Why the green sector needs to get better at Social Media and web communication — part two, sustainability & social media explained

In the last post, I explained why social media and an internet presence is so darn important, and what green companies and organizations have to gain from getting online. Now it’s time to dive into the great examples out there and have a look at how sustainability & social media can play together.


If you post it, they will come — Sustainability & Social Media are not enemies

sustainability & social media


Besides being a cornucopia of cat pictures and updates about your friends’ kids, your news stream is also an indicator of the world around you. If there’s an earthquake on the other side of the world, it’s in your news stream.

If there’s a local political scandal it’s in your news stream. And, if there’s a big environmental problem, it’s in your news stream.

Sharing is caring, and the things you choose to post about and interact with – and guess who’s paying attention to that. Big companies.

A few years ago I wrote about how Coca-cola serves as a good indicator of social change, but recently, our favorite supplier of oddly named furniture drove home my point.

Goliath awakens – because of 1 billion Davids

I’ve had the privilege of chatting with several people working in IKEA’s sustainability department. The Swedish giant has seen the writing on the wall and is following the demand of the customer, by committing to phase out single-use plastic products by 2020.

What caused it? Well, social media. A wave of videos and photos of plastic pollution, partitions, and articles showed us just how bad oceanic plastic pollution is. As IKEA’s spokesman said:

‘The latest move comes amid growing concern over plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, where it can harm and kill wildlife such as turtles and seabirds.’ 

Social Media holds enormous power and can, when used with a purpose, be a drive for social and environmental change.


LEGO and sustainabilityLEGO, McDonald’s, and IKEA – The cool kids are already doing it

Big companies have heard the roar of social media and are ready to follow their customers. IKEA is not alone in answering the call of social media.

LEGO is joying the field of sustainable heavyweights’ with an aim for 100% sustainable packaging by 2025. Disregarding my love for LEGO, this is impressive.

Finally, the golden arches know that consumers are fed up with the food giants negative impact on the environment. So, in a bold move, McDonald’s decided to promise a global switch to sustainable packaging including an aim to get 100 percent of its packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.

Furthermore, the burger pusher will make recycling available in all of its restaurants by 2025 – Today that number is around 10 percent.


All of this is a consequence of Social Media and the power of the internet. It’s easy to share information about the negative impact of big companies. And, for companies, it easy to promote themselves in a green light if they know how to navigate on these platforms.

Let’s look at what actually works on the internet. The answer is crap.

Who gives a crap – interview with founder Simon Griffiths

The internet is full of amazing things and if you can harvest the power of social media, you can bring your green product or cause into the spotlight within weeks. Let’s take a look at company Who Gives a Crap.

In short, the Australian based company sells toilet paper. What makes these guys special is, that company is a cover-up for a do-good organization.

The founders started it with the very basic – and noble – goal in mind:


‘We started Who Gives A Crap when we learned that 2.3 billion people across the world don’t have access to a toilet. That’s roughly 40% of the global population and means that around 289,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That’s almost 800 children per day, or one child every two minutes.’


Besides being one of the most inspiring companies I’ve ever come across, they also know how to rock the internet.

In July 2012, the founders launched Who Gives A Crap with a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. The CEO, Simon, sat on a toilet in a warehouse while being live-streamed!

This is what viewers saw when they tuned in to the live streaming of the last 50 hours of the fundraising.

I the final 50 hours of the campaign, they raised over $50,000 (watch the video here), and now had the capital to start the company.

The campaign has been praised in countless media and gathered a crowd of loyal supporters that would stay with them in years to come.

Why it worked — Social Media is fun!

This campaign had it all. It was fun, it was daring, it had an element of urgency, a great cause, a huge share-factor, and toilet humor, literally.

Crowdfunding has a built-in element of share-ready, meaning the entire platform and impact is based on you sharing your campaigns on social media, and then your friends and followers share it. Then, their friends share it, and so on.

The campaigns need to have a creative element, and this one potty-hottie sure did.

It placed itself in the spotlight by using an everyday activity and taking it to the extreme.

“Sitting on a toilet is relatable – sitting on the toilet for 50 hours is something no sane person would do, so obviously, you had to see it for yourself.” – Simon Griffeths, CEO

Who Gives a Crap is set up around (toilet) humor, a happy positive language, and a good cause.

2,3 billion people not having access to a toilet isn’t a fun fact. It’s a depressing fact, that’s so far been portrayed with pictures of sad and sick people. But too much bad news about the state of the world fosters apathy. This is the Backfire effect, which I wrote about previously.


