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Don't even think about it: Why we are wired to ignore climate change

Published August 22, 2014
Don't even think about it: Why we are wired to ignore climate change

Some Personal and Highly Biased Ideas for Digging Our Way Out of This Hole

Climate change is a scientific fact. Scientists have become so bruised by their political battles that they have come to use much weaker language, declaring that climate change is "very likely" or "unequivocal." Let's just call it a fact, because that is what it is. There is plenty of uncertainty around how the climate is responding to these enormous changes, but being uncertain is not the same as being unsure.

Scientists are remarkably sure that climate change is bringing major impacts — they simply cannot with absolute certainty disentangle the web of cause and effect. The word certain is one of those many false friends of words that scientists use in a particular and unusual meaning. In regard to climate change, we are frequently divided by our common language.

Our psychological obstacles are also a scientific fact. The large body of rigorous research-based evidence suggests that climate change struggles to overcome numerous biases against threats that appear to be distant in time and place. We need to make these explicit and recognize that many may be subconscious.

To create proximity we need to EMPHASIZE THAT CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING HERE AND NOW. In particular, we should BE WARY OF CREATING DISTANCE by framing climate change as a future threat for people far away and, especially, as a threat for nonhumans, however cute they might be.

Our sense of loss looks backward rather than forward, and research suggests that people are more motivated to restore lost environmental quality than improve current environmental quality. There is therefore a potential to express climate change as an opportunity to RESTORE PAST LOSS, whether it is social (lost community, values, purpose) or environmental (lost ecosystems, species, or beauty). The rapidly growing movement for the rewilding of degraded landscapes is an interesting response to the uncertainties of future loss.

Cover of Don't Even Think About it: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate ChangeWe are very well adapted to respond to immediate threats but slow to accommodate moving change. Climate change is a process, not an event, so it requires that we RECOGNIZE MOMENTS OF PROXIMITY that can demand attention. These may be moments of political decision making, collective action, or generated conflict. In my view, the Keystone XL pipeline is a legitimate attempt to create a historic moment. Those critics who argue that the pipeline will only ever be a small part of overall U.S. emissions are missing the point. Their complaint is like saying that the locations of seats at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth's or on the Montgomery buses were trifling examples of racial segregation.

Sometimes the act of CREATING THE SYMBOLIC MOMENT is far more important than its overall relevance.

Extreme weather events create a moment of proximity and heightened awareness, but also of the increased in-group loyalty and anxiety that can readily exclude consideration of climate change. Even when confronted with direct evidence of climate extremes, the main influence on people's attitudes will still be the views of the people they know and trust.

The interference of outsiders will very likely be counterproductive in such situations, and the best option for building conviction lies with providing the information for trusted local communicators to OPEN UP A CONVERSATION ABOUT LONG-TERM PREPAREDNESS.

Preparedness and adaptation are routes for people to accept that climate change is real and already under way — and, as I have shown, it is possible to build a discussion around these topics even when it is politically taboo to talk about the wider issues. However, these approaches will always be specific to each context.

Whatever the findings of psychology experiments with their WEIRD experimental subjects, we need to remember that not everyone wants to protect the status quo, especially if they are already struggling against economic and social injustice. So we need a NARRATIVE OF POSITIVE CHANGE, in which our adaptation to climate change does not just protect what is already here but also creates a more just and equitable world.

Climate change is a narrative, shaped through social negotiations and transmitted between peers. People form their response to the narratives, not the science, and so it always needs to FOLLOW NARRATIVE RULES, WITH RECOGNIZEABLE ACTORS, MOTIVES, CAUSES, AND EFFECTS. People will be inclined to follow the most compelling narrative, so be careful: DON'T LET THE NARRATIVE TAKE OVER the way we think or talk about it.

We interpret climate change through frames, which focus our attention but limit our understanding — they allow us to exclude or ignore meanings that lie outside the frame. Most of the factors that enable us to ignore climate change derive from attempts to limit its meaning; that it is an environmental issue, a threat or an opportunity (but not both), a wellhead problem or a tailpipe problem (but not both). So, RESIST SIMPLE FRAMINGS and BE OPEN TO NEW MEANINGS.

Because climate change is a wicked problem, it can easily become defined entirely by its own framings and the solutions we propose, and policy makers can easily become locked into the simple one-off solutions that solve tamer problems. We all need to ENSURE THAT A WIDE RANGE OF SOLUTIONS IS CONSTANTLY UNDER REVIEW — a process that planners call iterative risk management.

Frames define battlegrounds, and so limited frames can lead to false debates. Arguments that renewable energy brings greater energy security encourage the expansion of domestic fossil fuels. Arguments that the low-carbon economy will bring jobs become vulnerable to evidence that the high-carbon economy might bring more jobs. As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff says, NEVER ACCEPT YOUR OPPONENT'S FRAMES — "don't negate them, or repeat them, or structure your arguments to counter them."

The presence of enemies with the intention to do harm engages our moral brain and energizes our outrage. However, climate change lacks clear enemies: We all contribute to this problem and all stand to suffer its impacts. This is an incomplete and uncompelling narrative, and activists on all sides seek enemies that can fill these missing roles of good against evil, David against Goliath, might against right.

We need major change, and change requires social movements. Some argue that movements need enemies, and this may well be true for generating rapid change. However, there is also a price to pay. This is an in-group, out-group game, so BE CAREFUL THAT ENEMY NARRATIVES DO NOT FUEL DIVISION or agitate deep-rooted and distracting animosities at a time when we need to be finding common purpose. My view is that campaign narratives could experiment more with alternative narrative traditions, for example CREATE A HEROIC QUEST in which the enemy may be our internal weaknesses rather than an outside group.

Overall, we need to BUILD A NARRATIVE OF COOPERATION that can bring people together around a common cause. This should STRESS COOPERATION NOT UNITY — we do not have to become the same people, and conservatives in particular require well-defined differences rather than a merger. ACCEPT THE SPECTRUM OF APPROACHES with radical protesters, lobbyists, policy makers, and multiple different sectors, all pushing in the same direction if not with the same detailed objectives.

In the way that we tell the climate change story, we need to BE HONEST ABOUT THE DANGER — but remember that this will only motivate people if they hear it from trusted communicators and can see opportunities for action and change. ENCOURAGE POSITIVE VISIONS, but remember that these may carry social cues that may repel others. The bright side technocratic future vision, for example, is elitist and materialistic, and alienates those who already feel disenfranchised.

Credit: fotoaloja via ShutterstockWhen people say that climate change requires a values change, they invariably mean that other people need to change to their values. In fact we all hold the right values, and humans have an extraordinary capacity to empathize and care about the welfare of others. The problem is that we have not all engaged the right values with this issue. The challenge is how to best ACTIVATE COOPERATIVE VALUES RATHER THAN COMPETITIVE VALUES. STRESS WHAT WE HAVE IN COMMON: a better life for our children, health, security, thriving communities.

