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Most important sustainability stories of 2017

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/19/17 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Transform

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In our annual tradition, we share some of the most important sustainability stories of the year.

Eco-economic decoupling, breaking the link between "environmental bads" and "economic goods,” gets our vote for story of the year. This chart from the U.S. Department of Energy shows overall power consumption in the U.S. dropped by 0.76% in 2017 while GDP rose 2.2%. Reducing the absolute carbon intensity of economic growth will be the most important environmental story to watch for years to come. Especially as energy use in 2018 is projected to increase, sharply, with natural gas drilling and pipelines expanding to keep prices at the pump and at home low.

2. After declining by 1.7% in 2016 and -0.8% in 2017, U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are projected to increase by 1.8% in 2018. The UN Climate Assessment has identified human produced carbon emissions as the leading contributor to the breaching of the earth’s systems—like the powerful hurricanes that ripped through Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Houston. Our second sustainability story of the year comes from the Assessment. It predicts we have only a 5% chance of keeping global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, which scientific consensus identified as a red line from the worst impacts.

3. This list is in danger of being all gloom and doom. Let’s focus story #3 on the rise of renewable energy. Wind power installed in the U.S. grew from 81 gigawatts in 2016 to 88 gigawatts in 2017. Meanwhile, electricity from coal continued to decline, rapidly. Ohio, where coal still dominates, reduced its power from coal by 17% in 2016 (most of that has been replaced with natural gas). Massachusetts, a state that is part of the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon trading market, reduced power from coal by 100%

Story #4 comes from phys.org, the magazine for physical sciences, which looked at 39 peer-reviewed studies to find the six most effective individual actions you can take to combat climate change. The top 4 in the list are, reducing the number of children you have by one, living car free (switching to a bike or transit), avoid one transcontinental flight per year, and purchasing 100% renewable energy (by selecting a vendor who buys renewables for you).

Story #5 reflects on the definitive evidence that community scale solutions, rather than individual actions, are the most effective in fighting climate change. This story comes from Knowledge Works and NNOCCI, who have produced an impressive body of evidence to support their findings. They are the experts behind activating common values of protecting natural resources using metaphors like ‘heat trapping blanket.’ On building a consensus around solutions to climate change, they write: "To truly address climate and ocean change, action at the collective level is essential—not just the aggregation of individual behaviors, but fundamental policy shifts that can, for example, spur wide-scale movement toward clean energy.”

Utility scale renewables in the form of a Lake Erie wind farm got a boost to the tune of a $40 million federal grant. A special hearing in Cleveland before the Ohio Power Citing Board was a hurdle that the wind farm cleared (despite a few, well meaning concerns from birding groups). The state’s blessing is key, but Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard staying in place could be the most important role in a P3 worth billions. Unfreezing the state RPS will secure the market conditions favorable for the first six mega turbines to be built that will produce clean energy for 10,000 Cleveland homes.

Second to unfreezing Ohio’s RPS is removing a provision that pushed wind turbine ‘set backs’ or distance from a neighbor’s property to the point of no return. Ohio leaders have recently introduced a bill to re-consider how important this policy is to clean energy jobs (150,000) in the state, and an estimated $2 billion in economic activity from wind power that was pushed to the sidelines. Ohio has an opportunity to bring its rules governing renewables in line with pro-business, industry standards.

“Driving is the unhealthiest activity right now in America” we wrote in this post about the uncertain future for the KXL pipeline. With autonomous vehicles expected to dominate the market and electric vehicles gaining in popularity, we explored the trends that promise to transform our mobility. Included in that is Cleveland and NOACA’s big push to fund the visionary, green, protected bike lane, The Midway, and a protected bike corridor on Lorain Avenue with a $40 million commitment to bike infrastructure. This following a much anticipated re striping of the Detroit-Superior Bridge with a protected bike lane, Cleveland’s first.

Public transit is under threat like never before with the Ohio medical services tax ending and the state in danger of letting a $196 million shortfall devastate its 62 transit systems and 88 counties. After an incredible effort to raise awareness of the thousands of people who would be left stranded, state legislators agreed last week to increase to $80 million its two-year stopgap measure (short of what’s needed but better than nothing). Now it’s up to the governor to approve before the end of the year.

Because Cleveland performs worse than its peer cities on an important sustainability/equity metric—access to employment—we analyzed the impact of billions invested by The Port of Cleveland through its economic development bonds over the last decade. We looked at the accessibility of the Port’s 64 funded projects, including a detailed analysis of the Eaton Corp. and American Greetings corporate relocations to the far suburbs from the urban core.

Other top stories of 2017

Tell us your most important sustainability story of 2017. Leave a comment!

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