just one ‘claimant,’ yet it is plausible that multi-family dwellings with rooftop solar could split SolarCoin claims. If apartment communities team up to lease solar panels, they can share the revenues from selling power and the earned SolarCoins.

Also, granting SolarCoins to more people increases the value of the digital currency (think about how the value of US dollars is supported by its worldwide acceptance as valuable money). A new currency only works as useful money for transactions if lots of folks have it and businesses accept it, which will be the case if they can use it to reward customers, pay employees, or buy inputs.

So with policies that facilitate multi-family solar projects, a growing number of people can become residential solar electricity producers. These groups can earn SolarCoins, which in turn benefits the entire SolarCoin community by increasing its exchange value. But only the wealthy can own large solar installations, right?

Solar ownership

Community solar projects extend the opportunity to own a share of a large solar power installation to a wider population — those with roofs unsuitable for solar because of shade or unfortunate tilt; renters and condo-dwellers who don’t control their roofs; and those who can only afford a small investment in solar. Below I propose a new way to spread SolarCoin-earning investments to even more people, but keep in mind that the same benefits apply to any community solar project that decides to split SolarCoin revenues among those who share ownership.

Mosaic, a solar project crowd-funding platform, helps address unequal access to solar investment opportunities. The minimum investment to finance a Mosaic project is $25.

Here’s how Mosaic works: A ‘borrower’ seeking to finance a solar energy project uses Mosaic to connect with investors looking for a steady return. After the installation starts producing electricity, the revenue from selling that power pays back those who invested in it, plus interest.

Mosaic helps solar installations get built by connecting small and large investors with projects seeking financing. If those investors earned SolarCoins in addition to the return on their investment, everybody wins -- the investors, the borrowers, the SolarCoin community, Mosaic, and our global climate. Image: Mosaic.

Mosaic helps solar installations get built by connecting small and large investors with projects seeking financing. If those investors earn SolarCoins in addition to the return on their investment, everybody wins — the investors, the borrowers, the SolarCoin community, Mosaic, and our global climate. Graphic: Mosaic.

SolarCoins could provide extra incentive to invest in solar power for anyone with $25. The borrower of a Mosaic-funded installment (who owns the array) could claim SolarCoins for the megawatts of electricity produced and then distribute them to investors in proportion to their share of the project’s up-front costs.

This way, Mosaic investors would earn a rate of return and SolarCoins. Three main benefits would arise from this arrangement.

First, everyone who loans to Mosaic projects would get a bigger reward. Beyond the fixed monthly payments that return their principle investment plus interest, Mosaic investors would be paid in SolarCoins.

Second, people without large sums of money to invest could earn SolarCoins for their ownership stake in large installations. Finally, growth in the SolarCoin economy means growth in the money value of SolarCoins.

A mutually beneficial partnership between Mosaic and SolarCoin would mean additional incentive to join both communities — the former could promote more returns to investors, and the latter would see an increase in value as more people hold and transact the currency.

Online exchange

But what about rich folks’ inherent advantage in accumulating SolarCoin through online currency trading? Anyone can turn dollars into bitcoins into SolarCoins, so people with lots of dollars can pile up stacks of digital money.

This problem is a harder nut to crack — it’s difficult to dream up any new currency that doesn’t favor the already-wealthy. But one invention exists that allows anyone with web access to get some SolarCoin in their digital wallet, for free.

Third-party charitable faucets, like this site, give away small amounts of SolarCoins in order to grow SolarCoins’ value as a means of exchange by spreading the currency into more hands. From a social equity standpoint, faucets give cash-strapped regular Joes and Janes the chance to take part in this new social economy.

Yet plenty of room for innovation remains in the quest to grow the SolarCoin community with less bias toward well-off people. What if we could each receive one SolarCoin for signing a petition advocating progressive legislation that favors low-carbon energy (or burdens fossil fuels)?

How about everyone with zero dollars invested in fossil energy companies gets ten SolarCoins? Poor people would be able to cash in immediately, and folks with investment portfolios would get a SolarCoin bonus for joining the global movement to divest from dirty energy!

