09 February 2013

Water, Energy, Beer and Burgers

“Water and Energy in the Crosshairs,” this year's UNC Chapel Hill Global Sustainability Symposium (#unc2013gss), just wrapped up and I find myself feeling, well, a little smarter.

The third installment in a lauded four-part series on global sustainability, “Water and Energy in the Crosshairs” brought together local and global experts and students to explore key issues related to water and energy in an inter-disciplinary and community gathering. I was pleased to see some themes repeat from last year’s symposium, Shared Tables: A Triangle Symposium on Global and Local Food Studies.

The North Carolina premiere screening of “Switch” (2012), an award-winning documentary on future energy needs and supplies, kicked off the symposium. A quest of sorts for science geeks and wannabe science geeks, the project struck me as a mashup of FRONTLINE,  "The Amazing Race" and my old favorite PBS program "3-2-1 Contact." Of course, I loved it.

The film tracks an earnest academicScott Tinker, Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and the State Geologist of Texas—as he travels to eleven countries to interview more than fifty energy experts and study best practices. The Norwegians, I was once again reminded, are ahead of the curve. Norway is the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter; according to a recent article in The Economist, petroleum accounts for 30% of the government’s revenues. Yet, remarkably, roughly 99% of Norway’s electricity comes from hydro power. With its stunning Norwegian fjords, waterfalls, and art (yes, public art in a hydroelectric plant), the power station was both resplendent and regenerative.

On Thursday night, scholar and contributing editor at The Nation, Christian Parenti, offered a framework for understanding the nexus between climate war, the legacies of Cold War militarism, and free market economics. In his opening keynote talk, Parenti urged the audience to consider the connections between climate change and violence in Afghanistan, East Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, India and elsewhere. Climate change-related food inflation, Parenti suggested, was a driver of the Arab Spring. When I read his book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011), last summer, I knew he would lend a powerful and provocative voice to the symposium and I was right.

On the final day of the symposium, a range of academics and businesspeople addressed supply side challenges of the water energy nexus and engaging a standing-room-only crowd at UNC Chapel Hill's Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

The first panelThe Supply Side of the Water-Energy Nexusfeatured Christian Burgsmueller (Head of the Energy, Transportation and Environment Section of the EU Delegation in the US); Vikram Rao (Executive Director, Research Triangle Energy Consortium); Jennifer Turner (Director, China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars); and moderator Greg Characklis (Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, at UNC Chapel Hill). Did you know that during peak wind and solar events, energy inputs to the German grid can exceed capacity and help power the Czech Republic? Or that last year, China used as much coal as the rest of the world combined?

Corporate Perspectives on Energy and Water Consumption panel participants relayed their water and energy sustainability efforts aimed, in part, to satisfy increasingly conscious consumers. James Salo (Senior Vice President, North America, Trucost) discussed what he termed the true cost of businesswater use impacts. According to Salo, an astounding 60-70% of industry’s environmental impact is water-related. Kim Marotta (Chief Sustainability Officer, MillerCoors) highlighted best practices in water stewardship, including efficiency, wastewater management, and watershed assessment. Matt Kopac (Social and Environmental Responsibility Manager, Burt’s Bees) acknowledged that the missions of Burt's Beesdo what is good for the earth, the consumer, and the companyoften but not always overlap. For example, Burt’s Bees faced challenges in China because of the Chinese government’s stance on animal testing. 

In the final panel, Learning from Germany’s Renewable Energy Policy, Dale Medearis (Senior Environmental Planner, Northern Virginia Regional Commission) and Michael Mehling (President, Ecologic Institute) explored several themes raised earlier in the day by Burgsmueller. Germany’s position as a global leader in renewable energy, is attributed to prudent government policies and the response of localities to implement solutions in their city and regional planning. 

The closing keynote speaker, Ted Howes (Chair of The World Economic Forum’s Agenda Council on Sustainable Consumption) argued that it is time to reframe the sustainability conversation and concentrate on sustainable consumption.  We are drowning in data, Howes suggested, and crave information. The Quantified Self collaborative interface epitomizes the growing self-tracking movement. Howes cited concrete examples of companies that are doing cutting-edge work in this space, including PatagoniaFairPhone, Opower and Burgerville. Look at a SmartReceipt receipt from Burgerville and it might just change the way you eat!

Everything and everyone is interconnected. Howes pointed to Seattle artist Chris Jordan's haunting Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption as a visual reminder that as consumers, we are all complicit. 

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them," Einstein warned. Like Howes, I believe that multi-disciplinarity breeds cross-pollination and innovation. Our shared commitment to dialogue, exchange across disciplines, and learning, after all, first brought me and my fellow members of the symposium planning committee together.

“Water and Energy in the Crosshairs” was a cross-disciplinary collaboration among the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Center for International Business Education and Research and UNC Global’s Center for European StudiesCenter for Slavic, Eurasian and East European StudiesAfrican Studies Center, and the UNC Institute for the Environment. Supported with funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the European Union. Special thanks to UNC’s Bulls Head Bookstore

"Water and Energy in the Crosshairs" Planning Committee:

  • Barbara Anderson, UNC African Studies Center
  • Anna Brigevich, UNC Center for European Studies
  • Erica Edwards, UNC Center for European Studies
  • Julia Kruse, Center for International Business Education and Research, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
  • Jacqueline Olich, UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies
  • Carol Seagle, Center for Sustainable Enterprise, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School
  • Elizabeth Shay, UNC Institute for the Enviroment
  • Jessica Thomas, Center for Sustainable Enterprise, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Read about "Water In Our World" (UNC's Pan-Campus Water Theme for 2012 – 2014)

Read about "Water and Energy in the Crosshairs: in The Daily Tarheel 

1 comment: