The Oberlin Project

Every now and then you come across something packed with nuggets of conceptual gold on sustainability.

This presentation by David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, from February 2012 is one of those. In it Orr discusses the Oberlin Project which aimed to regenerate the struggling Ohio rust belt town of Oberlin through sustainable development.

The project would provide the city a chance at urban regeneration and allow the local college the opportunity to examine how theories of sustainable economies and communities could be applied to “main street reality” in ways that generate value for the community and environment.

“We need to calibrate prosperity with the way ecosystems work and what they can actually regenerate.”

– David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies, Oberlin College

The Oberlin Project had four aims:

  1. Transform a downtown block owned by the local college into a green arts and hospitality district that is a driver for the local economy. This would involve setting up a “destination-worthy” hotel along with music and arts venues, restaurants and bars. The block would also be zero-waste, solar-powered and have the highest rating of the USGBC’s green building rating system.
  2. Make the city 80-90% carbon-neutral while lowering costs and creating local jobs.
  3. Create a 20,000 acre greenbelt around the city in order to grow 70% of the food consumed locally in small farms alongside forestry
  4. Make the project an educational endeavour involving local college students across all faculties

What’s particularly interesting about the Oberlin Project is its aim to explore broader issues of systems change and “full spectrum” sustainability.

Designing a creative hub in the city centre, for instance, was not just about providing an economic injection. It was also a way of engaging people through the arts and food in conversations around sustainable achievements and broader systems change for sustainable communities and economies.

The approach is based on the idea, developed by environmental scientist and thinker Donella Meadows, that the most powerful points of leverage for creating systems change are shifting people’s worldviews. Creating sustainable systems is as much about changing people’s minds as it is about changing technology and policy and the best way of doing that is to engage them in ways that resonate with them.

“This has to be a celebration but it’s got to have science in it. It’s got to have facts and numbers but it’s also got to have good food, good hospitality, good art and drama.”

– David Orr

Not that creative conversations are the only means of communicating sustainability. Academics are engaging the public through columns in the local paper in an effort to “raise the civic IQ about energy and ecological issues”.

In terms of “full spectrum sustainability” the project was designed to enact sustainability as a systems concept by engaging multiple sectors of the community, environment and economy from farms and forestry to retail government, energy, waste, the arts, climate change and various forms of knowledge from business and architecture to urban design and geography. Involving multiple sectors and forms of expertise could make change sustainable and resilient to future shocks.

It’s definitely worth giving the video a watch or reading more about the project hereThis video also gives a good, and more recent, overview of the project.

In March 2017 the Oberlin Project office shut down after 8 years of operation (longer than the intended 6-7 years). While it’s hard to tell what the economic impact of the project wast, its environmental impacts appear positive with the city held up as a “Climate Action Champion” by the Obama administration. Progress resulting from the project is expected to be continued in diverse ways by the college, the council and the community.


Photo at top: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons


Exporting the wind and sun

Australia is one of the world’s leading exporters of coal but in coming years it could become a renewable energy superpower. Australia has huge renewable energy generation potential with the International Energy Agency estimating it has the greatest solar energy potential in the world.

Combined solar and wind potential IEA

This potential means Australia stands to benefit from the shift to low-emissions energy sources in neighbouring countries with limited renewable energy resources. Australia, for instance, could export renewable energy (in the form of hydrogen or ammonia) to countries like South Korea and Japan which is making efforts to shift away from nuclear energy.

So promising is this potential that renewable energy export is one of the four key priorities for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the federal government body responsible for investing in and growing renewable energy technology in Australia.

Hydrogen is not the only option though. A hybrid solar and wind power plant to be built on the north-west coast of Australia will export electricity to Indonesia via undersea transmission cables once the AUD $13 billion project is fully up and running in 2029.

On top of exports, Australia’s embrace of its renewable resources could also attract new investment. Falling renewable energy costs alongside international decarbonisation efforts could see energy intensive industries in search of locations with cheap energy, according to a report by Beyond Zero Emissions.


Photo at top: Stu Rapley, Flickr

The ‘under 2%’ club

This chart from Simon Holmes a Court is something else.

A common argument against countries like Australia, which is responsible for just 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, taking action to reduce their emissions is that their contribution would be so small. Better to do little to nothing and let the big hitters like China, the US and the EU do the heavy lifting.

Intuitively this makes sense. But this is where Holmes a Court’s chart comes in. Take a look at it again.

2% club

That bar on the right, the tallest of all, is the total emissions of all countries whose national emissions are under 2% of the global total (like Australia). If every one of the ‘under 2%’ countries followed the logic that their contribution to fighting climate change was too insignificant to bother we’d all be screwed.

