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Poll: Small businesses are ready to fight climate change

Published July 08, 2014
Poll: Small businesses are ready to fight climate change

Depending on where you go for your news, you might have heard some nasty things about the Environmental Protection Agency's new rules on power plant emissions. Many in Congress accuse the EPA of trying to destroy the coal industry, and are vowing to fight them any way they can. So you might think these rules are totally unpopular with the American public — and the business community.

Actually, the opposite is true.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in early June found that 70 percent of Americans felt the government should place limits on greenhouse gases from existing power plants, and 63 percent supported cutting emissions even if it raised their energy bills by $20 a month. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll later in June found similar results, with 67 percent supporting the EPA's move to cut emissions from existing plants. Political sniping aside, there's clear support for this kind of action.

Of course, that doesn't include the small business community, right? After all, one of the most common arguments we've heard opposing these rules is that they're job-killers that will drive small business into the ground. Surely they hate this proposal.

As it turns out, that's not true either.

That's the takeaway from the American Sustainable Business Council's latest round of polling (PDF). These results make it clear: The small business community supports efforts to cut our carbon emissions, for the simple reason that they have a great deal to lose if we don't act.

Overwhelming agreement on key points

Eighty-seven percent of small business owners named at least one possible consequence of climate change — such as higher energy costs, power outages or severe storms — that they expect to affect them in the future.

Many small businesses already have felt the effects of climate change firsthand: About one in five said extreme weather associated with climate change already has affected their operations.

Sixty-four percent of small business owners said government regulation is needed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, compared to 29 percent who think power plants should be allowed to regulate themselves.

When they heard both sides of the argument, 50 percent of small business owners supported tighter limits on pollution from power plants. Only 28 percent opposed it.

The sample was politically diverse, but a plurality of the business owners surveyed — 43 percent — identified themselves as Republicans or Independents who leaned Republican, compared to 28 percent who identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning and 19 percent who identified as Independents.

Small businesses aren't small-minded

Contrary to conventional wisdom, business owners align much more closely with consumers on issues such as climate change and the economy. And we're not just talking one side of the aisle: 55 percent of Republicans (along with 65 percent of Independents and 81 percent of Democrats) agreed that cutting emissions from power plants requires government regulation.

Each business surveyed had fewer than 100 employees. These companies are not making billions in profits, and so they don't have the financial resources needed to withstand the worst effects of climate change. And considering 25 percent of businesses don't reopen after severe weather events — which climate change could make more frequent — that's not an idle concern.

But that's not the only thing they're worried about. The concern shared by most small businesses in the survey was higher energy costs: 53 percent were worried about that. And 37 percent said that higher health care costs could hurt them. Forty-eight percent were concerned about power outages due to stress on the power grid.

Climate change isn't just an issue because it could wipe businesses out with one hurricane. It's an issue because it could make it progressively harder for companies to even operate normally.

Hopefully, this poll will help more policymakers realize that the smart political move is to support these rules, not fight them.

Top image of smokestacks by Mike Linksvayer via Flickr.



How to plant the seeds of a sustainable palm oil supply chain

Published July 08, 2014
How to plant the seeds of a sustainable palm oil supply chain

The next time you're standing outside of the lunchroom at your office, try out this riddle with coworkers who pass by:

Which commodity is worth $50 billion per year, is used in half of all packaged goods, is a larger source of fat than butter and margarine combined in the U.S., and accounts for approximately 4 percent of worldwide carbon emissions?

If any of your colleagues correctly guess "palm oil," give them a gold star or — more relevant to the riddle — a cookie. The odds are that no matter which brand of cookie you select, palm oil will be a key ingredient.

As the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, palm oil is in everything from baked goods to cosmetics, and the industry employs some 6 million people around the world. In fact, palm oil actually uses much less land than alternatives such as soybean and canola.

