Pope Benedict XVI : Laying the Groundwork for a Sustainable Civilization ?

by Gary Gardner

Published by Worldwatch Institute on April 15, 2008

Rumour has it that Pope Benedict may address climate change during his visit to the United Nations this week. Whether he does or not, his young papacy can claim to be the “greenest” ever. Benedict has identified extensive common ground between sustainability concerns and a Catholic worldview – adding weight to the argument that the world’s religions could be instrumental in nudging policymakers and the public to embrace sustainability. Now, the Pope has the opportunity to further develop the links between sustainability and religious values, markedly advancing thinking in both arenas.

Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, made important environmental statements during his long papacy, but Benedict is the first “green pope.” Last year, the Vatican installed solar panels on its 10,000-seat main auditorium building, and it arranged to reforest land in Hungary to offset Vatican City’s carbon emissions, making it the world’s first carbon-neutral state. And Benedict has repeatedly urged protection of the environment and action against poverty in a number of major addresses. His next encyclical (major papal teaching), due out this summer, is expected to further wrestle with environmental, social, and other themes of interest to the sustainability community.

As he embraces these themes, Benedict and the larger Catholic community could play an especially valuable role in helping to address two major influences on the environment that get too little attention today: consumption and population. (A third, technology, already receives high levels of policy focus.)

The consumption question should be comfortable ground for a modern Catholic pope, given the longstanding social and spiritual critique of consumerism in Catholic thought. For example, Pope Paul VI, in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, linked heavy consumption to injustice, declaring that, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life…. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”

John Paul II added a spiritual dimension in Centesimus Annus in 1991, critiquing “a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,'” and urging people to “create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.” The Church’s spiritual and social teachings are rich complements to modern environmental arguments against consumerism.

Benedict’s challenge is to move longstanding Church teaching into concrete action. Despite the extensive archive of papal statements on the subject, there is no evidence that Catholics consume less or differently than anyone else. Yet given that 40 percent of the human family lives on less than $2 a day while the prosperous among us consume casually and wastefully, Catholic leadership in redefining “the good life” away from accumulation and toward greater human wellbeing and solidarity with the poor cannot come soon enough.

Benedict will need to be creative in persuading the comfortable in his Church to take consumption teachings seriously. The dramatic equivalent of solar panels on a Vatican rooftop may be needed to move prosperous Catholics to critically assess their own consumption-and to find joy in consuming less.

The other issue, population, is more difficult for a Catholic leader to tackle, especially one with Benedict’s reputation for doctrinal strictness. For Benedict and most Catholics, human reproduction is a domain infused with questions of deep personal morality. But a pontiff who appreciates the epochal nature of the sustainability crisis must surely also recognize the moral challenges raised when human numbers grow exponentially in a finite world.

How much of modern hunger, disease, poverty, and environmental degradation can be blamed on population sizes that have exceeded the carrying capacity of local, regional, and global environments? The share is unknowable, but surely not small. The challenge for Benedict will be to apply his formidable intellect to harmonize the personal and social ethics of population issues.

Benedict’s interest in sustainability issues comes not a moment too soon. The sustainability crisis is civilizational in scope and depth-and therefore a natural concern for a global institution like the Catholic Church. Should Benedict raise the twin issues of consumption and population to the level of theological and spiritual attention they deserve, he would not only advance thinking on religious ethics-but also on how to create just and environmentally sustainable societies.

Gary Gardner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the book Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development.

Island generates sustainable future

Published in The Financial Times 15 April 2008

By Andrew Bolger, Scotland Correspondent

 

Cutting edge initiatives may not generally be associated with the Orkney Islands, whose sleepy pace of life tends to attract more holiday makers than policy makers.

But Westray, the largest of Orkney’s northern isles, is attempting something never before tried in the UK. In just four years it aims to become the first community to produce the equivalent of all of its energy needs from renewable sources.

Developing renewable energy is a key object of the Westray Development Trust, which was created in 1998 in an attempt to stem the brain drain from the island.

Now, while its population still stands at a meagre 600, the number is rising and the trust feels the island “has turned the corner”, according to William McEwen, one of the trust’s founders.

Sandy McEwen, who with her husband has refurbished several historic buildings on the island, is in no doubt that the commitment to sustainability is luring newcomers and helping to safeguard Westray’s future. “We are attracting creative people – painters and jewellery makers – and protection of the environment is very important to them,” she said.

A maths teacher at the island’s high school, Mr McEwen has created Orkney Bio-Fuels, which makes bio-diesel from used cooking oil collected from hotels, pubs, restaurants and chip shops. As well as supplying the islanders with cheap green fuel, the venture makes a modest income for the trust – enough, it is hoped, to hire a full-time employee.

Another idea of Mr Mc-Ewen’s is an electric taxi for Westray’s elderly and disabled residents. It is about to enter service after receiving funding from ScottishPower and the government. Wind turbines will charge the pollution-free vehicle’s battery.

A care centre for the island’s elderly has wind turbines and a ground source heat pump. A youth centre is partly heated by a 2.5kilowatt wind turbine since it opened eight years ago.

Lorna Brown, a youth development worker, said: “It’s great that our young people use electricity generated from the wind at their own youth centre. They are growing up with renewables and that can only be good for the long-term future of our island.”

Westray-based company Heat and Power aims to be the first company in Scotland to turn cattle slurry into fuel for cars. Colin Risbridger, the chartered engineer behind the initiative, is working on using silage and cattle waste. “Who knows? We could see every farm becoming either a filling station or a power station in the future,” he said.

The Big Question: Why is the world so slow to produce environmentally-friendly cars?

 

published in the UK Independent

 

By Sean O’Grady
Thursday, 17 April 2008

 

Why are we asking this now?