Who Gives a Crap took a heavy, and in its nature negative subject, and made it something to care and laugh about — their website’s filled with jokes and perky, bright colors. It just makes you happy.


“But I can’t do that? Who’s gonna take us seriously?”


This response is common. There is, in general, a fear among green professionals to appear unprofessional if they make their content fun.

Like I said earlier the internet is a different place, and being a green professional is very different now from what it used to be.

The Who Gives a Crap campaign is an example of many business owners worst nightmare. You have to let go of control and let the internet swallow you.

What would the company itself say to this notion? I was lucky to get in touch with one of the founders, Simon Griffiths, and ask him. Simon says:


“Being able to use humor/irreverence in the brand depends on the industry you’re in, for example our charity partners probably couldn’t get away with it since the subject matter they’re dealing with is serious, but we sell toilet paper… there’s nothing too serious about toilet where we need to worry about treading lightly.”


While this is irrefutable logic, I still want to challenge it.*

Think about it, how many other toilet paper companies have you seen doing funny things? Ever?

I’ve seen none. Toilet paper commercials always feature puppies and babies, and that strange blue liquid to show how absorbent it is. Why do they assume I have blue pee?


Your turn — Here’s your 3-step homework

Yes, I’m giving you homework. We need to see your green work out there, so saddle up and let’s ride.

And yes, you can “cheat” and hire someone to do social media and web-presence for you, because what matters is, that you tell the world how you’re changing the world, why you’re doing it, and what your audience can do to get involved.



Step 1: Find you why

If you haven’t done this yet, now’s the time. Write down WHY you are doing the work you’re doing.


Why are you selling organic beauty products? And why are trying to get people to care about ocean pollution? Why do you want to stop climate change?


Whatever line of work you’re in, set aside at least 20 minutes to think hard about this. What are your values, why are you doing what you’re doing?


Don’t take the easy route. If you’re asking yourself, why do I want to stop climate change, and the only answer you come up with is, ‘because it’s important’ then you need to dig deeper? Why DO YOU think it’s important?

Do we have a moral obligation to future generations? Do you want security when you retire? Are you afraid that global climate change will mess with cocoa bean farming, resulting in shortages of chocolate — I am.

Dig until you get to the core of why you are in this particular niché, in this particular job.

This is, of course, the WHY of your business or organization.

If you’re the CEO of a small business, then it’s likely lines up with your personal WHY. If you’re a communication manager for an organization that deals with recycling (like I was), the WHY has to be formulated by your team and given the green light by upper management. And nope, 20 minutes is not gonna cut it.

Ready? Awesome! You get an A.


Step 2: How?

How is YOUR COMPANY making the world better?

It should be an easy question to answer, but often it’s not.

I go through this process with almost all my clients, to really dig out what they do, what sets them apart from conventional products, and where they add value to the lives of their customers.

Basically, you get soooo sucked into your work, that you grow blind to how awesome you really are.

Again, I recommend the Grandma test. If you were to explain what you do to your 80-something-year-old grandma, what would you say?

Got an answer? Great, now explain it again to your grandma’s 90-something-year-old friend.

Don’t get discouraged. This exercise does take some try’s, especially if you’re trying to see your blind spots.


Step 3: What now?

Yay, last part of the homework — high-five!

What can your audience do RIGHT NOW, to support your work, and make the world better?

Reuse a plastic bag? Buy your biodegradable cutlery? Sign a petition?


Did you tell them?

Just like any other relationship in your life, you need to tell the audience what you would like them to do. They’re not mind readers.

In fact, we desperately want to be more sustainable, but figuring out how is hard work. Just like you consult your cookbooks when you want to make tasty things, we’re looking for a guide to a greener way on living — help us out

*Hi there, Mr. Troll! Yes, you are absolutely right, of course, Simon’s point is, that their charity partners can’t use the same humor. But Simon is comparing Who Gives a Crap to a charity, not a toilet paper company. They are both, which allows for all the potty-related jokes you can squeeze out.

It’s hard to be green -Why green design to be the default option and how to do it

The following outlines how complexity can hinder good environmental actions, and how you as an environmental planner or product manufacturer can overcome it. And yes, I am going somewhere with the coffee story.


Hi, my name is Mona and I’m a coffee addict.

Seeing as it’s one of my only vises in life, I don’t really mind it. But it does mean that I am not a functional human being without my morning Joe, and that is what prompted today’s post.