Given the necessity and value of palm oil, even some of its loudest critics aren't calling for an end to this commodity. But the reality is that palm oil production continues to have a devastating effect on forests and on the rest of the world. In fact, at least 30,000 square miles of tropical forest — an area bigger than Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined — has been cleared to accommodate palm oil plantations in the past two decades.

The high price of palm oil

About 85 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm oil production is a leading driver of deforestation. Deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of all global emissions contributing to climate change. In fact, due to high levels of deforestation and conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, Indonesia — despite only being the world's 16th largest economy — was ranked the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally.

In addition to its role as a major contributor to global deforestation and carbon pollution, the palm oil industry is plagued by other pressing issues such as child labor, slave labor, habitat destruction and threats to endangered species such as orangutans.

Awareness of palm oil risks has been growing rapidly across the business, investor and activist communities over the past decade, yet progress on verifying real improvements has remained elusive due to the complex nature of the palm oil supply chain, which requires full transparency — as well as accountability at the farm, supplier and corporate levels. A number of commitments this year by major international brands and their suppliers, however, could mean the tide is turning toward more sustainable palm oil.

Credit: Rainforest Action Network via FlickrThe global palm oil trade is dominated by a half dozen major traders (who are often major producers as well) that control the world's flows of palm oil. In other words, if major traders commit to providing fully traceable, deforestation-free palm oil, we could see the necessary shifts toward responsible palm oil production taken to scale.

Investors engaged in the issue are working to achieve this through: direct engagements with the traders, urging companies that buy from these traders to put in place strong purchasing policies; urging the palm oil industry to strengthen certification standards to support efforts to end deforestation and protect human rights; and following up with companies to ensure that they transparently report on progress in achieving these commitments.

Towards a more sustainable palm oil industry

Here are some of the most exciting trends emerging from the commitments announced so far this year.

1. Major companies are increasing their commitments to fully traceable, deforestation-free (i.e., increased yields on land that has already been cleared) palm oil supply chains. Following engagements with investors such as Green Century, Trillium, the New York State Comptroller’s Office and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), companies such as Kellogg’s, Mars, L’Oreal, General Mills, Smuckers, Panera Bread, Safeway and Procter & Gamble have pledged to take more aggressive action to curb negative impacts of the palm oil industry.

2. Suppliers representing 55 percent of the entire palm oil market are stepping up their palm oil commitments, which would bring the impact of corporate efforts to scale. Wilmar's supply chain, for example, represents 45 percent of global palm oil trade. If fully implemented, the company's sustainable palm efforts, in collaboration with key palm oil buyers such as Kellogg's, are expected to eliminate an estimated 1.5 gigatons of carbon emissions — the equivalent of annual emissions from Central and South America combined.

3. Transparency drives accountability. The companies that are serious about sustainable palm oil plan to transparently communicate progress in implementing their commitments to investors, NGOs and the public.

Key metrics for better palm oil policies

These developments are encouraging, but more consumer brand companies should adopt and implement strong palm oil policies throughout their entire supply chains to bring these positive impacts to scale. Some key metrics that stakeholders are looking for as evidence of company progress include improvements in certification, policies and reporting.

Credit: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm OilAt the planning stages, each company should require a clear policy committing to no deforestation, no exploitation (including protection of human rights, fair treatment of workers and recognizing community land rights), and to a fully traceable and legal supply chain. It should also pursue a plan to achieve 100 percent Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification and phase out GreenPalm Certificates. Explicit procedures to address and remedy suppliers who demonstrate non-compliance are also necessary. A time-bound action plan for implementing the policy is crucial.

Companies that use palm oil should also issue regular public reports on implementation progress, which could include metrics such as: percent volume coming from suppliers with deforestation-free sourcing policies; percent volume traceable to specific plantations; percent volume RSPO certified, including percentage of GreenPalm, mass-balance, and/or segregated; percent volume assessed and working toward compliance with company policy and percent volume assessed and compliant or low risk.