SolarCoin could provide an extra push toward choosing to divest from fossil fuels by rewarding anyone with no money in dirty energy stock. Graphic: Ekavi Beh.

SolarCoin could provide a push toward choosing to divest from fossil fuels by rewarding anyone with no money in dirty energy stock. Graphic: Ekavi Beh.

Money for good

These ideas barely scratch the surface of possibility for digital (and physical) currencies to make our money economy more socially just and environmentally mindful. And remember, strategies for getting a new currency into more people’s hands can increase that currency’s value, as long as its supply remains reasonably scarce overall.

Thus, for the SolarCoin community, measures like a reward for divestment are not only progressive but  self-interested. The same can be said for partnering with Mosaic or creating multi-family collectives to help more people become solar power producers.

In summary, growing the SolarCoin community to include people who can’t get solar panels easily will not only offset or reverse some of the currency’s built-in unfairness; it will also increase its value — which in turn drives investment in solar power.

The next post in the series will explore one more way that cryptocurrencies like SolarCoin promote social equity and benefit some of our society’s hardest-working and least-compensated members. Stay tuned!




Sustainable smartphone revolution from Google?


Getting rid of our phones every time better software and features launch isn’t ecologically intelligent, but I have a Verizon upgrade to get a free iPhone

modular phoneThe need to make our cellphones last longer is finally getting some attention. Now Google is taking on the challenge of making a phone to withstand the annual onslaught of new state-of-the-art hardware and software. With Google’s super-customizable modular phone concept, Project Ara, we may soon be able to take advantage of smartphone technology’s weekly breakthroughs without ditching our like-new phones when 6G is released and 5G becomes old hat.

Of course, there are good reasons not to own a smartphone at all. They contain rare-earth elements, plenty of toxic mercury and chlorine, and conflict minerals mined by wage slaves and sold by warlords and corrupt states to fund violence and maintain repression. And the constant upgrading of electronics pollutes the climate thanks to global, emissions-intensive supply chains. On the downstream side, our throwaway culture has created a huge e-waste problem, since electronics recycling isn’t yet widespread

Getting rid of our phones every time better features launch isn’t sustainable (even if new, clean methods for extracting the precious metals from old phones with ‘shrooms scale up). Yet right now, Verizon will give me a brand-new iPhone 4. For free. I’ve never had a smartphone, and that’s a pretty tempting offer. Yet, I would far prefer to buy one used or refurbished for environmental and social reasons. Too bad those options cost money.

Turns out I’m not the only one facing these destructive incentives. Verizon offers every customer a deeply discounted or free phone every two years, as do most service providers.

Enter Ara, a project of the big G’s advanced technologies and projects (ATAP) group, tentatively scheduled to debut around this time next year. Wired calls it an endeavor to reinvent the cellphone:

Instead of a slab of glass and metal that you have no ability to upgrade, save for buying a new device, it’s an attempt to launch a phone where all of the main components are interchangeable via modules that click in and out, attaching via electro-permanent magnets.

If Google can create hardware and support systems to keep pace with continual software advances, Project Ara may liberate us from the endless succession of planned obsolescence that rules today’s gadget world — and slow the ecologically vicious resultant cycle of resource throughput. What’s more, we’ll be able to pimp out our phones with whatever contraptions and accessories we think are essential or sexy. The device will be a platform to personalize.

SolarCoin: money backed by computers and sun power

This is the first post of the Electricity-Backed Currency blog series

Originally posted on the Mosaic blog on March 27, 2014. 

Back in 2011, Nick Gogerty and Joseph Zitoli of the Thoughtful Capital Group wrote a proposal to back national currencies with electric power. They argued that electricity provides benefits to society, unlike gold, and retains monetary value better than government debt or mortgage-backed securities — the assets the US Federal Reserve Bank currently holds against dollars in circulation.

Naturally, central bankers and policymakers around the world ignored the academic paper. It’s difficult to convince large institutions to transform a system that seems to be working just fine — and most of the world’s major currencies are relatively stable.