I’m currently staying with some friends who are very techy. Their house is filled with robots, drones, and really cool gadgets. As well, their coffee maker is really advanced, you know the kind that has an inbuilt alarm so it can have the coffee ready for you before you’re out of bed. It also has an inbuilt grinder so you can get fresh coffee. Amazing, right? Wrong!

The darn thing never works, and in its effort to be as simple as possible, it only has one on/off button and a nob that also works as a button. This morning I spend 15 minutes trying to get it to grind the beans. 15! I’m not gonna brand shame so I won’t tell you the name of the coffee machine.

There were just too few buttons and no matter what I pushed, or in which order, it didn’t work. In the end, I gave up. I sat defeated and ate my breakfast with a glass of water.



Why am I telling you this? Because green design matters.


Because a coffee maker that’s too complicated to operate is a spot-on example of how our world is way more complicated than it needs to be.

And the same goes for acting environmentally friendly.

If you live in a westernized country or the metropolises of high-tech South East Asia, you probably have some sort of waste management and recycling scheme.

Those schemes have rules, and those rules are often really complicated and with a large set of exceptions. This is because of technical requirements from the waste treatment facilities. It makes recycling confusing for us mortals who just want to know how to sort our waste in the right way.


Likewise, if you’re gonna purchase a new car, and you want to get one that is environmentally friendly, what do you get? One with good mileage? An electric? A used car? Which is better? The answer is the same, ‘Well it depends…’

But we don’t want to dig into why there are so many differences in regards to buying an environmentally friendly car, we just want the answer: What is the best car I can buy if I care about the environment?


Acting environmentally friendly can be hard and complicated because our world is unnecessarily complicated.

If you promoting a greener behavior, or selling a green product, it is your job to make it as easy as possible for your audience/consumer, to do the right thing.


How to make sustainable products or services


Seeing as I still haven’t had coffee yet, I’ll give you the bare minimum.

Test it! Then test it. And then test it again.

If you’re asking someone to act in a different way, you need to test if what you are asking them is sufficiently easy and understandable. Test your message or product over and over until you have made it as approachable as possible.


I call this the Grandma Test.

Green Design How To

Edit (06.08.18): I was actually meeting my grandma after writing this, so I took the opportunity to put a face to the concept. Here she is.

If I can explain something in a way that even my stubborn, 82-year-old grandma gets it, then I’m on to something.

My formal education is Technological Socio-Economical Planner.


That fails the grandma test massively. Therefore I and most of my old uni buddies boil it down to the essence: Environmental Planner. Or as grandma says, ‘Something with environment.’


This is where the discussion of dumbing down usually comes up. I will say this until I am in my grave:

It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about removing unnecessary complexity.

I’m not a stupid person, nor am I a tech illiterate, but I’ll remind you that I battled the coffee maker for 15 minutes, and lost!

That’s what happens when things get too fancy.


Maybe when I have had my coffee, I’ll write the post about why humans always make things more complicated and what it means for our environment, and society as a whole.


For now, I highly advise you that whatever change you want to make in the world, you make sure that your actions are easy to follow and that you keep your instructions clear.

And on that note, I’m gonna dig out the old school Italian espresso maker, because that never fails me.

Want more caffeinated advice on pro-environmental behavior? Add me on LinkedIn or go to Somethinggreen.org to get your dose.

You have global DNA – and it can impact climate change action

This video is circling the internet today and it resonated vastly with a thought I was having this morning. You can no longer isolate yourself in your own country, shut the blinds on the global community and not care.

Every week, several times a week, there a devastating news abut the impacts of climate change. And there are good news. But what the heartbreaking and the hope giving news have in common is, that it is global news. The loss is global, and the gain is global.


We all need to see beyond language and borders if we are to decide what role humanity has on this planet.


March for Paris

The terror attack in Paris was no doubt tragic, heartbreaking , and unjust.


In the days that followed environmentalist around the world voiced our concern, that this would take focus from COP21 and belittle our need for a climate change agreement.


Yesterday it was published, that the Parisian police will not allow for a climate march in Paris due to security reasons.


But the more people who protest the, better the chances of a climate agreement are. If you want to let your voice be heard, march.

If you want to give the people of Paris a chance to let their voices be heard, march for them.

In the weekend 28-29th of November, thousands of climate marches are taking place all over the world. To find the one nearest to you, simple go to globalclimatemarch.org and type your city.


It’s the easiest thing in the world. You just show up. See you at the march.