In addition to pushing for more companies to adopt and implement strong palm oil policies in the coming months, it is essential for those who already have made commitments to deliver on those promises. Through public reporting and by tracking against measurable goals, companies can demonstrate that they are leading the way toward building a more sustainable palm oil industry.

Top image of palm fruit by Humberto Moreno via Flickr.



Janine Benyus: Nature has answers, if we ask the right questions

Published July 08, 2014
Janine Benyus: Nature has answers, if we ask the right questions

Catch Janine Benyus in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30.

Planet Earth spent 3.8 billion years creating the perfect answer for every design or process challenge humans can imagine. The secret to discovering them lies in asking better questions, a process Janine Benyus relishes as part of her "biologist at the design table" training sessions.

Benyus, author of the 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has dedicated her career to evangelizing the concept — which espouses the design and production of materials, structures and systems modeled on or inspired by biological principles or processes. She is equal parts educator — intent on training designers, engineers, chemists and physicists who can help spread the word about the discipline — and an innovation consultant who helps organizations think differently about solving human problems sustainably.

Speaking from her office in Montana, Benyus explains: "If somebody comes to us and says, 'We want to create a water-repellant surface but we don’t want to use Teflon,' what we would ask is, 'How does nature repel water?'

"Then after we explore that, we go to the discovery phase in which we go into the biological literature and we ask that question, 'How does nature repel water?' And we look across all classes of organization – bacterium, fungi, and plants, and animals so that we get really a breadth of mechanisms.  And we pull these mechanisms and then we begin to look for the design principles. We sort of gather them into a catalog of solutions, and we begin to see the commonalities, and we pull out some very, very simple design principles about water repellency."

One ongoing mission of the organization Benyus co-founded in 1998 with business partner Dayna Baumeister, which now goes by the name Biomimicry 3.8, is to develop a database of solutions that can serve as a reference and catalyst that can help the field scale more quickly. (There are two groups under the organization, a nonprofit institute focused on education and advocacy, and innovation consultancy that used to be a standalone entity called the Biomimicry Guild.)Nautilus shell

One successful biomimicry example that has stood the test of time is a surface protection film created by Sharklet Technologies, which mimics the skin of the Galapogos shark to repel bacteria. Other more recent illustrations come from Calera, which is transforming carbon dioxide (CO2) into a calcium carbonate cement solution patterned after the "coral reef recipe," or Novomer, which is making biodegradable plastics out of CO2.

"Biomimicry really is different in that you do not extract, harvest or domesticate an organism," Benyus says. "You learn from it."

Practically speaking, however, few of this generation's inventors were trained to look to nature for inspiration, so much of Biomimicry 3.8's energy is spent helping companies embrace this philosophy systemically.

"My job is really both gathering biological intelligence, figuring out who needs it next, and what discipline needs it next, and then trying to make things happen," she says.

So far, Biomimicry 3.8's slowly growing affiliated network of consultants have worked with about 250 companies including the likes of Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive, General Electric, General Mills, HermanMiller, HOK, Interface, Kohler, Natura, Nike, NYSERDA, Procter & Gamble, and Seventh Generation. If you want Biomimicry 101, you'll need to look elsewhere. Benyus' interest lies in going deep, so that product teams and managers can advance the ideas of biomimicry internally. The more products or brands that a particular company makes, the better.

"We often come in not even through the sustainability office, but through the innovation office. … If we can solve water repellency, say, and move that throughout all their product lines, then we've really done something," Benyus notes.

Biomimicry 3.8's longtime relationship with global architecture and design firm HOK, for example, has produced valuable industry-wide reference materials for that community in the form of a report, the Genius of Biome, which explores the implications of 18 local ecologies for future projects.

Aside from corporate engagements, there are longer, more formal courses that would-be biomimecists can take for accreditation, by application only, which Benyus sees as crucial for spreading the word and for building a pool of contractors and consultants that can assist with projects.