By contrast, attempts to motivate people though appeals to personal self-interest are unlikely to be successful. Contrary to the assumptions of conventional communications, extensive research confirms that people are poorly motivated by money. Money is important, but it is a proxy for other ends: security, caring for your family, and social identity, which could be addressed in other ways. It is far more effective to RELATE SOLUTIONS TO CLIMATE CHANGE TO THE SOURCES OF HAPPINESS, and the connections we feel with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

People are best motivated when an action reinforces their identity and sense of belonging to their social group. EMPHASIZE THAT ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE MAKES US PROUD TO BE WHO WE ARE, and reinforce this with the social cues and social proof that people like ourselves are seen as concerned and taking action. Most communication around climate change and low-carbon behaviors is anti-replicating, based around loneliness, isolation, and despair. So ENABLE COMMUNICATIONS WITH BUILT-IN INTERACTION that can be passed between peers and create visible social norms. We need to stop regarding climate change as an isolated intellectual exercise and CREATE COMMUNITIES OF SHARED CONVICTION within which people can share their doubts and fears and draw on the strength of shared commitment.

Climate change is a science and a conviction. Following the division built into our own brains between our rational and emotional processing systems, it is entirely possible to know about climate change and yet not to fully believe in it. Conviction is the critical process by which we incorporate climate change into our moral framework and accept the need for action.

A conviction is not a blind faith: We should continue to KEEP AN OPEN MIND. There is an excessive level of closed-mindedness on all sides, and two-thirds of people say that they will never change their minds about climate change. Because climate change is ambiguous and multivalent, it is open to multiple interpretations. So BE ALERT TO YOUR OWN BIAS and to your own innate tendency to select the information that confirms your existing views.

Credit: altanaka via ShutterstockREMEMBER THAT EXPERTS CAN ALSO BE BIASED by their own specialism or worldview. Clever people indulge in clever confirmation bias. Experts are human too and are also coping with their own internal conflicts, which they may be projecting onto the way that they interpret climate change. So always SEEK OUT A WIDE RANGE OF VIEWS.

Listen to people who disagree with you, and recognize that they can sometimes be a source of insight and alert you to your own bias. DEBATE IS USEFUL so LEARN FROM YOUR CRITICS.

And, for the benefit of conservatives and skeptics, I would add that you, too, should listen to the other side and RESPECT ENVIRONMENTALISTS, who have worked for three decades to keep this issue alive. If you do not like what they say, then you should become more involved in building positive solutions around your values rather than fighting a losing battle to undermine the science.

We should BE PREPARED TO LEARN FROM RELIGIONS and the thousands of years of experience they have in creating methods to sustain socially held belief. This does not mean that climate change is a religion, any more than a declared belief in the right to personal freedom, sound finance, or the strength of the military are religions — these are statements of commitment to personally held ideals (taken, as it happens, from Republican presidents).

Learning from religions, we can PRESENT CLIMATE CHANGE AS A JOURNEY OF CONVICTION which will contain periods of doubt and uncertainty as well as moments of personal revelation and sudden awareness.

Encourage people to explain, in their own words, these moments and the process by which they came to terms with the science, recognizing that conviction is sometimes hard to maintain and needs to be reaffirmed.

We should also CREATE MOMENTS OF COMMITMENT and FRAME CLIMATE CHANGE AS AN INFORMED CHOICE between desirable and catastrophic outcomes, in which people can understand that inaction is itself a choice in favor of severe climate change.

To break through the self-interest of our cognitive biases, and fully activate our emotional brain, we need to INVOKE THE NON-NEGOTIABLE SACRED VALUES that would enable people to make short-term sacrifices for the long-term collective good — for example, values that prohibit destroying a precious cultural asset, inflicting harm on the weak or innocent, abusing God's creation, and being cruel to our parents or children.

In the formation of conviction, trust is more important than information.

Communicators, especially scientists, should learn to EMPHASIZE THE QUALITIES THAT CREATE TRUST (their independence, values, accountability) and especially TELL PERSONAL STORIES. Communicators should talk about their personal journey, especially if they have come to their conviction from a position of doubt.

They should BE EMOTIONALLY HONEST, talking openly about their hopes, fear, and anxieties.

Moral consistency is especially important for trust. If you wish to communicate climate change, you need to RECOGNIZE THE ROLE OF YOUR OWN EMISSIONS, not least because a high-emission lifestyle will inevitably corrupt your own judgment, and you should share your own struggle and success in reducing them.

Campaigners and politicians love to fantasize that a huge top-down communications projects will finally knock it into people's heads. They are unlikely to work. Instead we need to ENABLE FRESH, REAL VOICES, and not depend on the glib slogans of advertising agencies. And this means that the people who currently communicate climate change, especially environmentalists, must be prepared to BACK OFF AND ENCOURAGE NEW COMMUNICATORS — not as the guests on their podium but as new speakers in their own right.

Actually, let's go a step further. Climate change does not belong to environmentalists and is not even environmental. Of course, it includes environmental concerns and impacts, but it is so much bigger than that.

As soon as we label it, we restrict our understanding of it. Obviously, environmentalists can talk about it however they like in their own networks, but for wider presentation and to the media, I plead, DROP THE ECO-STUFF, especially polar bears, saving the planet, and any other language that stakes out climate change as the exclusive cultural domain of environmentalism.

Credit: Rawpixel via ShutterstockAbove all, it is critical that we CLOSE THE PARTISAN GAP between left and right by opening up climate change to conservative framings and ownership. This should start with AFFIRMING WIDER VALUES, which, it is well established experimentally, makes people far more willing to accept information that challenges their worldview. This requires communicators to reverse the normal flow that converts the science into people's values and begin by understanding and validating their values first and then come up with the ways that climate change can speak to those values.

Testing suggests that new framings of values could include respect for authority, personal responsibility, and loyalty to one's community and nation, avoiding intergenerational debt, and reducing societal dysfunction. I warn environmental liberals that the measure of success will inevitably be the emergence of some new ways of talking that you find unpleasant. Similarly, NEVER ASSUME THAT WHAT WORKS FOR YOU WILL WORK FOR OTHERS. Indeed, the fact that you strongly like something may well be an indication that people with other values will hate it.

We also need to BE HONEST — THIS IS TOUGH. Psychotherapists argue that the real challenge is that climate change generates strong feelings that can, unless recognized, lead us to disavowal and outright denial.

We need to RECOGNIZE PEOPLE'S FEELINGS OF GRIEF AND ANXIETY, and acknowledge and provide space for contradiction, ambivalence, loss, and mourning.

The starting point could be providing the space for people to openly acknowledge their feelings and share them. We need to MOURN WHAT IS LOST, VALUE WHAT REMAINS. And not just the natural world; we need to MOURN THE END OF THE FOSSIL FUELS AGE, which, for all of its dirt and danger, was also exceptionally affluent, mobile, and exciting.

The low-carbon world will have new pleasures, but no longer the sweet roar of the Ford Mustang V8.