Environmental Extremist part 2- Overcoming Loss Aversion

This is the second post on the subject of Loss Aversion. If you missed the first post about why environmental extremists are both inspirational and scary, read it here. 


What if I had nothing?

Turning the question of loss aversion upside down, what would actually happen if you had nothing? Or at least less than you have now? Look around you. How many things would you really miss if you didn’t have them?

Untitled by Janne Uusitalo

Untitled by Janne Uusitalo

A Danish television documentary aired last year about this subject. 4 people in their 20’s, gave up Everything they owned for 30 days –including their clothes. They were allowed to choose one thing each day, to take back. Not surprisingly, they all chose a onezy the first day.

And then it got interesting. When you have to choose everything in your life very carefully, what do you choose first? The bed? Toothbrush? iPad?
And more importantly, what would you actually miss?

When you have covered all your basic needs, clothing, wallet, bed, hygiene products, do you still miss all the other things?

The answer, not surprisingly, was no. It’s a very few things we actually miss once we’ve lost, or given them up. The fear of loss is much greater than the loss itself.

I would like to live like that, but…

When we read about people who seemingly give up a lot to live sustainable, we tell ourselves, that we would like to do the same, but we can’t possibly do it in reality. It’s scary. Those inspirational people have to be a bit crazy in order to give those things up, right? And you’re not crazy, you’re not that extreme. You will make the smart choice -recycle your waste instead.

So the people who started out being an inspiration, have now almost turned into a scare tactic. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read and learn from these people, or even try to copy them.

It has to start somewhere.

Remember when people who ate only organic seemed inspirational and extreme? Or when some people bought an electric car? Or when women started voting? Wow,
those were some extreme changes, right?

BeTheChangeThe more people who actually adopt an “extreme” behavior, the faster it becomes the new norm. What was radical, extreme, and just too much yesterday, is called progress today. Getting really cheesy for a moment, Gandhi was right.

(Fun fact, Gandhi never said Be the change, though he is often misquoted for it. What he said was: As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him)


What to do instead: Focus on the gains

So if you’re planning an environmental campaign, or pushing for environmental legislation, this is what you should do. Focus on the gains.

Do not highlight, or ”sell” all the things you have to give up. We’ve all seen those campaigns.

Do good for the environment! Stop this, cut down on that! Do it for the children!

They don’t work. At best they leave us indifferent, a worst they distance us further for the problem, and hence from acting. Instead, put the focus on the positive derived effects, the things you gain.

More happiness, more time. Better water quality. Fewer droughts. Higher job security. Better cash flow. A more stress-free life, longer life, more smiles in the mirror each morning. Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to an article about how people become happier when they recycle.

Wait a second! Are you selling bulls***?

If you’re thinking, ‘No way man! Doing good for the environment doesn’t have any positive side effects, at least not in my line of business’, I would like to challenge you to a duel, good sir. Or madam.

The hidden costs of pollution and climate change are much, much greater than the current price tag. Hence, the positives effects of minimizing, or eliminating pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues, are greater than publicly debated. Go here for more info on the hidden cost of environmental services.

Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it:

For environmental planners and campaign managers:

If you feel your cause isn’t “selling”, take 20-30 min where you turn the situation up-side-down, What is the negative cost of not changing this behavior? What positive benefits are you not seeing?

If you really can’t find any, post the issue in the comments, or mail it to me. I will try to find the highlights. If I can’t do this, I will send a great big gift basket to your office, and dedicate an entire blog post to you and your field.


For people who find themselves inspired, and scared when coming across a person who does something extreme for the environment:

Make a list of the 20 things in your life that you could absolutely not go without.

Did you actually make it to 20 without thinking, ‘Hmmm, this is actually a nice to have’?

Now take the 10 things that are the least need on that list. What would be the worst outcome of losing them? And is that a realistic outcome? Would it really be so bad to give up those things?

My guess is, that more than half of the things on your need list, should actually be on the nice list. Comment below on the most surprising finding.

Summing up, you wouldn’t miss it as much as you think

There you have it. Loss aversion keeps us from adopting what we find to be an extreme environmental behavior. Find the positive gains instead, and focus on them.

And now that I’ve overspent my use of the word extreme, here is a treat for sticking around to the end of the post. I give you the Extreme Mix scene from Harrold and Kumar go to White Castle – With a special shout out to Jonhard West.