One thing you'll hear far more about moving forward is how the rise of 3-D printing and the software technologies that support additive manufacturing of the right product in the right place with minimal waste could scale the adoption of biomimicry.Bitterroot Mountains

One company to watch is Altair Engineering, maker of an analytics program called OptiStruct that analyzes computer-aided design (CAD) blueprints and uses knowledge of bone structures to optimize them for weight and strength. The technology already is used behind-the-scenes by some of the world's largest car companies, including Alfa Romeo, and was instrumental in helping Airbus reduce the materials used for certain wing and airplane rib assemblies by up to 40 percent, Benyus says.

"It's pure biomimicry in the sense that by studying bones and then mathematically describing what it is they do to lightweight themselves, we've been able to save all of this material, but you wouldn't look at that plane and say, 'That's biomimicry,' " she notes. "But there's biomimicry inside, and I really think that these are some of the most powerful things, these algorithms."

According to research commissioned by the San Diego Zoo's Global Center for Bioinspiration, the field of biomimicry could account for 1.6 million U.S. jobs by 2025, representing almost $1 trillion of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025. Industries where the economic impact could be most profound include utilities, transportation equipment, chemical manufacturing, waste management, warehousing and storage, and architecture.

That's a massive opportunity. So when she's not out in the field leading a design session or advocating K-12 educational outreach, you can find Benyus outdoors documenting as many new algorithms as she can uncover, especially those offered up by the mountains and wilderness in Bitterroot Valley, near her chosen home.

"I'm literally surrounded by relatively intact ecosystems that are kind of a university for me … At this point, it's just where you want to have your laptop. I'd rather have it on my deck looking at 10,000-foot peaks."



CDP, C40 report makes the business case for resilient cities

Published July 10, 2014
CDP,  C40 report makes the business case for resilient cities

Cities and companies are both focusing attention on identifying and increasing resilience against climate risks. But what risks have each sector identified, and over what time horizon? And what steps is each sector taking to address those risks?

These aren’t academic questions. If cities and the companies they host prioritize climate risks differently, or view them over wildly different time frames, they may be working at cross purposes. On the other hand, when cities and companies communicate and coordinate, they reduce the risks to both parties and increase resilience.

That’s a key conclusion from a report, released today (download), by CDP, C40 and AECOM. Titled “Protecting Our Capital,” it analyzes data from cities and companies to understand what impacts cities expect businesses could face from climate change and how greater climate resilience makes cities more attractive to business.

The report combed CDP’s extensive database of climate change activities in the 207 cities that disclosed their environmental data to CDP over the past year — nearly double the number from the previous year — and from more than 4,500 large, publicly traded companies “to understand how action by city governments creates a resilient place for business.”

Among the key findings:

  • Three-fourths (76 percent) of cities report that climate change could impact business across a range of sectors, from shipping and food production to tourism and service industries.
  • Three-fourths (75 percent) of the most severe physical risks from climate change that businesses disclose are also recognized by the relevant city — “a broad agreement between cities and business about what climate change risks the city could face.”

“What we’re seeing is that where there is increased communication and collaboration, it’s really the best possible environment for cities and businesses to work together to improve adaptation,” Larissa Bulla, Head of Cities at CDP, and one of the report’s principal authors, told me.

This has bottom-line impacts, says Bulla. “Cities are recognizing that where they have improved their resilience they are much more business friendly. So to enable them to have access and understanding of what risks their local businesses are facing is definitely a motivator for cities to take that into account.”

The report offers up examples of where climate risks can impact both companies and cities — disrupting ports in Hamburg, Germany, and Cleveland, USA; degrading local food industries in Bologna, Italy, and Campinas, Brazil; disrupting the workforce in Taipei and Rio de Janeiro.

One challenge is aligning the timescales in which both companies and cities view such risks. The report notes that each sector can view the same risks with far different time horizons. The timescales of risks reported by cities and companies were classified as either current, short-term (expected within the next 10 years) and medium- to long-term (expected to take effect after the next 10 years). “In only 26 percent of cases does the relevant city expect the risk to take effect within the same timeframe as the business,” the report found.