Global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change are complex and heavily negotiated. Countries look to similar countries to see that they too are taking action. So for one ‘under 2%’ country to do nothing sends a signal to others that they needn’t bother either. We’re all in this together and every country, no matter the size of its emissions compared to others, has a responsibility to take action. Suggesting that an ‘under 2%’ country do nothing to reduce its emissions is irresponsible and undermines the global fight against climate change.

Global environmental action does work

Countries from around the world gather in Bonn, Germany this week for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP) to thrash out how they, and the world collectively, will reduce emissions enough to avoid 2 degrees of global warming. As they do it’s worthwhile taking inspiration from a similar environmental problem that found a global solution.

As this story in the Washington Post explains, the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking after years of global efforts. After the hole’s discovery in the 1970s, the 1987 Montreal Protocol was signed by 24 nations – eventually increasing to 197 – who agreed to stop the use of the common artificial chemicals that were causing the ozone depletion. Scientific discovery of the hole and its causes generated awareness and public concern spurring global action.

While climate change is a different, larger and more complex beast, the success of the Montreal Protocol should be a beacon for global efforts at COP23 to make the Paris agreement a success.

PS. You can find out more about the ozone hole and see daily images (like the cover image) from NASA here.


Image at top: Ozone hole on 6 November 2017, NASA

Why would you not?

A few years ago Citibank released a report which showed that global action to fight climate change would be more cheaper than simply continuing on a business as usual path. The savings on investment costs alone were only $2 trillion BUUUUT when you factor in the avoided costs of inaction (ie. the cost of damages from climate change that are avoided) the savings were closer to $34 trillion (based on avoiding 2.5 degrees of warming)!

With those kinds of savings you’ll be asking yourself why we’re not jumping at the chance to invest in climate action and renewable energy. Indeed the Citibank report did exactly that wondering Why would you not?. As this Guardian article by Dana Nuccitelli explains, coal companies stands to lose a lot of money, a lot of it already invested in assets, with the switch to gas and renewables. That’s why they’ve been using their sizable resources and influence over governments to sew doubt about climate change and hold back support for policies that price carbon and support renewable energy.

A report released this week by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation ahead of the UN’s COP 23 climate conference next week suggests that global private investment holds the key to helping countries meet their Paris pledges to reduce carbon emissions and keep warming under 2 degrees.

As IFC chief executive Philippe Le Houérou said in the Guardian: “We can help unlock more private sector investment, but this also requires government reforms as well as innovative business models, which together will create new markets and attract the necessary investment.” These reforms involve, you guessed it, unpicking support for incumbent fossil fuel companies.

The scale of investment needed in low-emissions technology for the world to stay under 2 degrees of warming though is considerable according to recent analysis from the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford – triple what is currently being invested, or $2.3 trillion a year to 2040. That’s a lot of money that needs to be unlocked. But if coal companies get out of the way and government works with business to do what’s needed we all stand to benefit and more than just economically.


You can have a solar powered steel mill

There are many renewable energy good news stories these days but this one stands out for a number of reasons.

Steelworks in Whyalla, South Australia are set to be powered by a solar, battery and pumped hydro project. This announcement signals a future where heavy, energy-intensive industry is powered by clean energy providing jobs and greenhouse gas reduction.

As Zen Energy (the company constructing the project) chairman Sanjeev Gupta said in the Guardian article: “I believe there is a great future for energy intensive industries in Australia.”

It’s also another sign that business and people with vision are getting on with the inevitable and smart shift to renewable energy and storage because it makes business sense.

It’s refreshing after years of (still ongoing) political intransigence from conservative politicians in Australia and wildly inaccurate scare tactics like the below quote from former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It would be funny if it hadn’t cost (and wasn’t still costing) Australia investment and holding us back from the transition to a clean energy economy.

Investing in solutions



This ad for Bank Australia is a great example of normalising socially responsible business, renewable energy and divestment. None of these are particularly new ideas but the fact they’re on TV in a slick ad for a business shows how they’re becoming mainstream.

When watching the ad keep an eye out for the solar panels being installed by a business owner to save money, the message that the bank “doesn’t lend to the fossil fuel industry”, the lady charging her Tesla and wind turbines as the picturesque backdrop to an Australian road trip.

The more these kinds of images and messages appear in the media, particularly in a way that portrays them as business-friendly, the more normal they will seem and the more support they will have. And we certainly need more businesses and more people using their power to create a better world by investing in solutions, not fossil fuels.