We should all BE GLAD TO BE A POLLYANNA. She has become synonymous with dim-witted optimism, but in the original books by Eleanor H. Porter, the character is clearly shown to be coping with immense grief and suffering through her gratitude for what she does have — her friends, community, and the joy of being alive.

What is clear is that this is a fast-moving issue and everything will change. At present, climate change exists largely as a narrative of anticipation shaped by familiar experience and existing frames. But momentous shifts are under way in the world's climate systems and carbon cycles, which will, within a single lifetime, make climate change entirely real, salient, and unavoidable. This will be a new world in which past certainties will disappear and our inbuilt social and psychological biases will become increasingly influential on our judgment.

This is why current responses are so important. REMEMBER THAT HOW WE RESPOND NOW WILL PROVIDE THE TEMPLATE FOR FUTURE RESPONSES. Acceptance, compassion, cooperation, and empathy will produce very different outcomes than aggression, competition, blame, and denial. We hold both futures within ourselves and, as we choose whether and how to think about climate change, we are choosing how we will think about ourselves and the new world we are creating.

This is an excerpt from the book Don't Even Think About It: Why We Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, released Aug. 19 by Bloomsbury Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Bloomsbury Press. Copyright George Marshall 2014. Top image of girl by Gelpi JM via Shutterstock.

How sustainability leaders hold steady over the long haul

Published August 22, 2014
How sustainability leaders hold steady over the long haul

Pioneering a sustainability initiative is a lot like buying a boat. Sooner or later, the realities of maintenance overshadow whatever aspirations first inspired the investment. After the brainstorming sessions, public proclamations and other outpourings of enthusiasm fade, the day comes when you have to face facts: This is going to take work.

Without the resolve to weather a few storms, your sustainability program is at risk of puttering out or blowing up in your face — that is, if it ever gets going in the first place. (In fact, if you are perpetually stuck in launch mode, you may even be ready to unload this sucker onto somebody else.)

Fortunately, the steady erosion of your green dream is not inevitable or even unpredictable. A growing body of research now reveals key traits and processes that differentiate leading sustainability programs from the rest.

McKinsey recently conducted an online survey garnering responses from 3,344 executives representing a spectrum of regions, industries, company sizes, functional specialties and tenures. The "Sustainability's strategic worth" study results show that sustainability leaders are approximately three to five times more likely to:

1) Set aggressive external targets or goals for sustainability initiatives

2) Have a unified sustainability strategy with clearly articulated strategic priorities (no more than five focus areas)

3) Set aggressive internal targets or goals for sustainability initiatives

4) Involve a broad leadership coalition in shaping or co-creating the sustainability strategy, goals and milestones

5) Understand the financial benefits of sustainability within the organization

What's more, reports McKinsey, much larger shares of executives at the leader organizations say their top leaders prioritize sustainability and report higher employee engagement on sustainability at every level, including CEOs, board members and sustainability advisory committees.

According to McKinsey, leading companies also face fewer barriers to realizing value from sustainability because they report better overall performance on the practices that underpin a healthy sustainability organization.

Success stories for smoother sailing

"Building a Culture for Sustainability," a recent book by Jeana Wirtenberg, takes a close look at the sustainability efforts inside nine companies to uncover what sets apart those with staying power. Wirtenberg's case studies offer some rich analysis for understanding the internal and external practices that get results.

Wirtenberg bolsters over 100 best practices with specific examples and cross references them into categories including people, community, customers, planet, supply chain and profit. Here's a snapshot of lessons learned at the end of each chapter:

  • Changing culture is not a "one size fits all" effort, and any change-management endeavor must start with an understanding of the company's unique culture.
  • Align sustainability with and embed it in everything you're doing; it's not a separate set of activities.
  • Take a top-down and bottom-up approach. Translate sustainable behavior into business practices. Make middle management accountable for business objectives.
  • Practice what you preach. This is particularly critical in the professional services industry.
  • Engage with all your stakeholders up front and listen. Address stakeholder concerns head-on and don't sweep issues under the rug.
  • In branding, don't make sustainability campaign-specific. Rather, have it woven and incorporated holistically into your culture and your brand.
  • Ensure key performance indicators (KPIs) are in place.

(For a deep dive into sustainability programs from Ingersoll Rand, Sanofi and Wyndham, read exclusive excerpts from Wirtenberg on EarthPeople Media.)

Turning your battleships

As Wirtenberg and other experts attest, there is still no single template for companies to follow. Codification of activities is slowing occurring in all functional areas, but champions are vital for putting tools into practice.

"To truly embed CSR within an organization requires engaging the people inside the organization," said John Muros, an industrial-organization psychologist with AT&T.

Muros emphasized the importance of talent management activities in creating a robust, comprehensive program. These activities run the gamut from designing workplaces and recruiting to evaluating, on-boarding, training and engagement.

"CSR efforts that are executed without engaging in the full spectrum of talent management activities run the risk of ending up as notable, but still peripheral, initiatives, at best, or transparently inauthentic public relations ploys, at worst," he said.

Muros contributed to "Managing Human Resources for Environmental Sustainability," a prodigious volume of qualitative and quantitative research that goes deep into methods for embedding sustainability into human resources. Unfortunately, HR practitioners are leaving much of it on the table (if the research is reaching them at all) due to the fact that many of them lack a strategic role or voice in their organizations.

Managers that expound on the "triple bottom line" while failing to engage people are setting their programs up for mediocrity. Successful programs require an authoritative champion, a motivated interdisciplinary team, and an appreciation for process. Green stewards must learn to embed, not just bolt on, sustainability into the organizational culture in order to get the buy-in and returns necessary to sustain their programs for the long haul.

Top image of ship's wheel by Paul Fleet via Shutterstock.

Also in The Eco-Leadership Blog:

Demand response keeps energy use low at Chicago high-rise

Published August 22, 2014
Demand response keeps energy use low at Chicago high-rise

Demand response — an energy-saving tool that encourages customers to shift their electricity use to times of day when there is less demand on the power grid or when more renewable energy is abundant — has been at the core of my work this summer as an Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps fellow. My host company, Jones Lang Lasalle, is the property manager for 77 West Wacker Drive, a 50-story office building in downtown Chicago. Here, I focus on maximizing the benefits of demand response, which already have been implemented through multiple technologies.

Currently, 77 West Wacker is enrolled in the PJM demand response capacity market through a demand response service provider. As discussed in a previous post, there are standby payments for demand response commitments, meaning that the building is paid for simply making itself available to reduce energy demand when called upon to do so. In addition to these standby payments, the building is paid for with actual energy conservation as real demand falls below baseline demand during emergency events. The building also participates in voluntary price-based demand response, whereby energy conservation is performed in non-emergency events to take advantage of opportunities when real-time energy prices exceed the fixed rate that the building pays for energy.

Load-shifting makes it easier to bear

The software platform provided by the demand response service provider allows engineers to view the building's baseline demand, real-time action alerts and forecasts for weather and energy prices. When the grid is stressed due to extreme weather or system lapses, the engineers receive notification, usually the day of, to enact demand response protocols. While extreme weather may or may not result in an emergency event, it almost always presents earnings opportunities through economic demand response.