Making sustainability the default option – CO2, chopsticks …And organ donors 

I love fun facts. Recently, I came across one of those fun fact articles about how we are destroying the planet, with our overconsumptions of weird products. One of the facts where:

‘About 3.8 million trees are cut down to produce 57 billion disposable pairs of chopsticks every year,’

That’s a lot of chopsticks

Many of them are going towards restaurants in Asia. According to the article 77% of them are produced for Japan alone. But it still made me think about my own relationship with disposable chopsticks.

The number kept ringing in my head; 3.8 million trees. Just think of all that carbon dioxide they could be absorbing.

It turns out that one tree can absorb about 21,8 kg of CO2 per year. That translates to roughly 8.300 ton per year in chopsticks alone! And this is not counting the paper wrapping, water used for manufacture, or transportation.

It disturbed me, because every time I order sushi, I get extra chopstick -even when I make a note on my order that I don’t need them. I have my own special chopsticks that I really like using, so the disposable chopstick end up in a drawer and gets used for crafts at some point – or end up in the bin. This is a picture of a craft project I used it for.

The Tiny Tempel. A tiny art project created, and burned, for Balsa Man Denmark 2014

The Tiny Tempel. A tiny art project created, and burned, for Balsa Man Denmark 2014

I doubt that I am the only person with nice chopsticks at home, who would prefer to not have the disposable ones added to their order.

But growing trees is good for the environment, right?

Some have pointed out, that the trees used for chopsticks are actually good for the environment, as they assure that land area is reserved for trees, and not concrete og buildings. And yes, this is true, but it’s not the whole story.

When planting “chopstick fields”, farmers/companies plant monoculture crops. This means they only plant one species of trees or crops. Like palm oil plantations only have palm trees. This has negative effects on the environment as they cause soil erosion, and a loss in biodiversity.

By removing forest areas to make way for monoculture, you have already released more carbon dioxide, than you will absorb with monoculture chopstick fields. So how do we solve the problem of too many chopsticks?

Instead of thinking of way to recycle them, or using them as a downgraded end product, like my craft ideas, we might as well grab the problem at the root, before you, and I, get them added to our order.

Learning from other fields – A lesson from organ donations

One smart solution could be, that you had to add chopstick to and order, for a small amount of money. So you would have to actively add chopsticks to your order. By having ‘No chopsticks’ as the default method, you enter the field of POLR, Path Of Least Resistance.

The term comes from the field of psychology and behavioral change – it’s used often in the popular ‘Nudging’ campaigns, where a certain action is wanted. A great example of POLR is the Austrian organ donor program.

In short, instead of campaigning to get people to opt in and actively sign op for organ donation, the Austrian government changed the regulations and made every citizen an organ donor by default. You could of course opt out. And plenty of easy opt out solutions where presented to the public. And the result?

In Austria, about 99% of the population are organ donors. 99%. In comparison, Germany has 12%. Is this because Germans are egocentric people who want to keep their organs inside their corps? No, it’s all to do with the system, and the amount of hard, and easy choices you have to make.

Imbed smarter systems and make sustainability the default option.

Imbed smarter systems and make sustainability the default option.

Making organ donation the default option, takes away the resistance that keep people from signing op as an organ donor.

you think to yourself: ‘It’s a hassle, and I might even have to choose which organs to donate, and witch not to. I would maybe have to discuss it with your next of kind.

…Wow, that’s not a nice conversation. Honey, if I die, would you like to keep any of my body part? Better wait. Better sign up some other day. Take some time to think about it to make sure we make the right decision’. And then we never sign up.

‘Av! Stop thinking so much!’

Sincerely, your lazy brain 

Decisions are hard. They eat up energy. And we make decisions everyday, all day. Hence, the choice of sustainability should be default, and not something that requires too much energy from us. And it certainly shouldn’t require a lot of extra time, money, and discomfort.

So, back to the chopsticks. Using the above knowledge lets implement a system, where you would have to actively add chopsticks to your order. This would:

a) save environmental costs,

b) save money for the restaurant owners, seeing as they would need to buy less chopsticks, and

c) allow me to use my nice chopsticks without throwing the disposable ones in the trash.


I actually wrote to a big Danish take-out company, Just-Eat, and asked them if this was possible. I got a great answer from them. I’ll share it in a follow up post.

But right now, I’m gonna eat some sushi with my nice chopsticks.


Ps. Help generate some chopstick data!

What’s you chopstick status? Fill out this super short google form, or tell me in the comment, what you do with your excess chopsticks. Then we have more data for the follow up post.


I lot of people helped motivate and inspire me to write this. I am very grateful! A special thanks to Courtney King for motivations and support.