“A big issue in the complexities around climate change is understanding what the impacts will be over time, because it's a dynamic and variable issue,” explains Seth Schultz, Director of Research at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. “You also need to understand whether it's going to happen now or in 20 years, and whether the severity is going to increase. There are a lot of models and processes to identify that but there's not a lot of consistency yet.”

There are reasons for the disparity in how cities and companies view risks. In Paris, for example, the real estate investor Gecina conducted a risk assessment of its buildings in the city and identified that heat waves are increasing in frequency. As a result, the company conducted a detailed study to understand whether its air conditioning equipment has the capacity to deal with these increasing heat waves. Gecina reports that rising temperatures will not impact its business for another 10 years or more. The city of Paris, however, reports that the August 2003 heat wave caused over 1,000 deaths and that temperature increases and heat waves are a current risk. “Gecina assesses the climate risk in terms of when it will impact its tangible assets, whereas the city assesses the risk in terms of when it will impact its citizens,” concluded the report.

Ultimately, the authors noted, it isn’t critical that companies and cities agree on the timescales or severity of climate risks. “What is significant is that cities are identifying the same climate change risks that companies report as posing an extremely serious threat to their business. Analysis shows that cities recognize 75 percent of the extremely serious risks reported by companies.”

Bulla pointed out that 96 percent of the cases where a city has recognized the same risk as a business, it’s acting on that risk. “Disclosure isn’t just about kind of self-accountability. It’s also about proliferation of key information to all the stakeholders.”

The bottom line for all this is a new dimension to the relationship between cities and companies. Cities have long been responsible for creating and maintaining environments that are conducive to business prosperity. Climate change has added a new dimension to this responsibility, which, to be managed effectively, requires cooperation across the public and private sectors.

Says Schultz: “As cities are tackling the issue of creating a resilient environment for their citizens they are making a more resilient environment for companies. Cities that are at the forefront of doing that are going to be where cities are going to want to locate to protect their balance sheets and their assets.”

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The Natural Capital Leaders Index, 2014

By James Richens
Published February 19, 2014
Email | Print | Single Page View
Tags: Leaders, Natural Capital, More... Leaders, Natural Capital, Resource Efficiency
The Natural Capital Leaders Index, 2014

An elite group of companies are cutting their environmental impacts while continuing to grow as businesses, according to evidence gathered by natural capital analysts Trucost.

Just 34 companies were identified in the Natural Capital Leaders Index 2014 published by GreenBiz and Trucost in January. The new evidence provides further insights into how these companies achieved their position in the index.

Trucost compiled the index by analyzing the environmental and financial performance of the world’s largest 4,600 publically traded companies in 19 sectors. To compare the environmental performance of companies, which is traditionally measured by different environmental metrics – tonnes of carbon and other pollutants and cubic meters of water – with financial performance, Trucost calculated the environmental costs of these companies by putting a monetary value on their pollution and use of natural resources. The results reveal a small band of companies that increased revenue while decreasing natural capital impacts over the past five years – so-called "decoupling."

The index also identified a further group of companies that have made progress towards decoupling by using natural capital more efficiently to generate revenue over the past year.

Trucost’s analysis standardized information reported by companies in their annual sustainability or corporate responsibility reports. Trucost engages with companies each year to provide them with the opportunity to verify or improve these data. This engagement has thrown up numerous examples of how companies are achieving decoupling.

(Click for larger image)

Natural capital leaders tend to have a range of initiatives that each make a contribution, not just one big project. One decoupler, National Australia Bank, has a host of energy efficiency and carbon neutral programs, runs initiatives to reduce the impact of sourcing raw materials, as well as cutting waste through recycling. The bank is also looking at the impacts of its lending.