For this reason, the team here is proactive and monitors weather forecasts throughout the Midwest and East Coast, and usually has taken action by the time emergency notification is received. In the summer, the primary form of action is "load shifting," a process works by pre-cooling the building during early morning off-peak hours and reducing cooling demand during peak hours.

Credit: Karan GuptaIn this snapshot, the red line represents the baseline and the green line represents actual building use. Actual use exceeded the baseline in the morning hours when building equipment ramped up to pre-cool the building (there is no penalty for going above the baseline during non-peak hours), and then around 10 a.m., the equipment ramped down for the rest of the day as it had to work less hard to maintain the lower temperature. During the period where the green line is below the red line, real-time energy prices are paid back to the building for the difference between baseline energy consumption and actual consumption.

BAS + VFD spells 'comfort'

When a non-weather event occurs, load shifting may not be an option, and instead a series of minor operational adjustments must be made to achieve the necessary reductions. Tenant comfort is an important consideration when making these adjustments, as reasonable temperatures and minimum levels of ventilation have to be maintained. Excessive ramping and cycling of equipment also should be avoided to prevent undue stress and shortened life. Where base building equipment adjustments alone are not sufficient, the building may send out notices for tenant involvement. Effective communication is critical for tenant satisfaction, but to that end, building management has performed exceedingly well, making efforts to educate occupants about the value of demand response.

The two primary technologies that have enabled demand response capability at 77 West Wacker are the building automation system and variable frequency drives. The BAS allows for monitoring and control of the various equipment from a central command center. This control is necessary to quickly enact demand response protocols while guarding the health, safety and comfort of the building occupants. In the past, motor-driven equipment such as fans and pumps either would run at full load or not at all, and when at full load, would be modulated by dampers or fans. A common analogy is using the brakes to control the speed of a car while pushing the accelerator to the limit. VFDs basically provide throttle control and allow for the modulation of such equipment.

Aiming higher

The next step in fully implementing demand response at 77 West Wacker is enrolling into ancillary services, which are used to support the transmission of electric power from seller to purchaser (scheduling and dispatch, electric grid protection, etc.). While BAS and VFDs are a strong first step, further hardware and software investments will be necessary to make frequency regulation possible. To some extent, real-time control will have to be relinquished to the system operator, but the primary objective still will remain to maintain tenant satisfaction. Automated scripts that guide operational parameters within predefined limits occasionally will have to override signals to ramp loads up or down.

Cracking the code for successful implementation hopefully will release a new wave of revenue for property managers around the country while enhancing grid reliability.

Top image of 77 West Wacker Drive by Chicago Architecture Today via Flickr. This article originally appeared on the EDF Climate Corps Blog.

Karan Gupta

Karan Gupta is a high-performance building consultant based in North Carolina.

George Marshall

George Marshall is the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, based in Oxford UK, and over the past 25 years has worked at all levels of the environmental movement, including senior positions for Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation. He is one of the leading European experts in climate change communications, is a lead advisor to the Welsh Government, and counts major environmental organizations, politicians, faith groups, businesses, and trades unions among his clients. He lives in Wales.

Reducing NYC's carbon emissions one building at a time

Published August 21, 2014
Reducing NYC's carbon emissions one building at a time

Catch Jenna Tatum in person at VERGE Salon NYC 2014, Sep. 16.

Hurricane Sandy highlighted New York City's vulnerabilities to coastal storms and provided a devastating snapshot of the growing risks from climate change, including rising seas, increased heat and more frequent severe weather events. In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to increasing the city's resiliency to better withstand future events, and has taken significant steps to reduce the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Since January, the de Blasio administration has undertaken a number of major environmental, sustainability and resiliency-related initiatives. This includes the creation of the new Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, the first city office focused on resiliency.

On Earth Day, de Blasio announced the most sweeping update to New York City’s Air Pollution Control Code since 1975, which will update emission standards for sources including commercial char broilers, fireplaces, food trucks and refrigeration vehicles and reduce dangerous particulates that contribute to more than 2,000 deaths each year.

Moreover, de Blasio has made environmental sustainability a key component of his affordable housing plan, calling for an energy efficiency program for affordable buildings. Last month, the mayor announced a $350 million partnership with Community Preservation Corporation and Citi as part of that plan, which will include financing for efficiency retrofits.

Buildings cause nearly 75 percent of New York City’s GHG emissions. Reducing their energy use is essential to mitigating citywide greenhouse gas emissions. It also has the benefit of lowering energy costs, saving building owners money and providing welcome relief from rising housing costs that have contributed to a growth in inequality.

Since its launch in 2007, the NYC Carbon Challenge has helped reduce energy use in buildings and lower their energy costs. Nearly 100 of NYC’s universities, hospitals, commercial businesses and residential property management companies have joined this voluntary leadership program, pledging to work with the city to reduce their carbon intensity by 30 percent or more in 10 years.

To date, participants have reduced their emissions by an average of 16 percent. Six universities and hospitals even met their goals several years ahead of schedule. New York University, for example, cut its emissions by 30 percent through a combination of major capital investments such as its state-of-the-art co-generation system that kept the lights on during Hurricane Sandy. It also has implemented low- or no-cost strategies such as instituting regular operations and maintenance schedules. As a result, the university saved more than $11 million last year, and is now doubling down to cut its current emissions in half over the next five years.

Moreover, the Carbon Challenge participants are piloting cost-effective energy efficiency strategies and paving the way for others to follow. Commercial firms participating in the challenge, which include some of the largest global corporations such as Google, JP Morgan Chase and Crédit Suisse, are experimenting with innovative projects including server virtualization in their data centers, continuous commissioning of building equipment, consolidation of office space and maximization of natural daylighting.

As participants implement and evaluate strategies, the city can learn from their experiences and create case studies of best practices, which have the potential to multiply energy reductions and cost savings well beyond the scope of the program.

Consequently, the city under de Blasio aggressively has expanded the success of the Carbon Challenge to deliver the same benefits for multi-family buildings. In partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the city is working with 18 of the largest residential property management companies who have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their portfolios of multi-family buildings. As a result, residents of these buildings could save as much as $300 on their annual energy bills. They also will benefit from breathing cleaner air and helping the city mitigate its greenhouse gases.

The efforts of Carbon Challenge participants are making a significant dent in citywide emissions. All together, they make up more than 190 million square feet of space in New York City — about one-third of the entire built area of San Francisco — and contribute roughly 5 percent of citywide emissions. By the end of the challenge, they will eliminate more than 700,000 metric tons of carbon — or roughly the equivalent of making all buildings in Santa Monica carbon neutral.

A lot more work remains to be done. New York City will continue to play a leadership role in tackling climate change, while striving to make the city a more resilient and equitable place to live.

