Beginnings of the sustainability revolution

written by: Mark Swilling on Thursday, 01 October 2009. Posted in Footprints Blog

Although discussions of sustainability tend to be dominated by 'doom and gloom', there are examples from all contexts that confirm that shifts are taking place that are cause for hope. These cases also deserve much more detailed investigation. The following short stories reveal how diverse these responses are across a wide range of scales:

Cost Rica

Running contrary to the popular notion in developing countries that renewable energy is a developed country luxury, Costa Rica has made renewable energy the focus of its short- and long-term energy and development strategy. In 2003 98.6 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity was derived from renewable sources, making it one of the top renewable energy users in the world. These sources include hydropower (81.5%), geothermal (15.3%), wind (2.7%) and biomass (0.5%). This despite the fact that it is only ranked 25th in terms of hydropower potential and that there are oil reserves in the Costa Rican Gulf of Mexico.

South Korea

South Korea announced in January 2009 that it intends implementing a “Green New Deal” package worth US$36 billion for the period 2009-2012 that will create 960 000 jobs through investments in projects aimed at decoupling growth and wellbeing from resource consumption, as well as investments in environmental restoration. The largest projects are mass transit and railroads ($7billion), river restoration ($10 billion) and energy conservation in villages and schools ($5.8 billion). The other projects include fuel efficient vehicles and clean energy ($1.4 billion), forest restoration ($1.7 billion), environmentally friendly living space ($0.3billion), water resource management ($0.6 billion), resource recycling ($0.6 billion) and a national GIS-based green information system ($0.2 billion).

USA Green New Deal

The Peterson Institute for International Economics and the World Resources Institute have developed proposals for a Green New Deal much of which has been incorporated into the Obama Administrations’ $827 billion recovery package. These proposals anticipate investments in what we would call relative decoupling. The suite of recommendations include household weatherization, retrofitting federal buildings, greening schools, a production tax credit, an investment tax credit, carbon capture and storage demonstration projects, cash for clunkers, a hybrid tax cut, mass transit investment, battery R&D, and smart metering. The model demonstrates that the decoupling in the energy sector alone will save the US economy US$450 million per year for every US$1 billion invested. Furthermore, every US$1 billion spent by government would create 30 000 job-years and reduce annual US GHG emissions by nearly 600 000 tons. This level of job creation is 20% better than the job creating impacts of traditional infrastructure investments. If implemented, these proposals are a dramatic example of growth and improvements in wellbeing (via job creation) can be decoupled from the rate of resource consumption.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, oil supplies to Cuba were cut off. This had devastating consequences on the economy in general and agriculture in particular. Cuba had implemented a conventional industrial agriculture system using ‘green revolution’ technologies (hybrid seeds, chemical inputs, irrigation systems). Agriculture was dominated by collective farm systems. However, after the disruption of oil supplies, the Government initiated an organic farming revolution and encouraged independent small-scale farming operations. Tractors were replaced by animal traction; chemical fertilizers were replaced by organic inputs derived from animals and plants; integrated pest management techniques were used to promote biological control of pests; and a wide range of scientifically proven agriculture techniques were introduced such as inter-cropping, low tillage, seed banking, and integration of animal husbandry with vegetable, food and grain production. Within ten years Cuba was able to feed itself and its know how has become an export product. Once again, here is an example of increased wellbeing while growth was decoupled from rates of resource consumption and related emissions.


The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is renowned for its work over the years as a financial institution that has managed to mobilize the savings and loans of poor rural villagers to finance the economic and developmental initiatives of its 2 million members. This tried and tested social ‘operating system’ has now been deployed to drive a massive renewable energy programme that aims to install PV solar systems in 2 million homes by 2011 and 7.5 million homes by 2015 (which is 50% of the Bangladesh population). Known as Grameen Shakti, this programme is driven by providing micro-credit to poor families organised into groups to buy a basic PV kit (solar panel, battery, light and plug) for each household. Additional aims include the installation of 4 million biogas plants and the sale of 2 million improved cooking stoves. Already 20 000 new jobs have been created and it is envisaged that by 2015 100 000 new jobs will have been created. This story is a practical example of a relative decoupling approach that is appropriate to a resource-poor developing country.

