May a greener future begin in a greener classroom?

A number of speakers at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference this week in Washington, D.C. raised concerns that inadequate academic preparation in basic math, science, and reading skills are presenting major barriers in preparing workers for jobs in a clean energy economy.

Given the subject of the conference, a significant focus on jobs, energy, and economic growth was to be expected. But a specific and reoccurring focus on education (not just training) felt particularly significant as this too-often overlooked element represents a critical component to the entire jobs, development, and recovery (green or otherwise) equation.

Dean Allen, chief executive of innovative construction giant McKinstry, lamented that increasingly his company has had to turn away young motivated workers due to poor performance in math and science entrance exams. Representatives from several community colleges also reiterated the complexity of challenges they are facing in training workers with limited education for careers in next generation technologies.

Highlighting the interconnections among education, job creation, national competitiveness, and energy, Allen proposed a linking strategy: green schools.

Consider the statistics: Over half of U.S. schools today are at least 50 years old, and we know that buildings (not limited to schools) consume over 70% of electricity in the country. Based on McKinstry’s own experience, up to 50% of that electricity is currently wasted due to building inefficiencies. Translated into economic terms, a McKinsey & Co. report estimates that approximately $130 billion worth of energy is lost each year.

So building retrofits make a lot of sense, and according to Allen, school retrofits in particular are among the most important places to get started. In addition to the almost countless benefits of green buildings, bringing energy and design technology directly into the classroom provide an unparalleled educational opportunity while also creating jobs and saving energy. To maximize the value of a green school approach Allen advocates two principles: 1. students, teachers, and maintenance workers are to be actively involved throughout the “greening” process, and 2. financial savings realized from reduced utility bills go directly back into the classroom to fund STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

Though perhaps not a job training panacea, green schools represent one more strategy to reduce energy use and spur demand for green jobs while also exposing future generations to careers in green industries. The U.S. Green Building Council has been a leader in this movement and offers tools and resources for cities to get started, including the Mayor’s Alliance for Green Schools.

Local leadership continues following Copenhagen Accord

After two-weeks of negotiations and amid rising speculation and anxiety, the COP-15 concluded last week with the Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding treaty to reduce carbon emissions among developed nations while simultaneously providing financial support to developing countries most vulnerable to the devastating impacts of global climate change.

Heralded by some, criticized by others, the operative word in this Accord, the word which may ultimately determine the long-term implications of this historic summit is non-binding. Though final terms of the agreement are still being negotiated the current lack of enforcement surrounding these pledges have led many to question its true significance.

Of course the fact that any deal was reached at all comes as a somewhat unexpected though pleasant surprise. Media reports for months leading up to the conference cast overwhelmingly gloomy projections on possible U.S. involvement. Ironically, now that a deal has been reached, much credit is being given to the 11th hour involvement of both Secretary Clinton and President Obama. 

While final details regarding national commitments will continue to emerge over the coming weeks, critics and supporters alike may benefit from a shift in focus away from treaties and pledges, and towards the existing local level action, innovation, and results. Throughout our week in Copenhagen we were surrounded by local leaders, NGO’s, private sector investors, and academics demonstrating that they not only have the will and the capacity to affect real change, but that they are already doing it.

Messages of optimism reverberated from these groups. In contrast to the guarded nature of nation-level talks, local-level leaders (the second largest delegation next to the host country) met enthusiastically to share experiences and offer support for each other’s efforts. Local leaders across the global spoke with a unified voice – we are the innovators, implementers, and decision makers in our communities; directly feeling the impacts of a changing climate we have not waited in taking action.

Deal or No Deal

Minute by minute updates from the Copenhagen climate summit provide a perspective that is both distorted and unhelpful. Watching the negotiations at COP-15 is like watching the Dow Jones at the beginning of a recession. Daily gyrations mean nothing.  You have to take the long view.

Certainly momentum matters. President Obama, and other leaders in Copenhagen, has built some momentum for compromises on a climate change agreement.  Recent commitments from the U.S., China, India and Brazil have produced both excitement and expectation. 