GM, REI, P&G, Walmart, Facebook make big renewables commitment

By Victoria Mills
Published August 21, 2014
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Tags: Commitments & Goals, Renewable Energy
GM, REI, P&G, Walmart, Facebook make big renewables commitment

Last month, 12 major corporations announced a combined goal of buying 8.4 million megawatt hours of renewable energy each year and called for market changes to make these large-scale purchases possible. Their commitment shows that demand for renewables has reached the big time.

We're proud that eight of the 12 are EDF Climate Corps host organizations: Bloomberg, Facebook, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, Proctor & Gamble, REI, Sprint and Walmart. The coalition, brought together by the World Wildlife Fund and World Resources Institute, is demanding enough renewable energy to power 800,000 homes a year. And while it's great to see these big names in the headlines, they're not alone in calling for clean energy: 60 percent of the largest U.S. businesses have set public goals to increase their use of renewables, cut carbon pollution or both.

Companies want renewable energy because it makes good business sense: It's clean, diversifies their energy supply, helps them hedge against fuel price volatility and furthers their greenhouse gas reduction goals. Renewables are the fastest-growing power generation sector, and by 2018, they're expected to make up almost a quarter of the global power mix. Prices of solar panels have dropped 75 percent since 2008 (PDF), and in some parts of the country, wind is already cost-competitive with coal and gas.

Yet some market barriers persist in sourcing renewable energy. As Amy Hargroves of Sprint said, "We know that cost-competitive renewable energy exists, but the problem is that it is way too difficult for most companies to buy." Some utilities don't offer renewable energy electricity options, or put limits on how much a firm can buy. And a patchwork of state regulations creates administrative hurdles for companies with facilities across the country.

This shouldn't be so hard. What the companies are asking for is reasonable and attainable. The Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers' Principles call for change in six areas:

• Greater choice in procurement options;
• More access to cost-competitive options;
• Longer- and variable-term contracts;
• Access to new projects that reduce emissions beyond business as usual;
• Streamlined third-party financing; and
• Increased purchasing options with utilities.

The good news is that EDF and other groups are working to bring about the market changes necessary to bring renewables fully into the energy mix. And there are some great success stories to share. For example, Verizon is investing more than $100 million in clean and renewable energy projects. One catalyst for these investments was the emergence of New York's "Green Bank," a state-run $1 billion initiative that will encourage private sector financing for clean energy projects in the region.

Making the market work for renewables is a critical step in the transition to a low-carbon energy system. What will it take to get us across the finish line? In a word: collaboration. Realizing the potential of renewables will require the active engagement and partnership of all the players in the energy system: large energy users, nongovernmental organizations, utilities and policy makers.

This article originally appeared at the EDF+Business blog. Wind turbine image courtesy of Walmart.



As small hydropower swells, so does caution on its impacts

By Dave Levitan
Published August 21, 2014
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Tags: Government, Renewable Energy
As small hydropower swells, so does caution on its impacts

This article originally appeared at Yale e360.

The northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, nestled in the Himalayas, is home to a population of 10 million people, mostly farmers. Many are among the 400 million Indians who lack access to electricity.

In recent years, however, a strong push for hydroelectric power development has started to change that. Since Uttarakhand's rise to statehood in 2000, the expansion of hydropower in the region has mirrored the region's robust economic growth. Many dams that have been built are small hydropower projects that harness the force of a river without trapping large reservoirs of water.

But hydropower's benefits have come at a cost. In June 2013, early and extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains fell for two days, streaming off Uttarakhand's mountainsides, overflowing its rivers and overwhelming scores of new dams. The flooding eventually killed nearly 6,000 people, tore up 1,300 roads, took out nearly 150 bridges and destroyed 25 small hydropower projects. The disaster seemed an act of God, but a government-commissioned report said much of the blame lay elsewhere — on the new hydroelectric power infrastructure, which included nearly 100 dams, many of them smaller than 25 megawatts in capacity.

A panel of experts said the huge number of dams and associated construction debris were spaced so closely together that they had changed the river courses and flow of sedimentation, exacerbating the flooding. Tunneling through mountains and deforestation also contributed to the disastrous flooding, the panel said. As the floodwaters roared through narrow gorges where small dams had been built, the torrent swept up uncounted tons of dam construction spoils and carried them downstream, swamping villages, according to a report commissioned by the Indian Supreme Court.

It turned out that one or two of the state's largest hydroelectric dams — an energy source that for decades has been blamed for serious environmental damage around the world — actually may have held back some of the worst flooding.

Uttarakhand may have been a worst-case scenario for small hydro, but there is nevertheless an increasing understanding that a global push to downsize this renewable energy source carries risks. Small hydro has great potential to bring power to some of the 1.2 billion people around the world who lack electricity, and groups such as the World Bank and United Nations are increasingly backing small hydropower projects. But it is not environmentally benign, with impacts ranging from the fragmentation of river habitat to the potential for cascading dam failures during the kind of flooding experienced in Uttarakhand.

Small hydro, which includes so-called mini- and micro-hydro projects on small rivers and creeks, is most often defined as dams with a capacity up to 10 megawatts, although some countries define it as including dams of up to 25 or 30 megawatts. (The world's biggest dam, the Three Gorges Dam in China, has a 22,500-megawatt capacity). Although designs differ and sometimes rivers do get diverted, small hydro dams are often built as "run-of-river" projects, meaning the flow of the river turns some turbines in the dam to produce electricity without the need to create a reservoir behind those turbines. This can provide cheap, off-grid power, allowing rural areas access to electricity.

So far, about 75 gigawatts of small hydro have been installed worldwide, the bulk of it in China (37 gigawatts), Europe (about 17 gigawatts) and North America (about 8 gigawatts). So how much small hydro potential remains? According to one assessment from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the total remaining global potential is just under 100 gigawatts of projects of 10 megawatts or less. That's equal to 100 nuclear reactors or big coal power plants.

A glance at the specifics of small hydro's potential sharpens the focus on developing countries even further. East Africa has only 208 megawatts of installed small hydro, with 6,000 megawatts (6 gigawatts) that could be added; Kenya alone, with less than 2,000 megawatts of installed electricity from any source, could add 3,000 megawatts of small hydropower, according to UNIDO. Southeast Asia also has 6,000 megawatts of untapped potential. (The U.S. and Canada have tapped more than 85 percent of their small hydro potential already, with about 1,000 megawatts that still could be developed, UNIDO stated.)

Although there is still plenty of focus on major dams in certain parts of the world — including scores of large projects in China and numerous megadams in the Amazon — many countries, developers and financing groups are now more strongly focused on downsizing hydropower. Pierre Audinet, the program team leader for clean energy at the World Bank's Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, said that the majority of the bank's current hydropower projects are small. Since 2003, the World Bank reports that 61 percent of its projects were run-of-river or other small-scale or micro-hydro development.

Still, the World Bank is trying to convince developing countries that pushing too fast with small hydro carries risks.

"This whole discussion on accumulating impacts, it is something we pay a lot of attention to, and we have been pressing our client countries … to mitigate and prevent the negative impacts that can happen when there are too many dams on a single basin," Audinet said. In Vietnam, a $202 million commitment from the World Bank is helping finance the construction of nine new small hydro plants — maxing out at 30 megawatts each — with six already completed. The project includes an exhaustive environmental framework (PDF) that requires numerous safeguards before a project is eligible for funding. These range from assessing impacts on fisheries, water quality and sedimentation to consideration of downstream effects.