National Australia Bank recently invested in a tri-generation facility for its main data center. This is a gas-fired energy plant generating enough electricity, heat and cooling to satisfy 60 percent of the site’s needs. It saved some 20,000 tonnes of carbon and A$2 million in energy costs per year.

Setting targets to drive energy efficiency is another factor behind many companies’ success. Another successful decoupler, telecoms company Verizon, established standards that require new network equipment to be at least 20 percent more energy efficient than the equipment being replaced.

Business services company Manpowergroup has reduced gas and electricity consumption in its UK offices by 20 percent since 2010 through a number of energy saving initiatives including restricting heating and gas consumption to a single boiler for all but the coldest winter periods, delaying the start time of heating and air conditioning on workdays and turning it off during weekends.

Companies are also addressing the impacts in their supply chains, such as measuring their carbon and water footprints to identify ‘hotspots’ of natural capital consumption, or adopting green procurement activities. For instance, decoupler Kimberley-Clark has plans to source all of its wood fiber from suppliers that have third-party certification for their forests by 2015. National Australia Bank has switched to buying 100 percent of its paper from sources certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. US telecoms company Sprint has measured and valued the natural capital impacts of its purchased goods and services.

Cutting carbon emissions through switching to clean energy is a keystone of many firms’ improvement plans. A decoupler in the US utility sector, PG&E, is investing in solar, wind and hydroelectric energy generation to meet California’s target to generate a third of its energy needs from renewables by 2020.

Verizon is investing in US$100 million in solar and fuel cell technology at 19 facilities, reducing reliance on the fossil fuel grid by nearly 70 million kilowatt hours. Car hire firm Hertz generates over 2.5 million kWh of solar energy per year.

Closing the loop on waste through recycling and take-back schemes feature strongly among natural capital leaders. Sprint has kept 45 million tonnes of electronic waste out of landfills through a rigorous waste management program, while carmaker BMW has initiatives to integrate recycled materials into its vehicles.

These insights are very encouraging, and demonstrate that companies can be sustainable and profitable at the same time. But beyond revenue, these companies are also looking to the future by reducing the risks of exposure to volatile commodity prices, supply chain disruption and reputational damage. They are also best placed to benefit from the opportunities offered by green growth, such as demand for more sustainable products.

Despite the progress made by many companies to use natural capital more efficiently, only a handful are able to demonstrate decoupling of natural capital impacts and revenue growth. Clearly we need to see far more firms join the ranks of the decouplers in next year’s index if we are to achieve genuinely green growth.

Natural capital metrics that enable business managers to compare environmental performance with financial performance help companies to understand where they are on this journey – and consider the environmental business case alongside the financial business case in all types of decision making from product strategies to capital investments.

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Chris Davis

Director, Investor Programs
Ceres
Chris directs the Investor Program at Ceres, which promotes and supports sustainable investment policies, practices and strategies for institutional investors. He is chief of staff of the 100+ member Investor Network on Climate Risk. Chris works primarily with North American asset owners and and asset managers on climate change and other environmental, social and related governance issues that present material investment risks and opportunities. Prior to joining Ceres in 2010, Chris spent almost 30 years practicing environmental law.
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    Creative ways cities can fight the climate change 'slow tsunami'

    By James Murray
    Published July 07, 2014
    Email | Print | Single Page View
    Tags: Architecture & Design, Big Data, More... Architecture & Design, Big Data, Cities, VERGE
    Creative ways cities can fight the climate change 'slow tsunami'

    When it comes to climate change impacts, estuaries are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. These unique habitats, which are also home to 22 of the world's 32 largest cities and are essential hubs for global commerce, face not just the threat posed by rising sea levels, but also a complex nexus of increasing storm risks, droughts, water and air pollution and marine dead zones.

    However, these escalating environmental risks also have helped establish estuaries as centers for what Maggie White of the International Secretariat for Water and her colleague Philip Enquist of SOM Architecture describe as a "new generation of civil engineering" — an emerging school of thought that recognizes how the natural habitats of the past could be key to delivering the climate resilience we will need in the future.