The close of negotiations today is where the irresistible force of hope and expectation run smack into the immovable object of political reality and bureaucratic inertia. There was never going to be a binding political document satisfactory to 193 countries coming out of Copenhagen.  That fantasy was abandoned long ago. However, what has happened over the last two weeks has been a productive use of time.

Negotiators have come to some understanding about the size of target reductions for green house gas (GHG) emissions. Calculations about the base year – whether its 1990 or 2005 – are becoming simply a matter of mathematics not politics. Most importantly, there is a clearer picture of how much money may be available for an adaptation fund for developing countries to help wean them off carbon in the same manner as developed countries.  This is more than one could have expected as little as three months ago.

What ultimately matters at the COP-15 is continuing progress not a treaty. Given the present commitments from large carbon emitters and the attention that world leaders have focused on climate change, there is evidence that countries are far closer to concluding a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocols than they have ever been.

Thursday at COP-15

(The following is a guest blog from Councilor Henrietta Davis. Councilor Davis is from Cambridge, MA, and is chair of the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.)   We’re now locked out of the official Bella Center as are most if not all NGOs. Yesterday we were able to press the need for cities to be considered as “government” and not as non-governmental.The fact that cities are responsible for a significant portion of GHGs and therefore are in a position to enable significant reductions has not yet sunk in to the powers that be.  Meanwhile those of us here representing cities want municipal governments to be recognized in the preamble of the text to  be written.  Of course, we can’t be sure that anything will be written.  Whatever happens today or tomorrow, we here with the National League of Cities want to work together with all cities across the globe to aggressively reduce GHGs. 

The Reasons Why?

Why are representatives from tens of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) willing to wait in the freezing cold and snow just to get into meetings at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen?  The answer can be summed up in two words — leadership and solutions.

The UN may be an organization of nation states, but this climate summit has drawn thousands of grass roots organizations that work everyday to solve basic issues connected with climate change such as access to water, sustainable urban habitat, energy generation and expanded mass transportation options.

The lord mayor of Copenhagen took note that local government leaders, especially a large group of global big city mayors, arrived many days before the delegations of heads of state.  “Local government,” she said, “arrived early with climate change solutions.”  In effect, cities have been willing to act, to be ambitious, and to exercise leadership.

In the hallways of COP-15 you can see and hear dozens of worldwide celebrities and luminaries on big screen monitors while you walk to exhibits from private sector companies and NGOs.  More interesting however are the briefings, lectures, workshops and personal conversations with literally thousands of municipal officials, city planners, and specialists in land use, water systems, technology application and health care, as well as scientists, authors, entrepreneurs, NGO staffers, and bankers.

At the local and grass roots levels, there is an enormous level of comity, respect, information sharing and trust.  These are the characteristics that appear to be lacking among the leaders and delegations from national governments.  What you see at the center of COP 15 are thousands of solutions being tried by local actors.  Alas, among less than 200 national government delegations there is a level of mistrust that is a barrier to organized and coordinated global action on climate change solutions.

City governments and grass roots organizations have taken on the climate change solutions and have demonstrated genuine leadership. The call to national governments, as expressed by Senator John Kerry, is to have the courage to take the risks to implement the solutions.

IPCC Chair Pachauri speaks in Copenhagen

Several of us had the opportunity last night to be in the audience for a presentation by Dr. R. K. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The lecture was held in the impressive setting of a 200 year-old hall at the University of Copenhagen, and the room was packed to see one of the leading voices on climate change.  Dr. Pachauri summarized the latest IPCC report findings, from the remarkable increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1970, to the undeniable rise in global temperatures.  He went on to remind us of the effects that will touch all parts of the world, some of which — from disappearing arctic ice to increases in storms and heat waves – may already be evident.  A ‘pdf’ of his PowerPoint presentation is available on the university website. 

