Can we build a sustainable Delaware?

April 19, 2013

Climate change has arrived--right now, right here in Delaware. How can we adapt in ways that do not harm our quality of life? Can we respond without retreat?

Everyone wants better quality of life. But we now face a daunting choice: we cannot promise better lives for future generations if we continue with traditional means of producing and using energy. The problem: the growing scale of human activities is encountering the limits of nature to sustain that expansion. Nature plays by its own rules, not ours.

We need to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem. There has never been a modern society that has increased per capita standard of living while decreasing its use of energy. The history of the developed world in particular shows big increases in both standards of living and energy use from the Industrial Age on. In the developing world too, the path to better living is understood to require more production of energy for home, transportation, and industrial use.

But the formula of “better living through increased energy use” isn’t sustainable, especially when that energy comes from fossil fuels. What will be our new formula?

One way to reconceive the formula is to charge people more for putting carbon into the atmosphere. Leading economists recommend that those who pollute more with carbon should pay more. Those who go green, walk, and conserve, pay less.

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, recommends that we end harmful fuel subsidies, which distort prices by making those fossil fuels look far cheaper than they really are. Subsidies increase carbon use by about 5 percent. He thinks we should also put a cap on carbon pollution, or at least a heavy tax. California, Europe, Australia and Japan already do this. Currently, everyone involuntarily subsidizes carbon pollution by oil and coal producers: $502 billion by US taxpayers every year, $1.9 trillion worldwide, a new IMF study reported. If we price carbon pollution to reflect the real environmental costs to our climate, we may have both the incentive and the wealth to repair our way of living.

Renewable energy innovations are another part of the new formula. Solar and wind can provide much of the energy America currently consumes. The focus of energy innovation is in cities, because that is where much of the world’s population (and 80 percent of Americans) live. Cities are being re-thought as complex adaptive systems – just like nature’s ecosystems. Here, a kind of innovation called “whole system design” comes to life.

The main idea behind this new “systems” thinking is to integrate human activities and economics to work within nature’s own economy – to see ourselves nested within nature, and to build accordingly. Urban planners can help to create socially rich, economically vibrant, walkable, green and healthy cities for people and nature. These cities will be attractive to both young and aging people.

A new formula for living will make cities better designed for people and a more meaningful life. It will help to fill the health prescription for more active lifestyles, and the demands of seniors for urban design to support “aging in place” – living in their neighborhoods after they stop driving.

With a new formula, we can have better lives and use less energy. Responding to climate change and going green is no retreat from the quality of life. It is the quality of life – for all life.

John Mateyko and Dr. Tom Powers

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