    So-called eco-engineering concepts never have been more popular and delegates gathered at the Global Estuaries Forum in Deauville, France, last week heard of a host of examples from around the world where developers and city planners are using natural engineering phenomena to reduce flood risks and improve water quality. There is certainly a need for them.

    As White observed, the 60 percent of the world's population that live in coastal areas and estuaries are facing a "slow-moving tsunami" that could see sea levels increase 6 feet by the 2100s. Citing a recent analysis by the World Bank, Brian Kilkelly, chief executive of the World Cities Network, similarly revealed that while the global economic cost for cities of flooding is expected to increase $1 trillion a year, only 20 percent of the world's 150 largest cities have climate change plans in place.

    Moreover, only 4 percent of the world's 500 largest developing world cities, many of which are facing the most severe climate impacts, are deemed investment grade and creditworthy, making raising the capital necessary for climate resilience projects extremely challenging. The financing issue may be less acute in developed nations, but even here government austerity programs have meant numerous countries have seen flood defence budgets cut. All of which means that the appeal of eco-engineering concepts that use lower cost measures such as mudflats, reed beds, and sand bars rather than hard engineering levees and sea walls is growing fast, not least because these new approaches are not just cheaper, they are often more effective as well.

    Victor Beumer, landscape ecologist with the world-leading Dutch water and flood management agency Deltares, reveals one such project detailing how an initial proposal to raise a levee in one town was shelved after residents complained it would spoil their view. Instead, Deltares planted a willow forest in the lowland beyond the dyke, creating a natural barrier that will dissipate damaging waves in the event of a storm surge. Beumer stressed that the project still had to be comprehensively modelled as it had to deliver on its primary goal of protecting the properties and reducing flood risks. But he insisted that the results have been welcomed on all fronts. "The inhabitants are happy as they still have a view, the government is happy because it costs less and there are also biodiversity benefits," he said.Test for artificial wetlands by Deltares

    The willow planting is just one of a host of case studies from the Netherlands where new so-called soft engineering options are becoming increasingly prevalent. Similarly, in Toronto an equally ambitious project is well underway to redevelop the city's previously neglected waterfront while also tackling the flood risks that afflict the Canadian city. It may be perched on the shores of Lake Ontario, but natives of Toronto too often have neglected the opportunities presented by their own lake and travelled to enjoy some of the neighbouring Great Lakes instead, according to Brenda Webster, manager of planning and design at the Waterfront Toronto agency. However, the city has embraced a strategy of taking advantage of its most obvious natural asset and in recent years has invested around $1.2 billion in developing the waterfront, catalyzing a further $9.6 billion of private investment in the process.

    Waterfront Toronto took a conscious decision to "lead with landscape" and develop some parks and leisure areas in the district ahead of the buildings. The strategy is paying off and attracting new investors and developer to the area, but it also has served the dual purpose of drastically reducing flood risks that had been significantly increased by a century-old decision to effectively build over the Don Valley estuary that once fed the lake. The use of landscape and storm water permeable parklands has reduced the risk of flooding and now Waterfront Toronto is turning its attention to restoring the estuary to the lower don lands.

    "We will rebuild an estuary that was paved over 100 years ago," explained Webster. "We built a city and in-filled an estuary, but now we have a huge flooding issue so we now want to rebuild the estuary. Its main job will be flood protection, but we present it as a park, and then development next to it becomes much more practical. ... If we get water right, everything else falls into place. If you have the space for managing water, then you have enough park space."

    Again, the use of natural streams, wetlands, reeds and other broadly natural habitats requires a shift in mindset for some engineers — "civil engineers prefer pave and pipe to slow and spread," quipped Webster. But the prospect of an attractive, parks-rich, climate resilient new district has secured widespread business and political support, not least because the project already has delivered $3.2 billion in economic output and supported over 16,000 jobs. "It's the support of the public and business that is critical to moving in the right direction," added Webster, acknowledging that without public and corporate buy-in it would have been harder to secure political support for a long term project that will stretch across several electoral cycles.