One of the lasting impressions of the lecture, for better or worse, has got to be the smattering of quasi-questions from a few members of the audience, clearly aimed at raising doubts about the science.  While discussion and differing viewpoints should be useful, hearing one questioner ridicule Dr. Pachauri’s efforts to get solar-powered lamps to poor communities, and then laud the history of “carbon energy,” you can’t help but start to question the motives at play.  The ensuing questioning of the integrity of 2500-plus scientists representing every corner of the world with no possible agenda — that was simply frightening.  It was clearly a small minority of the audience, and Dr. Pachauri stood firm, even flashing an occasional sense of humor.

NLC offers input in negotiations

(The following is a guest blog from Councilor Henrietta Davis. Councilor Davis is from Cambridge, MA and has served on the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.)  This afternoon included a briefing session with the U.S. State Department advocating for partnerships between the federal government and cities and towns on climate.  We are the folks who are following through on adaptation and mitigation, and we want to be at the table as this action goes forward. We are focused and committed and we’d like to be formally recognized in the international agreement, both in the preamble and the operational language.  

I testified, representing NLC and the country’s 19,000 cities and towns.   We delivered a unified message –  the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NACo, ICLEI, etc.  — and asked the State Department to work with us.   We are critical partners.  We’ve been doing this work for years.

World municipal leaders converge

Just returned from a gathering of municipal leaders in honor of the COP-15 host, Lord Mayor Ritt Bjerregaard of Copenhagen. While there our team connected with several other local government leaders, including Mayor Bloomberg of New York, Mayor Nickels of Seattle, and Mayor Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, MN — the incoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which hosted this event.  As this was a meeting of municipal leaders from around the globe we were also pleased to spend time speaking with the Mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, and Mayor David Bronoconnier of Calgary.

The event underscored the important role that local government has had leading the fight against climate change. In remarks to the group, Lord Mayor Bjerregaard pointed out that the assembled group of mayors and local officials rightfully arrived in Copenhagen ahead of their national delegations physically, much in the same way that they have also been actively ahead of national leadership on this important issue.

Making contacts at COP-15

It’s all about who you meet and what you might accomplish afterward.  In the space of one day, including a few hours standing in sub-freezing temperatures outside of the Bella Center, our NLC group made the best use of our time and circumstance.

Guillermo Tapia of the Latin American municipal association (FLACMA), and our friend from membership in United Cities and Local Government, was just 50 yards in front of us.  Despite the cold, he was optimistic about the local agenda at COP.

Over breakfast we talked with staff from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  They’re promoting a new book on cities that we will collect from their booth.

The environmental program director from Malmo, Sweden told us about the new green harbor development project in her city.  Malmo’s examples are featured at the EU exhibition booth.

Similar discussions have been conducted with Ed Miller, director of the environmental program at the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, Jeff Nash from CH2M/Hill, Mayor Pat Hays from North Little Rock, Ark., Mayor Martin Chavez from Albequerque, N.M., and Sanoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown, the president of sister association the National Association of Counties.

Some are old friends, others are new ones.  All are promoting a sustainability agenda that has value at home and abroad.

Day one on the ground

Day one in Denmark proved to be a success, as the delegation had no problem fighting through the six-hour time difference from the Eastern time zone and little sleep on the planes.  NLC was on the ground and right at work on Sunday. 

Following different arrival times, the group met up at an afternoon briefing in downtown Copenhagen, organized by our friends at ICLEI-USA.   Multiple climate scientists delivered the latest background on the mitigation and adaptation situations in the U.S., the E.U., and globally.  And the U.S. State Department was present to provide a status report on the negotiations and answer plenty of questions.  There’s lots of hope that by the end of the week there will be a solid political deal that will lead directly to a binding agreement in 2010.  But as difficult as the international situation already was coming into COP-15, the task has only increased with the introduction of a host of new issues and the damaging leak of a draft working paper.  In the meantime, State assured those at the briefing that the message concerning the importance of local and state governments has been taken to heart by the U.S. delegation. 

Tomorrow we head to the official site of the U.N. meeting, the Bella Center.  While we’re looking forward to the day, we’ve also been warned about the length of the lines to pick-up credentials to enter the building, despite everyone having pre-registered.  One person we met today said she waited — mostly outside — for five hours.