So this year, Gogerty and an online volunteer community created an electricity-backed digital currency, in the vein of Bitcoin, to incentivize solar energy generation. If we show a little faith in the value of sun power, this new online monetary system will increase the rate of investment in solar electricity.

SolarCoin is a decentralized digital currency that we can trade person-to-person, with no need for a bank or other intermediary. Launched in 2014, it is not affiliated with a specific country.

Proof of computer work

SolarCoin is backed by two ‘proofs of work.’ The first is called a cryptographic proof of work, basically a math problem that’s difficult for computers to solve but easy to check that they got it right.

I don’t pretend to fully understand digital cryptocurrencies, but the possible positive impact of SolarCoin shines brightly with or without computer science knowledge. All we need to know is that a database called a block chain acts as a public ledger, holding a record of every SolarCoin transaction.

This innovation prevents anyone from trying to spend the same SolarCoins twice. More generally, the invention of the block chain marks the first time in human history that we have achieved decentralized trust.

Because of this new technology, it is no longer necessary to rely on a central authority to assure shared trust in agreements — a reality that could radically transform banking by reducing or eliminating legal fees and other transaction costs. Yet the block chain has potential applications well beyond the sphere of money (check out ProofOfExistence, a service that provides evidence of ownership of a specific file at a specific time).

Proof of solar work

What makes this currency a potential game-changer in the electric power sector is its second proof of work: authentication of solar electricity production through a third party-verified meter reading. One megawatt-hour (MWh) of generation earns one SolarCoin (SLR).

The SolarCoin Foundation created 98 billion SolarCoins to match the amount of solar electricity that the International Energy Agency predicts will be generated over the next 40 years. All but 0.5 percent of these SolarCoins will go to energy producers; the remaining 500 million will compensate the computer geeks and other volunteers who build and support the infrastructure behind the currency.

The peer-to-peer network of SolarCoin holders will build the currency’s transactional value upon the belief that solar-powered electricity is worth more to the world than its value in traditional energy markets. Ideally, it will work like electronic cash.

Get SolarCoins

Up until Saturday, March 8, all the virtual money was held in reserve. That day marked the first SolarCoin pilot grant, in which Arizonan Lisa Shock received 23.4 SolarCoins by providing verification of the 23.4 MWh her rooftop installation generated between 2011 and 2013.

The pilot program represents the first steps toward developing a global system for verifying electricity generation and granting SolarCoins in a communally transparent way that still respects individual privacy. Residential solar system owners and investors in larger projects can participate in the grant program and start receiving SolarCoins for their power production.

First, you need a receiving address for your e-money. Download a SolarCoin QT wallet at SolarCoin’s website to join the solar-backed currency community.

Then head here to claim your coins. You’ll need a scan or photo of two documents: a Proof of Use that contains the physical address and nameplate capacity of the generation facility; and a Proof of Work that verifies solar electricity generated and time period from the meter.

The power generated by solar projects at a residential dwelling can earn SolarCoins for the resident, whereas the SolarCoins for large installations’ production can be claimed by the owner of the facility. This structure incentivizes the primary consumers of the electricity from rooftop solar arrays — the residents — even if the system is leased or financed.

In addition, granting SolarCoins to residents grows the SolarCoin community larger than dispersing all the rewards to a few solar leasing firms. Even better, the currency’s worth increases for everyone using it as it finds its way into more people’s digital wallets, because the value of SolarCoin is directly proportional to the number of people holding the currency.

You can also get small quantities of the currency absolutely free at a charitable faucet like this one. These faucets are third-party websites that give away SolarCoins in order to grow the economy of SolarCoin users. SolarCoins’ value as a means of exchange grows as more people hold them.

In addition, you can obtain SolarCoins on a currency exchange. Click here for a list of online sites where you can trade dollars, Bitcoins, and other currencies for SolarCoin, once you have downloaded your digital wallet.

But wait. Why would anyone want SolarCoins? Are they really worth anything?

Trust me, they’re valuable. Actually, trust SolarCoins — currencies are all about trust.

The next post in the series will explore why SolarCoins have value and how their purchasing power will increase over time.