Curitiba and Bogotá

The globally renowned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system first evolved in the Latin American cities of Curitiba and Bogotá. Introduced as far back as 1974, Curitiba’s BRT system has managed over 70% of daily trips at average speeds of 20 Km/h (which is a bit less than the raid transit which averages at 30 Km/hour). Dedicated lanes, simple fare systems, easy access via special purpose busstops, city-wide connectivity – these have become the hallmarks of BRT systems around the world. What is remarkable, however, is that the BRT system in Curitiba has remained responsible for 70% of daily trips for decades, thus “countering the iron rule that transit use declines with economic development”. Given that transport is a priority for decoupling because of its energy and resource intensity, the BRT system that has emerged out of Latin America is clearly a key solution that may become a standard feature for all cities committed to decoupling and sustainable resource use.


Melbourne, Australia, is the first city in the ICLEI-coordinated  Cities for Climate Protection Campaign to have achieved all five milestones set by this global coalition. Based on a strong Local Government-Business Sector alliance, the main aim of this sustainability strategy is to demonstrate that reducing carbon emissions, water consumption and waste outputs helps grow a new kind of local economy that makes good business sense. Many projects demonstrate that businesses can reduce operating costs and improve competitiveness via good green design. The initial target of cutting emissions by 30% by 2010 was achieved by 2007 thus making it necessary for the City Council to adjust the 2010 target to 50%. Other initiatives include carbon trading, purchasing green energy and investments in eco-system rejuvenation via tree planting to sequester carbon. Melbourne’s key stakeholders share the goal of, in the words of Tom Roper, former Minister in the Victoria Government, “an Environmentally Responsible City which seeks to actively increase natural assets through the decisions it takes, the development it chooses to pursue and the benefits and impacts these have on the natural world.”

Rizhao City

Rizhao City, China, is a city of 3 million people on the Shandong Peninsula in Northern China. 99% of the houses in the central most build-up districts of the city use solar water heaters, and most traffic signals, street lights and park illumination are powered by photovoltaic (PV) cells. In the suburbs and villages, 30% of houses used solar hot water heaters, and over 6000 houses use solar cooking facilities. More than 60 000 greenhouses are heated used solar power. The total value of the city’s solar water heating capacity is 0.5 megawatts. Significantly, Rizhao is not a rich city – its average per capita income is lower than the average Chinese city. A key factor in this success story is the political will of the Local Government leaders and related policies, including subsidies for research and development (i.e. innovation). End-users subsidies were not affordable. The result was massive reductions in unit costs thus making the solar hot water heaters affordable to low-income people, plus the benefits of savings. All new buildings are required to include solar hot water heating. The political leadership made it clear that they wanted to promote economic growth and wellbeing by investing in the environment and reduction of coal-generated energy and other resources. Unsurprisingly, Rizhao is listed within the top 10 cities for air quality in China, and China’s official 2006 report by the State Environmental Protection Agency designated the Rizhao as the Environmental Protection Model City. This has begun to pay off as investments starting flooding into the city since 2007; tourism is up by between 30% to 48%; its becoming a centre for events and functions; and, finally, new educational and cultural organisations and institutions have been set up with up to 300 Professors relocating to the city. Once again, Rizhao demonstrates that when government takes the initiative inspired by visionary political leadership, it is possible to grow a city’s economy and improve material wellbeing without also increasing the consumption of resources at the same rate.


Stockholm, Sweden, has had the benefit of a City Government that has pursued in one way or another the commitments made in the early 1990s to build a fully sustainable city. Using an input-output perspective, a long-term 50 year strategy was devised to incrementally implement a circular zero waste economy that would no longer be dependent on fossil fuels. Under the leadership of the “Ecocycle Division” that integrated the energy, water and waste utilities, key decoupling initiatives included converting sewage sludge into fertilizer for food production; using biogas extracted from treated sewage to fuel the public busses and a local power plant; using pelletised sawdust from sawmills as an energy source for heat and power plants; and implementing “green procurement” procedures. A key condition for success has been the facilitation of inter-departmental cooperation within the City Government, with various incentives aimed at fostering creativity and innovation. Stockholm demonstrates that decoupling is possible in a wealthy city without compromising the legally entrenched the living standards that characterises the Swedish welfare system.    