These precautions are in place for a reason, as the risks of building too many small dams in a single river basin aren't yet fully understood.

"It's really tricky because these smaller dams, they don't have the measurable impacts that you have with the bigger dams," said Martin Doyle, director of the Water Policy Program at Duke University. "You don't get the same sediment-starving effect downstream, and a lot of species can actually get by them during floods. But what they do is — we always called it death by a thousand cuts. Instead of having one big Hoover dam, you have thousands of little dams. They add up."

David Strayer, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., said fragmentation by hydropower is a serious threat to ecosystems. In the U.S., Strayer said that studies have shown small dams mark the boundaries of various freshwater species, such as mussels (PDF), with potential long-term consequences. Put a small power project in today, and mussels likely still will live on both sides of the dam tomorrow. But over time, a drought or a flood might kill off the group on one side or the other, and the dam will block the rest of the species from spreading out to fill the void.

"It's not something that is yet regarded as a primary factor affecting freshwater biodiversity, but we have enough hints of this now that I personally would put this on the short list of major endangering factors over the longer term," Strayer said.

Another study in the Nu River area in China found that the cumulative impacts of small hydropower actually can outweigh those of larger dams. Flow modification of streams, for example, was "3 to 4 orders of magnitude greater" for the numerous small dams than for dams as big as 4,200 megawatts and 300 meters in height. Downstream of small hydro projects — which in some cases actually do divert rivers for large portions of the year — the rivers were "dewatered" an average of 74 percent of days studied, which aside from the obvious problems also negatively can affect water quality. Water quality also was affected more strongly by small hydro than large, the Nu study said.

Two studies — one by a group at Kansas State University and one by scientists at the University of New Mexico — found that some fish species, such as the family that includes carp and minnows, need as much as 100 kilometers of unbroken stream in order to survive and thrive. Many existing and proposed mall hydro projects are spaced much more closely together.

The Uttarakhand disaster represents an extreme scenario. In the report on the floods submitted to the Indian Ministry of Environment & Forests, the expert panel concluded that "bumper-to-bumper" development of run-of-river hydro projects is dangerous, and that changes to sedimentation of rivers caused much of the flooding damage. Even smaller dams hold back sediment and other materials that naturally would flow downstream, which can increase erosion below the dam and make the impacts of flooding worse if dams give way during a deluge, as they did in Uttarakhand.

The report recommended (PDF) that because of the threat of a "cascading chain of catastrophes," planners needed to examine the basin-wide impacts of building numerous dams on a single river system. The existing guidelines in the region require only one kilometer of separation between two projects. The report called for a halt to almost all hydropower development until studies could determine optimal distances between dams.

With the help of the UN, the World Bank, and others who increasingly focus on the impacts of small hydro, progress is being made. A survey of professionals working on small hydro around the world, from a database run by the International Energy Agency, suggests most think the industry is beginning to be regulated properly.

"Environmental impact studies are done even here for any sizeable hydro project, but there is room for improvement," said Terry Gray, a consultant on hydro projects based in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. Others in Uganda, Vietnam, India and elsewhere said that increasingly regulations are being adopted to match a growing demand for small hydro.

"Of course there are benefits to small hydropower, and I'm not saying we should stop doing any hydropower development," Strayer of the Cary Institute said. "But if you're really balancing costs and benefits, you ought to be doing so with your eyes open."

Small hydro power plant image by Dmitry Naumov via Shutterstock.



What makes BT's Net Good carbon program a game-changer?

By Susan Nickbarg
Published August 21, 2014
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Tags: Employees, Energy Efficiency, More... Employees, Energy Efficiency, Pollution Prevention, Supply Chain
What makes BT's Net Good carbon program a game-changer?

This article represents the premiere of a new column, "Game Changers," focusing on the intersection between innovation and sustainability in business, showcasing game-changing innovation approaches, people and trends.

BT's Net Good program is a component of BT's Better Future Program, which focuses on helping society live within the constraints of the planet's resources. Net Good applies an updated carbon abatement methodology across the supply chain, customers and internal operations. It aims to also have a wider impact for other businesses to move forward on their carbon abatement efforts. With its June 2013 launch, BT launched some new products. These translate into sales and business growth. I met with Kevin Moss, the head of BT's Net Good program. We spoke about BT's aspirations to become "net positive."

Susan Nickbarg: Please describe the Net Good program.

Kevin Moss: The vision of BT's Net Good program is to help society live within the constraints of the planet's resources through our products and people. The program's overarching goal is to help our customers reduce carbon emissions by at least three times the end-to-end carbon burden of running our business. We will achieve this by minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive impacts delivered by our products and people. Net Good means that the positives outweigh the negatives. By pursuing the goal "Net Good," we are shaping and accelerating the transition to a more sustainable, low-carbon economy. I work closely with the business units as together we innovate solutions towards this goal.

Specifically, our current goal here in BT's Net Good program is to help customers reduce carbon emissions by at least three times that amount by 2020. As of 2013, the total carbon emissions of BT's business created roughly equaled the emissions our products and services helped customers to avoid.

Nickbarg: What is the carbon reduction goal of the Net Good program and how has it expanded from before Net Good was launched?

Moss: It is a 3:1 goal based on the premise that BT is directly responsible for emissions resulting from its own operations. For example, this includes the network, offices, commercial fleets and company cars. We also hold responsibility for emissions at both ends of its value chain: in our supply chain (product and service production) and from the products and services used by BT customers.

We have a methodology we also want to share with other businesses and industries to help them move forward with their carbon abatement efforts. We also use our customer's feedback to further shape evolution of the methodology. The Net Good methodology and framework form part of BT's Better Future program, which encapsulates BT's commitment to be a responsible and sustainable business leader. It is a pledge set as one of BT's six strategic priorities.

Nickbarg: BT has been a forerunner to invest and proactively coalesce the Net Good program that you lead. Please explain the concept of "net positive" on which the Net Good program is related and why it's considered game-changing.

Moss: The concept of net positive means that an enterprise is contributing more in its chosen area for driving positive impact and mitigating negative impact. For example, we aligned the Net Good program to the environmental space. If we look retrospectively at what we were doing with our carbon footprint, you could say that we were doing "less bad" environmentally. It was not enough for our company. We needed to contribute "net good," especially being in the ICT sector. We wanted to show that the carbon reductions we made for our customers were more than the carbon we emit across our entire value chain. We also wanted to show that "net positive" has replacement value beyond our internal operations and across our customers and supply chain.

We are now part of the Net Positive Group with Forum for the Future, the World Wildlife Fund and the Climate Group helping to bring clarity to this emerging concept. We are one among one half-dozen companies now involved. All the members of the group have already made, or are working towards, a public commitment that will ultimately mean that they have a positive impact on the communities and natural environments they operate in. We work on a report called the Net Positive report where we are trying to broaden this concept of "Net Positive" for other businesses. One way to answer the question of how much is enough in sustainability is through application of the net positive idea, including to other related impacts such as health, nutrition or waste.

