If we expand our existing sustainability measures 20% per year, every year, the entire world will be 100% sustainable by 2025. (This does not mean x% now, x + 20% next year x + 40% the year after, etc.--that's unrealistic. This simply means x% now, x + .2x% next year, etc.) This small increase, compounded over fourteen years, would get us to a 100% green world.
That's a big oversimplification, but let me explain why it comes closer than you might think to being true, and why it might be a better policy goal than many in place now.
For example, currently, 6% of Europe's electricity generation is from renewable sources. If they wanted it to be 100% by 2025, they should expand renewable energy generation by about 15% per year, every year, compared to other power sources. (This does not mean 6% now, 21% next year, 36% the year after, etc. It only means 6% now, 6.9% next year, 8% the year after, etc.) This sounds small, and in fact is less ambitious than their current plan to grow renewables from 6% to 12% by 2010. That would require increasing renewables' share by 17% per year. But if Europe kept growing its percentage of renewables by 15% per year until 2025, they would be at 100% green power. Perhaps such a policy would be both more ambitious and easier to achieve.
Governments and think-tanks worldwide speculate about what's needed to become sustainable, and what can be set as realistic policy goals. Too often, these goals are stated like "reduce CO2 emissions 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010", or "by 2003, 10% of all cars sold in California shall be electric". The most common outcome in situations like this is the school kid's cram-and-burn scenario: nothing happens until the deadline looms, at which point a frantic flurry of activity erupts, usually resulting in the deadline being missed. (Or, in the case of the California electric car legislation as with so many other cases, the legislation gets dropped altogether, for being an "unrealistically high expectation".)
So let's take the same goals and rewrite them to be incremental deadlines: you need to be a little better by the end of this year, and then next year improve by the same amount, ad infinitum. This may not sound exciting at first, but if you improve by the same percentage every year, you skyrocket into exponential growth. It's Moore's Law for sustainability, the law of accelerating returns.
One big advantage of this approach is that if the improvements have to be constant over years, they can be planned for--companies can set up programs or departments to deal with them in a way that's integrated into normal production and R&D, rather than throwing together a one-time task-force to change things from the outside. Truly effective institutional change often requires years, and often requires systemic measures. Setting small but frequent deadlines also tightens the feedback loop so you know whether you're on track and can correct earlier. It's like Kaizen, the Japanese method of continuous improvement (which is a large part of what's made Japanese manufacturing the highest quality in the world).
The other main advantage of this Moore's Law approach is that it's an easy back-of-the-envelope way of making policy targets, using backcasting with simple exponential-growth math. Just decide your desired target amount (of toxins, of power use, of whatever) and your target year; then find the current amount, and plug it into the exponential growth equation.
For another example, about 9% of US electricity generation is renewable, so the US only needs to improve by about 13% per year to reach 100% by 2025. ...Well, it's not quite that simple. Of that 9% renewable energy, more than 7% is hydroelectric and about 1% is biomass, which means wind and solar account for around 0.4%. (Similar figures are true for Europe, though it's not quite so skewed towards hydro.) So if hydro & biomass count as renewables in your book, the US only needs to improve by about 13% per year as mentioned above; but if only wind and solar count for you, then a 34% annual improvement is needed. This may sound unattainable, but statistics from the American Wind Energy Institute say that the country's installed base of wind power increased by 35% last year, so even this audacious-sounding target is clearly viable.
The same exercise can be done for other important metrics, like efficiency, meat eating, water use, organic food, use of toxins, etc. For instance, let's say we want to eliminate the use of PBDE's in consumer products. If you assume that today 100% of products contain them, but you want less than 1% to contain them by 2025, your policy should be to reduce PBDE use by about 22% per year.
In the case of hazardous materials like PBDE, simply banning the material is often effective, because as long as a suitable replacement chemical is known, it can be swapped for the banned chemical 100% right away. Exponential-growth policies would lend themselves more to problems like oil, where it is difficult to go cold-turkey because no swap-in replacement exists. If we (as individuals, or as countries) reduced oil use by 21% per year, swapping out a little at a time here and there for different fuels or for efficiency, we would be able to eliminate 99% of our oil use by 2025. If we reduced oil use by just 10% a year, we would be 99% oil-free by 2050.
In the case of food, about 2.5% of all food sold in the US is organic. If organic food sales grew 21% per year, we would have 100% organic food by 2025; according to the Organic Trade Association, in 2005 organic dairy sales grew 23% and organic meat sales grew 55%. Apparently this target will be an easy one to achieve.
Things are once again not quite that simple, because progress can't always happen so uniformly. Legislating switchovers to organic farming is one thing; improving technology in vehicles or electronics to become much more efficient every year is another. Sometimes the physics just hits a brick wall and there's not much more you can do in that direction. However, the history of technology is one long series of surmounting seemingly impossible barriers. The world's industry has already increased its efficiency (in energy use per dollar of revenue) 1 - 4% per year for the last hundred fifty years, as we've mentioned before, and that's without declaring ecological improvements a huge R&D priority, that's simply a side-effect of business as usual. Even if we do find technological barriers that are insurmountable, they can often be circumvented in other ways: a vehicle's efficiency can be doubled by putting a second person in it, with no improvements in technology. And simply making the effort to continually improve can work wonders, as Kaizen's phenomenal success has demonstrated.