The Olympic Winter Games: Catalyst for Climate Solutions

The snow-challenged Sochi Olympics contribute to climate change rather than work to fix it, but the Games should be a force for slowing warming

An abridged version of this article was published as a guest commentary in the Oakland Tribune on February 28, 2014

Do you like the Winter Olympics? Do you enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, or winter camping? Or do you simply marvel at the beauty of a silent white landscape on a crisp, clear morning?

Snow, of course, is the shared foundation upon which these wonderful things stand. And climate change threatens the future of snow.1

As sports commentators and news reporters from all over the world endlessly discuss Sochi’s not-so-cold weather and Olympian efforts to improve snow conditions, they often fail to mention that balmy winters may become the new normal in many long-established ski destinations, thanks to our changing global climate.2 Instead, the international media focus narrowly on Russia’s massive snowmaking effort, recruitment of the Altai shamans to summon snow, and application of snow stored from last year.

Even Google's doodle showed support for the LGBT community in Sochi, quoting the Olympic Charter: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind..." What if Google took a similar stand on the climate crisis? Source: Google

Even Google’s doodle showed support for the LGBT community in Sochi, quoting the Olympic Charter: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind…” What if Google took a similar stand on the climate crisis? Source: Google

By tradition, the Olympic Games bring global issues to center stage, concerns that often have little to do with the athletic events themselves. From the 1968 Black Power salute of medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City to the 1980 and 1984 boycotts of rival world leaders the US and USSR, respectively; from the barring of South Africa in response to apartheid between 1962 and 1992 to Beijing’s emergency measures to quell the noxious air pollution that threatened the 2008 Games; from the Munich massacre of 11 Israeli athletes in 1972 to the unwelcome mat Vladimir Putin has placed before gay athletes and spectators attending Sochi 2014, the Olympics have repeatedly situated the world’s most pressing concerns and crises in front of a world audience.

The time for acting to avoid climate catastrophe is melting away as fast as the snow and ice. The Olympic Winter Games, a wonderful world celebration of the enjoyment we all experience in snowy landscapes, is the perfect catalyst to provoke passion around climate change.

Olympic-sized threat

For the Olympic Winter Games, climate change means fewer potential host cities. A recent study (PDF) from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Austria’s Management Centre Innsbruck reports that at Earth’s current rate of warming, just six of the last 19 Winter Olympics sites will be sufficiently cold to stage the Games by the end of this century.

Sochi and the preceding Winter Games’ location, Vancouver, BC, will likely be too warm to host the Olympics by 2050, according to the Canadian-Austrian research.

Keep in mind that today’s greenhouse gas emissions will cause atmospheric warming for decades to come. If international leaders do not act immediately and forcefully to curb carbon pollution, climate change might mean game over for winter sports in much of the world.

The Olympics can generate momentum for climate solutions in three ways: (1) by focusing international attention on the impacts of reduced snowpack and glacial melt on winter sports; (2) by constructing state-of-the-art, climate-neutral facilities, transportation networks, and even entire cities; and (3) by uniting the disparate states of the world to confront one issue that affects us all: global warming.

The Sochi Games scarcely employ these strategies at all.

Global stage for climate change

First, the Olympic Winter Games provide a quadrennial opportunity to bring the effects of climate change to the world’s attention while all eyes are affixed to cold-weather sport. Athletes from across the globe should come together to pressure world leaders to develop a strategy for climate action.

Cross-country skier and three-time Olympian Andy Newell, who placed 18th in the Men’s Sprint in Sochi, is trying to gather athletes to call on world leaders to act collaboratively to stop the climate crisis.  Source: FIS

Cross-country skier and three-time Olympian Andy Newell, who placed 18th in the Men’s Sprint in Sochi, is trying to gather athletes to call on world leaders to act collaboratively to stop the climate crisis. Photograph: FIS

US cross-country skier Andy Newell is trying earnestly to form this sort of alliance. He has been rallying his fellow Olympic athletes to sign a letter that pleads heads of state to approve a comprehensive international climate agreement in Paris next year. Two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, just 82 of over 6,000 Olympians had signed the petition.