Nickbarg: Is there a backstory behind the Net Good program in how the goals were formulated?

Moss: We formulated the goals before we finalized the methodology or fully understood how we were going to deliver it. We set the goal within the order of magnitude we thought was necessary and with a view to capturing the entirety of our carbon burden. Our goal could be called an aspiration goal. We established it at the board level first.

Having then defined the methodology, we're still working on the third part about how to deliver it. The important thing to share is that the current gap challenges actually end up inspiring the business units to find ways of solving said challenges. The unknowns help us to fire up our problem solving skills. If we had a complete plan, we would not have the challenge to work on ourselves to change.

Nickbarg: What is the methodology of the Net Good program?

Moss: In order to embed sustainability throughout the business, you need to give tools to your non-CSR colleagues that are intertwined to the context of their role. One of the most leverage-able points is the design of new products.

Here it would be first to identify the CSR opportunities to include in product development and use requirements. Second is getting them prioritized. Third is actually having the CSR related product development and use requirements placed into the final product or service design. Our product and service managers have checklists about CSR related things they are asked to think about (and our now familiar with). It goes beyond the usual legal, technical, operational and compliance types of product design concerns.

At BT we call our product checklist "Designing Our Tomorrow." It quickly helps to get BT's product managers to key into sustainability issues and relate them to design solutions. If, for example, the big materiality issue for a product is to recycle packaging, we can flag it at the design stage. And then act to incorporate potential solutions into the design process.

Nickbarg: How has the Net Good program affected BT's operations, supply chain and customers?

Moss: We used to think of our footprint as our operational activities only. After the debut of the Net Good program, we now think of our upstream, operational and downstream impacts all told. The upstream footprint is the entirety of the supply chain. We capture this using EEIO (environmentally enhanced input and output) analysis.

The downstream footprint includes the in-life footprint of all of our branded and managed products and services. We then compare this footprint to how much our services help our customers avoid carbon emissions through travel and energy avoidance and through dematerialization.

Nickbarg: BT has stated a desire to motivate more collaborative approaches across sectors and to create more net positive outcomes beyond its own tent. How is this unfolding?

Moss: What I can talk about are the sorts of places we envision. Most of which are prefixed by the "smart" word: smart cities, smart travel, smart grid and smart transport. For example, we won an award for a smart vehicle program. In this program, we equipped vehicles with a smart device to travel more efficiently.

The interesting thing here is this one example and many others that we are exploring provide us with important indicators. Our products that consider sustainability problems in their design in turn are helping to create a competitive advantage with new advantages. "Smarter" is where the telecom industry and CSR field is going in terms of product design and delivery.

Nickbarg: What are the key challenges and opportunities around resource management and forging new business models such as Net Good (that doesn't just take and use resources but adds resources and value back)?

Moss: A key opportunity is in the design and launch of products and services that help our customers to reduce their emissions. It helps us to shape and grow our portfolio. Our products that help customers to reduce their emissions will become more and more in demand in the future and help us to thrive as a business. Especially in some future scenarios of higher forecasted energy costs. There will be a clear need for lower carbon options in the future.

Communication technology has a vital role to play in reducing our demand for resources and cutting carbon emissions. For example, our systems can actually help to manage the energy use in buildings or the video conferencing capabilities in certain facilities to avoid carbon emissions.

A key challenge for me in my role at Net Good is the technical challenges. For instance, there isn't a previously established measurement standard. Another challenge is that the business units have many opportunities for investment and growth. Not only do I have to show a business case to the business units, but also I have to compete with internal peers outside of my department for resource prioritization and funding against those the business will actually adopt.

Nickbarg: Has there been any change up or down in inquiries from investors and shareholders related to sustainability since the launch of Net Good?

Moss: We"re seeing a little bit of difference. I'd like to see more. One of the changes we made in our meetings with investors, but it is too early to say the impact. In these meetings we can now relate the revenue value of the products and services that make up the Net Good product portfolio — as well as state it in our annual report. We try and help investors understand where Net Good products sit in the business.

Nickbarg: What shall we anticipate next from BT's Net Good?

Moss: We want to meet our net positive goal that we just announced. We also are working to promote the concept we talked of earlier of "net positive" more widely. We are also actively looking for new products and services to help our customers. We have several pilots we want to turn into products that we can sell on a scalable basis.

Nickbarg: Any parting words about Net Good?

Moss: Net Good expands the whole narrative from risk mitigation and cost reduction to a discussion about business growth and value. It engages a whole new group of people in the company who didn't either know what materiality issues our business and sector were facing. Or, how to take steps to integrate CSR into the business core, which are our products and services.

Now, they have an easy hook to get involved. It makes a big difference to engage and have more employees across more disciplines invested in CSR (business purpose) at a business operations level through our Net Good framework and methodology.

The hardest work is the work of deep-seated sustainable change. BT is one company doing "sustainable change" and making things happen in new ways. The conception of an entirely new business strategy and program, Net Good, is an example of new product innovation and growth driven by sustainability goals. It gives us a business case, which links business purpose, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility with product solutions and operations -- bringing a reservoir of opportunity and growth. An established organization like BT -- replete with technology, markets, and culture -- provides hope about a new way of having a more sustainable business. The BT team is a force of leadership turning the challenges of sustainability into a competitive advantage and force for good.

Are you ready to share your sense of purpose and make your business net positive?

Top image of chess game by sergign via Shutterstock.



New fishing nets reduce bycatch, sparing sea life

By Emma Bryce
Published August 21, 2014
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Tags: Fisheries, Food & Agriculture, More... Fisheries, Food & Agriculture, Innovation, Oceans
New fishing nets reduce bycatch, sparing sea life

This article first appeared at Ensia.

Six years ago, the Norwegian coast guard filmed a Scottish fishing vessel riding gray swells, dumping 5 metric tons of dead fish back into the North Sea. Over the European Union catch quota,and unable to keep all the fish they'd caught, the fishermen had to ditch some. To the Norwegians, who aren't part of the EU and hold a strict discards ban, the waste was shocking.

When this news reached Dan Watson, a young British designer, it became the inspiration for SafetyNet, an ocean fishing net that allows certain fish to escape via lighted rings, offering more catch selectivity. The Scottish fishermen's predicament, he believed, was driven by their lack of control. "There can be no villains, there can be no victims, there are just problems," Watson said. "I started this project because I wanted to go some way towards solving that problem."

Watson joins a growing number of innovators designing more selective fishing gear to reduce bycatch — the unwanted fish, dolphins, whales and birds that get scooped up by longlines, gillnets and trawlers each year and then discarded. Globally, the amount of marine life that is wasted or unmanaged — which makes it potentially unsustainable — forms about 40 percent of the catch. "The way we catch now is to catch everything, decide what we want to keep and discard the rest," said Martin Hall, head of the bycatch program at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which regulates tuna fishing in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Bycatch can result in overfishing, reduces the population of species that already might be endangered and, on the largest scale, interrupts food chains and damages whole ecosystems. It also amounts to an enormous waste of valuable fish protein.

