The Green Column #18

How Far is it From Copenhagen to Lincoln?

January 4, 2010—Distances in today’s world are relative to effective communications, networks and connections, our systems of human values and access to decision leaders. Upon what other foundations can equity and justice be assured for the public in public policy settings?

The recent international climate change discussions in Copenhagen and the meager outcomes likely seem very far away if you live in one of northern Alaska’s coastal seafaring communities —communities that are falling into the sea because of the melting permafrost. Or, if you live on one of the small island nations, such as the Maldives, where sea level is expected to rise more than a meter—and the highest elevation on the island is one meter.

The objective of the COP-15 talks in Copenhagen was to set frameworks for goals, requirements and responsibilities for nations and their citizens to equitably share responsibilities for living in sustainable, conservation-based means on planet Earth. Ultimately, and many would say sooner rather than later, we must find the commitment, the ways and the means not to deprive future inhabitants, or even our own generation, of access to the Earth’s remaining and limited resources.

Geographical distances are no longer the barrier to agreements and shared responsibilities. The practical distance is created by disagreements over the material value and the perceived justice and “rights” of access to these resources. Politics over policies.

A local example, focusing on the national dispute over health care, comes to mind. Sen. Ben Nelson, I think, would consider Nebraska and Lincoln as “neighborhoods” of Washington, D.C., while a Republican governor would view, on this issue, the distance gap to be even greater than the reality of 1,087 miles.

Another example, that actually affects the international negotiations over policies for managing climate change, is the body of local and regional policies designed to increase the energy efficiency and the reduction of carbon emissions through retrofitting of housing. Those professionals and civic leaders who look for large reductions of the emissions of CO2 see the housing sector in developed nations as a huge opportunity. As much as 30-50 percent of a city’s carbon footprint can be attributed to the low efficiency of energy consumption in the housing stock.

The European Union has organized an Action Plan for Energy Efficient Housing for the entire region of nations. The Action Plan specifies a comprehensive range of measures for removing barriers to defined energy efficiency and for a progressive transformation towards a general aim of zero energy and zero carbon housing.

The plan outlines three policy areas to act upon: (a) energy efficiency governance and financial infrastructure, (b) energy performance standards and technology integration, and (c) access to energy efficiency and public housing.

Each of the policy areas contains four goals, which are supplemented by more detailed targets, and suggested actions and timeframes for their implementation. Each of the goals is also underpinned by an overall vision of expected achievements by the year 2020.

The proposed actions are based upon eight pillars:

  1. Existing housing’s retrofitting to excellent energy standards.
  2. Excellent energy standards for all new-built homes.
  3. Energy efficient utility systems providing services to housing.
  4. Low-energy housing management systems and practices.
  5. Replacement of inefficient appliances and lighting systems.
  6. A minimized carbon footprint for the housing sector.
  7. Environmentally friendly building practices.
  8. Housing energy affordability.

The main aim of this Action Plan is to establish the necessary institutional conditions for these pillars to be built or strengthened and thereby to achieve a sustainable transition to a low-energy housing sector (and eventually to zero energy and zero carbon housing). To this end, the Action Plan provides a policy framework for both individual member states’ actions and international cooperation. This plan was the foundation for the EU’s commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20-30 percent by 2020.

The discussion and refinement of this policy document took place in Vienna just weeks before the Copenhagen conference. The Joslyn Institute was there, having been invited to deliver a paper at the housing conference on its unique Sustainometrics methodology and system of measuring progress toward sustainability.

It was obvious that the framers and discussants of the proposed policies were serious, passionate and enthusiastic about the ultimate regional impacts. However, none of this good planning apparently had any influence on the outcome of the Copenhagen conference.

One post-COP 15 conference British report said, “Imagine if you believe you have had the smart ideas, that you have set the agenda, that you are leading by example, that you are defining the future and at the defining moment, when all your hard work should bear fruit, the door is shut in your face. You think it is almost your party but you are stopped at the rope line.”

They should not have felt alone. There were 192 nations represented and the final document was negotiated and framed by just 20 nations. So, one might ask, “How far is it from Brussels to Copenhagen?” A great distance it would seem.

I hope the leaders of the EU will persist with their Action Plan, and I further hope the communities of the world and their leaders and committed citizens will redouble their local and personal efforts toward sustainability—even in the face of these international “distances.”

© Lincoln Green by Design