Many competitors are hesitant to stir up controversy around the Olympics.  But athletes determined to stand up against Russian laws that discriminate based on sexual identity, despite uncertainty surrounding the possible repercussions for such demonstrations, provide evidence that the Olympics remain a great stage for social protest.

Newell hints at another possible explanation for snow-seeking athletes’ reluctance to advocate climate solutions: carbon footprint guilt. “We burn a lot of fossil fuels chasing the winter around and trying to go to these competitions,” he admits.

Nobody wants to be called a hypocrite, but Olympic athletes have the perfect platform from which to raise awareness and foment support – and the audience for winter sports is this big only once every four years.

Climate-friendly competition

Second, constructing and staging an ecologically mindful Olympics can create excitement over the potential of clean technology to produce built environments that support massive human activity without the support of fossil fuels.

As we transition to a low-carbon society, our cities change gradually. They steadily expand transit networks; construct climate-friendly public works when infrastructure needs replacing; and promote infill rather than sprawl through urban planning.

These changes take effect over decades. Where energy infrastructure and buildings already exist, it does not make economic or practical sense to destroy everything and replace it with new technology, especially when there is the hope that we can wait a few years and the price of renewable energy facilities and smart grid equipment will fall.

Instead, cities can only continue choosing the cleanest available technology as they replace pieces of our aging, outdated, fossil-powered energy infrastructure.

Obviously, the chance to quickly construct new cities from the ground up does not come along very often. The Games are an occasion to build a metropolis with sporting venues almost from scratch, so why wouldn’t a host nation erect the city of the future, which we know will need to function without polluting the climate?

Olympic construction provides the opportunity to make a statement: “This is the state of low-carbon technology in 2014.” We might discover that we are already capable of creating climate-neutral urban environments with a $50 billion budget like that of the Sochi Olympics – especially if the money goes entirely to Olympic preparations and not embezzlement and kickbacks.

Rather than greening the Games, the Dow Chemical Company, Official Carbon Partner of Sochi 2014, will allegedly offset the climate impact of this year’s Olympics through emission reductions across Russia. In fact, they’ve already taken credit for climate neutrality.3

Simply compensating the huge climate impact of the Olympics with unconvincing carbon-offset measures misses the chance to create a model ‘Green Games’. Attendees would notice ecological venue design or ridgelines covered in wind turbines, but most have no idea that Russia is paying Dow Chemical to install low-carbon technology around the country.

Instead, the world is noticing the environmental destruction and irresponsibility of these Olympics and their enormous preparation effort. Outside magazine’s McKenzie Funk wrote a brilliant critique of the ecologically and socially devastating construction project, and corrupt cronyism, that characterize President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to put on a truly extravagant Winter Games to display the new Russia.

As an Olympic green project, Russia's organizing committee created Ornithological Park in Imeretinskaya lowland. In preparation, large amounts of construction, household, and demolition waste were dumped and buried at the site of the park. Photograph: Dmitry Shevchenko

As an Olympic green project, Russia’s organizing committee created Ornithological Park in Imeretinskaya lowland. In preparation, large amounts of construction, household, and demolition waste were dumped and buried at the site of the park. Photograph: Dmitry Shevchenko

Funk describes the reasons that the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) did not even need to vote to establish their opposition to the planned Olympics: “The mountains would get more ski lifts, the river valleys highways, the caves tunnels, the beaches seawalls, and the wetlands stadiums.” The environmental violations, human rights abuses, illegal dumping, Olympic expenses, and ecosystem ruination are chronicled on the blog Sochi Watch.

But this blog post is not about the harm done by Sochi 2014, it’s about how a host nation can design the Olympic Winter Games to move forward on the planetary challenge that jeopardizes the future viability of many of the events showcased.

Some ecological damage is inevitable when preparing a city with a population of about 400,000 to host the world’s biggest winter sports event. The land footprint will expand, construction processes will release tons of greenhouse gases as well as other air and water pollutants. In addition, a lot of emissions come from producing building materials.