    Public support also will be crucial if a startlingly ambitious proposal for the San Francisco Bay is to get off the ground. White revealed that plans are being developed to tackle the increasing flood risks and sea level rise threatening the region by developing a man-made archipelago that would enable cultivated flooded areas and the creation of salt marshes. The hope is that in addition to curbing the risk presented by storm surges to Bay-front properties, the creation of new habitats could spawn new industries as oysters, shellfish and salt water crops could all be harvested from the area.

    Of course, eco or soft engineering is not the only means of enhancing climate resilience. There is still a place for hard engineering projects and in Nantes, France it is being backed up by hard policy, with all new buildings required to look for an alternative solution for discharging the storm water that leads to runoff pollution in the Loire River, rather than simply disposing of it into the river and sea. Christian Couturier, vice president of urban community in Nantes, even raised the prospect of a tax on storm water that would charge people who fail to take action to ensure the ground is not watertight. In addition, the city plans to build a 6,000 cubic meter tank to store storm water before sending it for treatment.

    This engineering is necessary to combat the engineering of previous generations, which has had far less benign results. "The Loire River has been frequently modified and channeled," explained Couturier. "It is 3 meters below what it used to be, but this generates a lot of dysfunctions as when the sea level rises the water flows in very quickly as the mudflats are located higher than the river in places. Salt water can move a lot of kilometers inland and the water quality in the estuary is pretty poor."

    It is unintended consequences such as this that make eco-engineering so attractive, given generations of evidence demonstrate how natural features can limit flood risks. White and Enquist suggest there should be five guiding principles that shape this emerging school of thought: new urban development should be set back from coast to allow for natural features, there should be better co-operation between the agencies managing the up and down stream of river systems, awareness should be raised that healthy estuary leads to healthy cities, the economic opportunity for green industries created by eco-engineering should be stressed, and developers should recognise that soft engineering frequently offers more value than hard engineering solutions that can fail.

    Beumer agrees a change in culture among policymakers, planners, engineers and developers is required, but argues that this will only occur if people stop treating eco-engineering projects as highly innovative. "People say this is innovative, but it's been being done for over 10 years and if you call it innovative, people want the government to pay for it and businesses won't take the risk," he said. "There needs to be more of a focus on proving the business case, because you can get business to support it and fund it, as long as you have a clear view of the beneficiaries. People talk about the economics [of eco-engineering], but we need to scale it down to the business case, as these projects are always local."

    And there is growing evidence that the business case can be hugely compelling. Well managed eco-engineering projects not just deliver on their primary function of reducing flood risks at relatively low cost, they can also create valuable new habitats for biodiversity, introduce new leisure space for people, support new fisheries and crops, and even increase house prices.

    Experts speaking at the Global Estuaries Forum agreed that the only thing stopping wider adoption of eco-engineering projects was political and business support, although that is increasing fast as the approach matures and public backing for new developments increases. As Brice Lalonde, former French environment minister and special adviser on sustainable development to the U.N. Global Compact, observed, a previous French president once pursued a failed plan to introduce highways to the country's iconic cities with the words: "Cities must adapt to cars."

    "We fought that argument and won, and now people are realizing cars need to adapt to cities," Lalonde added. "Now we are seeing the same problem with estuaries. Ships are getting bigger and bigger and some people are saying we need to dredge estuaries to allow them access. But estuaries are so rich in biodiversity because they are shallow. We need to adapt to estuaries, not the other way around."

    That is the promise eco-engineering holds out, just so long as enough people realize that when it comes to water it is better to slow and spread than pave and pipe.

    Learn more about urban resilience at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30. This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen, a media partner of the Global Estuaries Forum. Top image of Carson Wildlife Sanctuary in Wells, Maine by spirit of america via Shutterstock

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