To designers building better nets and lines, bycatch isn't viewed as an inevitability, but as something we can phase out, piece by piece. It's also seen as a battle that needs to be fought alongside fishermen, not against them.

Rethink the hame

Speaking from his trawler, the 45-foot Proud Mary, off the coast of Massachusetts, one such fisherman, Christopher Brown, said that over the years, fishermen have had to "rethink the game." Brown operates a fishery that's almost completely free of discards; is the board president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, an organization representing stewardship-minded fishermen; and has designed a squid net that reduces bycatch. The net contains an escape route at its base that exploits the bottom-dwelling behavior of unwanted flounder, encouraging them to flee the net through this gap. "We need to look at things entirely differently than we have in the last 30 years," Brown said — and new gear is part of that equation. "It's a matter of enlightened self-interest."

Brown may seem unconventional, but more and more, fishermen are both driving change and being consulted like clients about new gear. "The main focus has to be the fisherman," said Watson. "You have to build something the fisherman is going to use."

Credit: Dan WatsonFor designers, the next challenge is gaining capital. Although Watson has been working on his SafetyNet design for five years, and even though it won the prestigious James Dyson design award in 2012, it's still staggeringly expensive, and Watson has had difficulty hiring a boat that will try out his net on open water.

Designed to free both young and endangered fish, the SafetyNet works by using fitted LED rings, which flash like exit signs to alert smaller fish. The fish can then escape by squeezing through the rings. There's also a panel in the net that separates tighter mesh at the top from larger mesh below, allowing nontarget, bottom-dwelling species such as cod to escape through the bigger holes. With lights and panel working in tandem, "You can start almost herding the fish under the water," Watson said.

There is no silver-bullet solution for a problem as broad as bycatch; instead, each new piece of gear responds uniquely to a species' size, shape and behavior. "The more we know about the ways we can stop different things being caught, the more we can make bespoke nets," Watson said. As Hall puts it, "Slowly, you attack the different angles of the problem, and you solve it."

Of course, there's the inevitable economic caveat. Just as Watson has fought for funding, money is an obstacle for the industry too, slowing the scale-up of new gear across fisheries. Fishermen support innovation, but they can't be expected to lose money over it, said Barrie Deas, chief executive for the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, which represents fishermen in the U.K. "Technical innovation is one thing. It's the economic consequences of doing that [that matters]," he said. "People will seek economic ways to fish."

It's easy to argue back that changes in gear should just be legislated — but that rarely works, said Deas, if fishermen aren't already onboard. "It's not so much the designed gear that's the problem," he said. "But if the attempt is made to introduce it in a top-down bureaucratic way with top-down prescriptive legislation, the last 20 years has told us that doesn't work."

Bridging the gap

Going some way to bridge this financial gap and to bring collaborative, bottom-up thinking to gear design, the World Wildlife Fund runs a regular competition called the International Smart Gear Competition that gives academics, conservationists and fishermen the chance to share their ideas.

"What we have learned is that you need an incentive to get started," said Hall, who doubles as a competition judge. And that incentive is cash. For each competition cycle, sponsors partner with WWF to generate the prize money. This year, $65,000 will be awarded — the grand prize will be $30,000. "The extent of the support depends on the amount of money we can raise, so in some years, it's been better than others," said Michael Osmond, Smart Gear's senior project officer.

The prize money goes to notable designers to help them build, try out and, they hope, introduce their gear into fisheries. "I think that attitudes have changed a lot over the last decade," Osmond said. "With our competition, a lot of the winning ideas have come from fishermen themselves."

Credit: Salvatore BarberaThis collaborative environment has delivered some serious successes. In 2011, designers hacked LED fishing lights ordinarily used to attract fish and repurposed them (PDF) to drive turtles away instead. Globally, dense pockets of gillnets unintentionally snare and drown thousands of turtles each year because they're almost invisible underwater, said John Wang, project leader and a researcher with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research who works as a fisheries research ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But if LED lights are fixed onto nets and tuned to a wavelength turtles can see, turtles recognize the nets as barriers and cruise by. As Wang put it, "We have a selective communication channel to the turtles." With this tool, they've reduced bycatch by up to 60 percent during trials in Mexico, Peru and Indonesia, and are now working with U.S. fisheries.

It's not just about turtles, though: "What we're beginning to see is that the wavelength has some interesting properties. Different wavelengths affect fish in different ways," Wang said. Now, he's working on illuminating nets with ultraviolet light to steer hammerhead sharks away.

Judged by global impact, Smart Gear's biggest success story is arguably the Eliminator Trawl (PDF), a 2007 winner built to address cod shortages by allowing cod to escape nets in New England haddock fisheries.

The brainchild of fishermen, designers and academics — "a real collaborative effort," said Laura Skrobe, Eliminator team member and fisheries scientist at Rhode Island University — the net frees down-swimming cod through the large mesh at the base, reducing bycatch by 80 percent. A tighter mesh at the top herds in haddock, which tend to swim upward. The net also significantly cuts dogfish, plaice and lobster catch — all without hurting the haddock fishery.

Credit: Laura Skrobe, URI/Rhode Island Sea Grant.During trials, the team had to sell the catch from the first three trawls just to afford the fourth. But despite hurdles, "the fishermen were really the ones who pushed it," said Skrobe. "Our fishermen will be conservationists themselves whether or not their managers tell them to. We're just providing tools for the toolbox." The net's straightforward design has made it useful in both the U.S. and the U.K., where it's now formally part of fishing regulations.

Out of the box

In the quest to scale up smart fishing gear across global fisheries, Hall echoed what designers such as Skrobe feel: large-scale, regulatory change can happen, but only if it's negotiated with fishermen first, or they'll resent it. Increased investment is the obvious next step, to spur innovation and to make gear changes easier to phase into fisheries so fishermen don't carry the costs.

As a longtime WWF Smart Gear judge, Hall adds something else: He craves even greater innovation, ideas that challenge the age-old fishing tradition. "Even though wonderful things are happening, we aren't innovating in a dramatic way," Hall said. "I'd really like to see an initiative that goes out of the box, to just shake the concept that because we've been doing this for 2,000 years, it's OK."

In August, Dan Watson will try his SafetyNet on the open ocean for the first time. After weathering a few challenges, he's found a trawler that will take him off the southwestern coast of the U.K. and into the Atlantic, pulling his lighted net, to ride the swells just as those Scottish fishermen did six years ago.

For those fighting bycatch, there's a long road ahead — much of it determined by funding and policy. But for now, innovators need to keep innovating, Watson said: "You can look at the political world of fish, but that's going to take 20 years to sort out. We need to create interventions in the meantime."

Top image of entangled sperm whale by Alberto Romero/Marine PhotoBank via Flickr.


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