But piloting low-emission construction techniques to build a compact city that operates without burning fossil fuels would minimize the Games’ impact while showcasing best practices and fostering confidence about climate neutrality.

I imagine mass transit on rails shuttling people and equipment between Sochi and facilities in the Caucasus Mountains rather than crowded superhighways connecting city to slopes. I imagine wind turbines extending upward from chairlift towers; passively designed houses and arenas that maintain room temperature with minimal energy consumption; waste-to-energy facilities that supply the grid with electric power and produce liquid biofuels for zambonis and snow groomers; and solar water heaters, rainwater catchments, and carbon-sequestering gardens on every roof.

If an Olympic host creates zero-emission structures and infrastructure while performing onsite mitigation projects to counterbalance air travel and construction emissions that cannot be avoided, then the entire host city will be greened, literally with carbon-absorbing vegetation and in terms of sustainability.

Coming together

Lastly, the Olympic Games are special because the nations of the world assemble to celebrate something we all have in common: sport.

The reality of our changing climate is another experience that the whole world shares; around the world, people face many symptoms of the same disease – rising seas, shifting weather patterns, species dislocation, intensified storms, and threatened winter sports.

Let’s hope this is the last Winter Olympic Games to ignore the opportunity to place the threat of climate change on the world stage.

  1. Last week, Powder magazine editor Porter Fox published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The End of Snow?” The article mostly discusses the consequences to skiing, but also brings up the dangers our global meltdown poses to freshwater resources, alpine tourism, hydroelectric power, forest habitat, river ecosystems, and even food production. 
  2. Even as this January brought extreme cold and heavy snowfall to North America from the arctic, the ski industry worries that winters are getting too warm. U.S. average winter temperatures have risen 0.61 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the last forty years, and the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University reports that snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has declined at the same time, most markedly in the spring. Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of sustainability, expresses concern that as the globe warms, winters are heating up much faster than summers. In an interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, he laments that climate science is forecasting less and less total snowfall, yet more powerful blizzards, paradoxically. This combination of climate consequences makes it increasingly difficult for ski resorts to break even, much less prosper. If too little snowfall or too fierce storms prevent these operations from opening — and thus they can’t make money — then capital to invest in solutions like snowmaking, renewable energy, and even lobbying for climate policy, becomes scarce. 
  3. The Dow Chemical Company boasts that these Olympics are the first ever to mitigate the Games’ entire carbon footprint before the Opening Ceremony. Dow, through their ‘Sustainable Future’ program, has implemented energy-efficiency and agricultural projects to offset not only the emissions directly associated with the Sochi Olympiad, but also the travel of spectators and media attending the event. But can we really call the Olympics ‘carbon neutral’ just because offsite mitigation efforts will generate estimated emission reductions equal to the estimated emissions caused by the Winter Games? The idea behind carbon offsets is that global warming is a global phenomenon, so the location of emissions is irrelevant. In my opinion, this compartmentalized thinking oversimplifies climate change. Calculating greenhouse gas emissions is extraordinarily complex. The amount of carbon dioxide released during construction and the two-week Games is practically immeasurable because the gas escapes into the atmosphere in so many ways, according to Allen Hershkowitz, PhD., of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Projecting decreases in emissions from Dow’s carbon-abatement projects is even more difficult, in particular because plans are vague and will likely take years to complete. In general, outfitting power plants and factories with energy-efficient equipment often causes their owners to increase production, nullifying some of the projected emissions reductions for which someone may have received credit. And giving farmers low-till technology, advanced “fertilizers” and coaching on “state-of-the-art precision agriculture” hardly guarantees anything about their behavior, which will ultimately determine actual carbon savings. Dow’s other emission-offsetting projects involve retrofitting roads, buildings, and bridges with a super-strong, lightweight material to improve structural integrity. Evidently the emissions saved from decreased maintenance and extended service life for civil infrastructure outweigh the emissions from these construction projects’ diesel machinery and the production of the Carbon Fiber Reinforcement composites to be applied to old structures. Needless to say, skeptical observers often question the legitimacy of ‘third party-verified offset’ claims.