Great news! Dutch government ordered to cut CO2 emissions

Great news! The Netherlands just did something amazing in terms of climate policy. They sued their government – and won!

I won’t go into details now, but in short, the lawsuit was brought under human rights laws by the sustainability foundation Urgenda, claiming that government need to take actual steps to prevent climate change, in order to protect it’s citizens.

Flood risk Netherland

The Netherlands are particularly vulnerable to flooding as a result of global climate change. -PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

This means: the Dutch government can lo longer make promises about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and not follow through.

This news is groundbreaking in the field of climate policy, seeing as all former promised to reduce greenhouse gas, has been on a volunteer basis, with no consequences if the government failed.

“It is also the first case in the world in which human rights are used as a legal basis to protect citizens against climate change.” – Urgenda.

We have now entered a new era, in which citizens can prosecute their government for not taking the appropriate measures to combat climate change.


3rd world problems in a 1st world country – why more attention to mitigation is needed.

Denmark has in recent years had above average rainfall resulting in above average flooding, many of them record breaking. Like the extreme rainfall of July 2nd 2011 in Copenhagen that resulted in massive flooding all over the city and left 50.000 households without hot water. That amount of rain was described as a statistical abnormality, one that should only occur every 300-500 years (Director of water and sewage in Copenhagen’s energy department). The picture below is from that flooding.

(Photo by Michael Barrett Boesen/Polfoto)

On August 14th Copenhagen again experienced heavy rainfall, this time with less flooding, but it was enough to damage the worn and old sewage system, and the fresh water pipelines came into contact with rain and sewage water. On the 18th of August a warning was issued in Copenhagen. Doe to water contamination citizens must boil the water before drinking it, showering in it or using it for dish or cloth washing. On the 23rd of August the problem still affected 40.000 citizens which still had to boil their water. It has been underlined that this was a special event, an unlikely combination of heavy rain and a malfunctioning pipeline. A double accident if you will. From a risk management view this isn’t something that should be feared because it’s too unlikely.

Human beings have the flaw that we have trouble comprehending the damage of, and therefore ensuring ourselves against, a double accident. Another example of this is the near catastrophe that happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, March 2011. The plant had been insured against earthquakes and it had been insured against tsunamis and floods, but it hadn’t been insured against first being hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. The thought of such a double accident was incomprehensible and therefore not planned for. On a much smaller scale, it’s the same with sewage systems. A busted pipe combined with a flooding. Unlikely, and therefore not planned for.

Denmark is a 1st. word country, one that isn’t used to water contamination or having to import drinking water. We have good infrastructure and good health. Denmark is a well-oiled machinery that ensures its citizens an almost sickening level of security and comfort. But we have to make some swift decisions if we want to keep that up. The sewage problem must be delt with. The pictures below are from my building block as it is gearing up to change some of the bad pipes. Sights like these are common in Copenhagen these days.


(Photo by Mona Jensen)

Meanwhile the electoral race is on, and the hunt for votes has got the political parties presenting one elaborate plan after the other on how to best serve citizens. But not a single party or candidate has mentioned the sewage problem. It’s commonly known that the added run-of from re-pavement of the city, combined with heavier rainfalls, exceed the capacity of the sewer, but still no one is addressing the problem. Mitigation needs to have a place on the public agenda next to health care and taxes, because ignoring the need for mitigation will only ad costs to our health and our national bugged. For once we actually need to talk more about the weather and how to deal with it.

(Photo by Mona Jensen)

Sustainable and the City – An eco girl in New York

The following post argues that there will be no transformation in the energy sector, until there is both a need in society for renewable energy, a willing government, and a public demand*.

Being a sustainability geek, visiting New York City was a dream come true. New York City has one of the most ambitious green infrastructure plans in the world –and they have a lot of green roofs, which I absolutely love. In fact, they plan to put green structure on 10% of NYC’s non permeable surfaces by the year 2030, this being in the form of green roofs, pocket parks and the likes.

Green structure will function as both stormwater management, relieving stress on the sewer system, a rain water purifying filter and, where the green structure is in the form of a green roof, will save energy on both heating and cooling.

The best part; it’s cheaper than fixing up the sewer system. Hurray! So little Miss ecogeek here was thrilled about visiting this magical green structure wonderland. I went there in late December 2010, 2 days before the big blizzard hit (lucky me for not stranding).

Me in NYC -yay!

If you’ve been to NYC in the winter, or any American city I fear, you will know that it is very draughty. I was shocked! Shocked and very cold. No matter what building I entered, I felt that draught. I started becoming obsessed with it, spotting the single layered windows, and the doors without weather strip, wondering how much, if any, insulation was in the walls.