Holland, as one of the most densely population societies in the world, has been committed to building more sustainable cities since the mid-1980s. By promoting high densities, mixed use, protection of rural land, prevention of urban sprawl, strong social centres and the prevention of suburban malls which destroy neighbourhood economies, Holland has managed to foster the development of a substantial capacity for sustainable design. Examples of urban decoupling include Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht with 30 000 houses on 2500 ha at 37 dwelling units/ha. This development included a 300 ha green park, a mix of public and private sector housing, the use of waste heat from a nearby power plant, a dual water supply (one potable, the other ‘grey’ for toilet flushing), and discouragement of private cars. Another example is Nieuweland, Amersfoort. This consists of 4400 sustainable designed homes that all have solar hot water heaters, roofing made from Photovoltaic materials financed by the regional power company that purchases the electricity generated. The aim was to generate 1 MW of power from the 10 000 sq. M of PV panels. Many Dutch ecologically design neighbourhoods did not only focus on energy, but also low impact building materials, water saving and re-use, waste recycling and re-establishment of natural ecosystems for both aesthetic and functional reasons (e.g. useful wetlands). 


Lilongwe, Malawi, has become the focus of a sustainable building process driven entirely by homeless women affiliated to Shackdwellers International (SDI) . Malawi is a tiny central Southern African country which has the fastest urbanisation rate in Africa. As people flock to the cities, they erect large sprawling informal cities that now surround the formal cities that were established during the colonial period. The government is too poor to assist in any way, not even basic services. The primary resources used in this urbanisation process are the high quality local soils that have the perfect mix of sand and clay to make baked bricks, and charcoal for both cooking and baking bricks. Charcoal comes from hardwoods that used to be abundantly available in the surrounding forests. As demand grew, the forests receded thus increasing the cost of charcoal and damaging local food production as the rivers silted up due to massive erosion caused by land clearing. After SDI organised large numbers of women around savings for housing construction, the Municipality agreed to make land available as long as the women agreed to build the houses themselves. The obstacle was that because charcoal had to be transported over ever longer distances, the price of charcoal made fired brick making impossible for the poorest women in the communities. After a delegation of women leaders visited the Lynedoch EcoVillage outside Stellenbosch, South Africa, to learn how to make adobe bricks dried in the sun, they were able to build 2000 adobe houses without burning any charcoal. This award-winning project demonstrates that even amongst the poorest people in one of Africa’s poorest countries, learning about a more sustainable building technology made it possible to decouple improvements in wellbeing from resource consumption. Indeed, without decoupling, these improvements would not have been possible. This reinforces the notion that decoupling may be a pre-condition for development in similar resource fragile regions all over the developing world.

Cape Town

Cape Town, South Africa, has since 2005 adopted many formal policy documents that commit this city of 3 million people to various sustainable resource use strategies. Some of these policy documents refer specifically to decoupling rates of economic growth from rates of resource consumption. These policy commitments include increasing the supply of renewable energy, solid waste recycling, more efficient use of water, densification, increased of public transport and material and energy efficient building design. A recent review of progress towards decoupling with respect to energy, water, waste and sanitation found that there is evidence of relative decoupling with respect to energy consumption (from a growth rate of 4.7% in 2001 to 2.1% in 2006) and absolute decoupling with respect to water consumption (negative growth rate of -2% between 2001 and 2006). Solid waste, however, has increased year-on-year at double the rates of economic and population growth. At the same time, economic growth rates between 2002 and 2007 were higher in Cape Town than the national average and until 2008 unemployment levels were starting to drop down from 21% in 2005 to 15% in 2006/7. What is interesting, though, is that decoupling in the energy and water sectors was driven by natural resource shocks and not systematic policy intervention – a serious drought in 2001/2 that triggered water restrictions and awareness campaigns, and rolling electricity blackouts from 2005 onwards that triggered massive energy saving interventions.