Because Britain’s first hydrogen filling station opens today at the University of Birmingham. Researchers there will be assessing alternative fuel vehicles in search of greener motoring.

Is hydrogen the answer?

The hydrogen fuel cell is revolutionary. It supersedes the internal combustion engine and does away with fossil fuels. So there are vested interests involved. That said, it isn’t so much a question of conspiracy as cost. Some of the world’s leading energy and motor companies are developing alternatives to the conventional car. If the world wants hydrogen it will have to invest in it, scrapping existing technology, factories, refineries, infrastructure and know-how. That means consumers would have to pay for the leap forward. Will they? Besides, not everyone is convinced about the hydrogen fuel cell.

What’s so good about hydrogen?

Hydrogen is green at the point of use. Hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles emit no carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide or carcinogenic particles. All that emerges from the exhaust is water vapour. The hydrogen fuel, stored in pressurised tanks, is used to create a chemical reaction using catalysts. That is converted into electric power and drives a motor which moves the vehicle along. It is quiet, and performance is acceptable for many purposes; in any case it is early days yet. After all, we’ve had a long time to get from Karl Benz’s 1886 Patent Motorwagen (top speed: 11mph) to today’s Formula 1 wonders.

Do hydrogen fuel cells work?

Yes. Buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells have been judged “really successful” by Transport for London. Californian and South Korean authorities have tested fleets of Honda and Hyundai fuel cell cars satisfactorily. Mercedes-Benz and General Motors are two other companies who’ve produced running everyday fuel-cell models (Mercedes A-Class and a Vauxhall Zafira, respectively). The Honda FCX Clarity, a “proper” executive fuel-cell car, will be available for lease in the United States this summer.

So what’s the snag?

The greenness of hydrogen does depend on how much energy is inefficiently expended in generating it and moving it around. If, at one extreme, a much more efficient method of making hydrogen could be discovered, and if the energy used in it s manufacture and transport was sustainable (like from a power station using solar energy), then it might well be the greenest option. At worst there isn’t much advance on fossil fuels. Storing hydrogen requires pressurisation or cooling, which can be troublesome. Hydrogen also tends to vaporise, so there can be losses in transit. Some, with the tragedy of the Hindenburg airship in mind, wonder whether this highly combustible fuel can ever be safe.

How about just using hydrogen as fuel?

Simply replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen in a conventional internal combustion engine can be done. BMW’s Hydrogen 7 is almost as quiet and refined as its petrol-powered cousin. However, it needs a huge tank for the (unpressurised) hydrogen, and that tank of fuel can evaporate in as little as 10 days.

Are biofuels any use?

Biofuel versions of Saabs and Fords can be bought now, though there are few filling stations. This technology is also controversial. In theory, biofuels are carbon neutral, as the carbon dioxide used in producing them is “absorbed” by the plants grown to make create the biofuel. So-called first generation biofuels do suffer from drawbacks. First, they can displace food crops. Biofuels, even their best friends would agree, have had some effect on rising food prices. The EU wants to see monitoring systems to assure consumers that biofuels are not damaging the environment or food supplies, but those safeguards are yet to be implemented . Second, they can reduce biodiversity, as witnessed in the Indonesian rain forest, where palm oil crops for biodiesel have done much damage.

Third, critics point to the energy expended in producing and transporting the biofuels, the artificial fertilisers used, the western subsidies to grow them in Europe and the US, and so on. More defensible are second, third and fourth generation biofuels, which become progressively greener, though none are commercially available. The next stage will be to find ways to use the waste product of crops rather than the nutritionally valuable seeds and grains in biofuel production. One day, the scientists promise “carbon positive” biofuels – enzymes that can save the planet.

Why aren’t there more hybrids?

Toyota’s Prius leads the field, although Honda and Ford and General Motors in America are also on the scene. Using power wasted, for example in braking, and recycling that via an electric motor to supplement a petrol engine is a clever one. But many manufacturers say small, efficient diesels engines are just as effective and a lot cheaper to make, with no problematic batteries to dispose of. Japanese and US makers tend to favour petrol/electric hybrids because their main markets have very little appetite for diesel; European makes such as Mercedes and Peugeot are more traditionally committed to diesel. “Plug-in hybrids”, where energy direct from the mains can add to the cars’ range, are a step forward.

What happened to the electric car?

Nothing especially, though GM did can one of its more promising projects on the grounds of cost. However, the motor-show concept Chevrolet Volt (a “plug-in” hybrid) promises much, and GM are committed to making it. Electric cars can be extremely green, but again much crucially depends on how their power is generated. They used to be slow and fragile; mainstream makers are working on that. The Modec van is a fine example of a practical vehicle.

What can I do now?

Drive more carefully; downsize; use public transport more. There’s an argument for keeping an old car on the road for longer, thus saving the resources and energy used in producing a new one. A Morris Minor Traveller even uses renewable ash in its bodywork. The car makers are doing their bit, too. Modern cars are much greener than their predecessors (see chart). Ford and Volkswagen are tuning existing models to return exceptional economy and low emissions, the VW Polo “Bluemotion” being an outstanding example. But manufacturers such as VW and Citroë*do tend to price their green or diesel cars on the high side compared to the equivalent petrol models.

Will cars be greener any time soon?

Yes…

* All new cars are greener than their ancestors, so it is a process of evolution

* Small diesels are the way forward at the moment, and there are plenty on sale now

* Everyone is downsizing anyway. That might be the immediate means of cutting vehicle emissions

No…

* The car makers and oil companies will try to protect their old ‘brown’ technologies

* Consumers aren’t demanding them loudly enough, giving makers no incentive to crank up production

* ‘Green’ technologies aren’t as clean as they say. A real solution has not arrived yet