My green wonderland had turned out to be one big waste of energy. Not mine, but the inhabitant’s of New York. I kept thinking about all that heat and hence all the money slipping through the endless cracks, and unsealed doors in the buildings.

To make matter worse, the buildings are heated by a local furnace or electrical heathers which are very energy inefficient compared to a heat- and power plant, where waste is burnt to create heating and electricity. Instead the NYC waste is going to landfill, and the buildings are being heated with non-renewable, and costly oil. My eco heart was broken. How could this be?

I was fortunate to have lunch with a journalist one day, and we had a talk about it. I told him about the conditions in Denmark where we, as mentioned in a previous post, have fairly good insulation in our buildings. He said to me, “Yeah, but we didn’t have any wars, so we didn’t need to rebuild our city, and therefore didn’t put in more insulation, or double layered windows.” Then the lunch ended and so did the conversation. I couldn’t let it go, because well, Denmark didn’t have wars either.
In Denmark, land of the cozy, we haven’t seen wars for 70 years. We’re a comfy crowd, and even in World War II when we were occupied by Germany, nothing got bombed. So why aren’t our buildings draughty?

What caused Denmark to rethink and redo its energy system, was the oil crises of the 70’s, combined with a government with high focus on the environment, and a public demand for cheaper, safer energy.

It’s a 3 point system, the tripod if you will.

There must be a need in society, that pressures for action. There must to be a government who is willing to execute elaborate plans. And there must to be a public that voices and influences in which direction the plans should move.

The 70’s oil crises shock the global notion that we will always have enough affordable oil. Let’s compare situations. Was the US affected by the 70’s oil crisis? Yes, but back then they had a rising oil production, so their outlook was that they could be almost self sufficient. Denmark on the other hand was in trouble. We needed something to free us from the dependence on forging oil (since we had none back then), and fast.

Seeing as the public was not keen on the idea of nuclear power, and voiced it loud and clear, there were two things left to do; find alternative ways of producing heat and electricity, and simply use less heat and electricity. So in other words..;

The Danes got to work.

We build and integrated heat and power plants, and then exported the knowledge and technology to other countries. We invested hugely in windpower, paving way for the Danish windpower company Vestas, the leading in its field. We gave subsidies to home improvement, such as double layered windows and insulation, thus enabling regular folks to make the necessary improvements. The demand for insulation also made the Danish company Rockwool, the leading insulation company in the world. When life hands you lemons…

Photo via treehugger

Government investments and subsidies, created leading companies in the field of renewable energy and energy savings.  Now you might say “Oh, but this is obviously the makings of a socialist state”. Well no, the government initiatives came as a response to the public demand for cheaper, safer energy, and of the public discourse that renewable energy was good, and nuclear power was bad.

The public had a strong voice, rooted in strong, organized, cooperating environmental NGO’s. If you wanna keep being the elected official, you listen to that public voice, and you give them what they want. Of course by doing so you always risk losing voters that would rather have tax cuts than cheaper energy, so as an elected official, you must have the will to act. It’s common sense really, but 30 years later we forget why or how this change happened.

To sum up, in order to achieve change in the energy sector there must be a need in society, a government that is up for a lot of policy making, and a public demand for change.

Eventually a need in society will come by itself. We have a lot of potential scarcity crises waiting around the corner. It’s gonna hurt, but at least we will have one of the 3 pillars to push for change. Now all we need is a Government with willpower, and a public with a voice.

Oh, by the way, I was writing notes for this in a draughty NYC apartment in lower Manhattan.

*End note:

I’ve separated need and demand in this post. You could ague that a need will trigger a demand, but this mostly goes for urgent needs. Once we, as a global society, are in urgent need of a more sustainable energy supply, it will be to late to efficiently, and smoothly make the transition. And on the other hand, you can have a public demand, that doesn’t necessarily have a matching need – like the public demand for a death star.

Poop Apocalypse – The importance of thinking bio energy plans through

I’ve mentioned before that meeting a future oil crisis most will likely hurt. But how can we prevent it, and what are the draw backs of those solutions?

In Denmark, we look crisis in the eye, and underestimate it. So when we saw that the North Sea oil was running out, we established a climate commission that would work out how Denmark would become fossil fuel independent by 2050. The short version of the report can be found here, in english. I was fortunate to attend a lecture by one of the 8 people on the committee. Even more fortunate to receive one of his two hard copies of the climate report –I’m just that kind of gal. But back to the point. It is, according to the climate commission’s report, more than possible that Denmark become fossil fuel independent by the year 2050. And there was much rejoicing. However, there are circumstances. Most of the report promotes bio fuels, as the least expensive way to achieve this goal.