Using the Moore's Law approach, or Green Kaizen if you prefer, could be a great policy to push green developments in the right direction. Obviously the rates of required change vary widely, depending on the substance or technology being improved, but as we've seen above you can go from almost nothing to 100% green in just fourteen years if you expand your green activities / technologies / substances by 20% every year. That number is close enough to be a reasonable policy goal for almost all sectors of the economy and environment. And as we've seen, it's a goal that can be surprisingly realistic to achieve, and has in fact been surpassed in several arenas. We just need to keep the momentum going.
Sounds interesting but I think there will be an descreasing returns instead of increasing returns. There will be a point where it isn't efficient to be too green - that it would take more than it gives out at some point.
For instance, when we talk about green energy, the production of green energy requires lots of land (wind and solar farms, plantation of sugar, palm oil etc for ethanol) while other sources like gas, coal and nuclear don't require too much land. At one point, the latter would become greener than the former as the latter's costs (costs as in full cost account, including its effect to environment) increase vis-a-vis the latter.
A real world example of this is Brazil and Southeast Asia. Both are trying to increase their biofuel production and that means increase land size available to sugar cane and palm oil respectively. That increase in land is a threat to biodiversity. In future, if there are to be too much land dedicated to these plantations, these biofuel might be less green than it used to be.
The problem with arguing that become more green will cause diminishing returns ignores the external costs and other costs not represented in the price tag. Part of the problem with burning hydrocarbons is that the by-products of production are not accurately accounted.
Likewise, the capital costs of putting up more wind generators is negligible. Most countries have more than enough land to dedicate to wind, especially since wind does not reduce the overall availability of the land. Your example of Brazil and Southeast Asia are ill-prepared; while there is certainly a danger of a misallocation of land in the future, dedication of capital to biofuels at the present time is important.
I would agree that there are a number of short-term costs that appear to be quite high; however, the long-term benefits are beyond value. To simply state that "you can be too green" is not a valid argument.
Interesting way of presenting this kind of targets. But the EU's bioenergy targets work a bit like this: 5.75 by 2010, 15 by 2015 and 25 by 2020. The years in between can be presented as you do, Jeremy.
@ earth too, and agreeing with Nick: let's not forget that a big incentive to invest in bioenergy is the price of carbon credits. Europe is so lucky to have coupled two sets of targets to each other: one to reduce CO2, the other obviously to do so by increasing the share of bioenergy in the portfolio.
The further we progress in time (along the obligatory CO2 reduction track), the more expensive it becomes to keep using CO2-burdened energy production, and the more interesting it becomes to invest in bioenergy. If both targets are met simultaneously, it becomes more or less a zero operation (switching from CO2-burdened production to CO2-neutral production is not penalised).
The real practical problem of land is not really an issue, since you can produce your bioenergy feedstocks in the tropics.
How about Hydroponic Skyscrapers powered by renewables?
Organic is a plus too.
Damn, forgot to put this in...
You could put these structures in the suburbs and industrial area's to grow the crops and produce the biofuel which is then pumped into pipelines that goes straight into the tanks of some repository tanks where trucks come and pick it up to deliver to the gas stations. All within the same metropolitan area. Just think how much more efficient such a system could be...
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Please, we need to stop repeating untrue and harmful assumptions about the 'difficulties' of sustainability.
Not only has Jeremy demonstrated that the timelines are feasible, but we have the other things we need as well - land, tools, ideas, etc. Everything but momentum (and in the US, political will).
Comments like "the production of green energy requires lots of land" is such an assumption. (Although we in the US already have lots of land, so it's a moot point here.) Humans have not begun to utilize space with anything near the innovation of other species. We can produce food, energy, fuels, and new technologies all within urbanized areas.
Cutting down rainforest for sugarcane represents the same old industrial mindset - I agree with you that it's unsustainable. But that in no way implies that biofiels somehow require rainforest destruction. When we think in new terms about what's possible, new possibilities emerge.
The proponents of the same old thing have enough traction already - let's not help them out.
Thanks for the post Jeremy - I love 'green kaizen!'
Nice framework - a steady "Green Kaizen" percentage reduction per year (or equivalently resource-use "half-lives") gets you a long way pretty fast.
For planning purposes, e.g. the case of oil, year-over-year targets will have to at least match post-peak depletion rates. Estimating the envelope of required reduction amounts tells us how fast economies have to be prepared to restructure. This kind of "required rate of return" could set meaningful and easily-understood targets for many challenges, from carbon emissions to resource use rates to natural capital depletion.
Imagine a future state-of-the-economy broadcast: "The Economic Efficiency Index improved by 3.7% this year, slightly ahead of most analysts' predictions. Estimates are that the blended Pollution Subindex, which has beat its 7% target for the past 30 years, is now on track to hit 2x sustainable in four more years, down from a high of 19x sustainable in 2008..."
I like the emphasis on incremental change - not only is it easier to see/measure improvement but also to explain to folks how to achieve each years' goal.
In my company we are implementing ISO 14001 (http://www.iso-14001.org.uk) - in doing so, we undertake annual reviews and set annual targets. This allows us to quickly see how we did/are doing and to pat ourselves on the back at regular intervals.
Jeremy, excellent post. This strikes me as enormously useful for urban groups trying to establish clear goals for their communities. A major stumbling block can be the feeling that no matter what we do, things can't get better, the problems are too big. Incremental, visible progress seems like a perfect tool to deal with this.