In short bio fuels are extracted from either crops such as sugar or corn, or from byproducts, such as household kitchen waste or animal waste. And yes, animal waste is feces and urine. This creates  biomass, from which bio- ethanol, biogas and other biofuels can be extracted.

It is speculated, that if Denmark goes all in on Bio fuels, while the rest of Europe stand by and watches, we will make a great profit on biofuels, and will experience the wind turbine adventure part two. But if the rest of Europe follows, we will struggle to produce enough biomass to meet our own needs.

Problem a) The definition of the system.

In the above mentioned, the system only contains Denmark. If we assume that our surroundings won’t act as we do, we will make a huge profit. But can we afford to think like that? When planning for your country’s future energy supply, you need to examine the situation holistically, from start to end. You can’t discard the rest of the world. I’m pretty sure they too would like heat, gas, electricity and something to run their cars on.

Problem b) The poop.

Bio fuel is great alternative to both fossil fuel and wind turbines, but we have to fully grasp their impact. Here an example. And yes, this really happened.

Some of my fellow students did a study on a biomass plant in Kenya, where the waste of a public toilet and bath house, was used to produce biogas. It’s was a 2-for-1 deal. Give the community good toilet and bath facilities, and get an energy source out of it. Use human waste to make gas. The students visited the plant to investigate and suggest improvements for the biogas facility. The plans for the facility were thought up almost 6 years go. Here’s the great part:

When the facility was planed, built and then 3 years ago taken to use, there was no plan, non what so ever, for how to dispose of the sludge. So in 2010 they had been operating for 3 years and now their tanks were full. No one had thought of what to do with the sludge once the tanks were filled. Now, when they needed to make some space in the tanks, they just kindof… well, emptied them in the Nairobi river. Let that one sit for a bit.

They did not foresee the eventual capacity of the tanks. There were no long term plans, and now all the sludge, all that human waste, is going into the Nairobi River. I wonder what else goes into that river? I wonder how many people wash themselves in that river? How could this happen? Is it the illiterate 3rd world countries that are just too far behind the tech curve to plan and operate such facilities? It must be, right? Nope. This project is a 1st to 3rd world aid project, like so many others. What whent wrong here, was communication and logistics. It was simply somebody else’s problem.


Problem c) The resources

You might be thinking ‘Why use poop? Why not keep using crops?’

Remember the global food crisis a few years back, when prices on corn and flower sky rocketed, sending millions of people into starvation? One of the main reasons for that was the increased use of crops to produce biofuel, which expanded the demand for corn and other crops that can be used for biofuels, making prices rise.

If you’ve got your beat on the biofuel pulse you might be saying ‘Well, yes that was the 1st generation bio fuel. Then came the 2nd generation where byproducts from farming was used, and now the 3rd generation of biofuels, where algae is used instead of crops, is showing great potential’.

Right you are. Algae holds a far greater potential energy that crops, without making food prices soar. However, you still need to produce a huge amount of algae if you want to provide fuel for the entire world. The algae has to be farmed, and this takes up a lot of space. The barren desserts in the U.S. have been suggested for mega algae farming facilities, which might look something like this.

Image by John MacNiell via inhabitat.com

But it’s in no way enough to meet energy demands of the world, even if you place such farms in all barren, but accessible, regions of the world.

Growing up we have all been told, that we should not put all our eggs in one basked. The future energy supply is not an exception. Betting on only one source of energy to sustain the energy need for tomorrow, whether it be wind power, biofuels, nuclear power or crude oil, will cause more problems than solutions. Holistic thinking, where more than just the neighbouring system is included. As well, viewing the full life cycle of your energy source, including resource availability and disposal of byproducts, is essential for securing energy and other resources. This along with global awareness, combined solutions and good communication will keep us from smashing all our eggs, that we so far still carry in one basket.

Extra note on bio fuels, added January 22: On the 21nd the Los Angeles Times ran this article about how the EPA will now allow for up to 15% ethanol blended in gasoline for cars produced after 2001. This will on one hand shift the power balance a tiny bit, from a crude oil dependent future, to a more sustainable economy, and better yet, to a smooth transition. But it is still important to not view biofuels as the only way to a renewable energy source. Replacing one addiction with another is not a cure.