“Handprint is a measure of what we can do individually, and together, to restore the balance between consumption and the planet’s carrying capacity,” says Nataša Božjak, Advisor at the Agency of the Republic of Slovenia for Agricultural Markets and Rural Development, as we speak about Biodiversity, Education, Regenerative Agriculture and Renewable Energies.
June 17th 2019 marked the United Nations “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought”: How may we balance productivity in agriculture with a necessary increase in biodiversity in order to maintain healthy soil for generations?
Nataša Božjak: Research has shown that, due to the growth of the world population, the production of crops is increasing every year, which is also reflected in the increased share of those who are deprived of basic goods, i. e. food. In view of these increasing needs for crops production, to satisfy the basic human need of food, the proportion of over-processing and soil contamination has increased. By cultivating the soil and using different types of fertilisers, insecticides, etc. the value and fertility of soil is greatly reduced. In this way, the soil is impoverished, it is over-depleted and at the same time fertile areas, together with industry, transport, are transformed into degraded areas.
In order to minimise the effects of soil depletion and contamination on the soil, biodiversity is of huge importance, not only with the aim of preserving plant and animal species, but also in terms of maintaining a healthy natural soil ecosystem. From the point of view of cultivation, soils are also important for the implementation of agricultural operations and interventions that result in the production of goods – food, but today, due to the awareness of excessive depletion and soil contamination, plant cultivation through hydroponics comes to the foreground, where soil is not needed for crop production. Such cultivation of plants reduces aggressive depletion of soil, soil is not additionally mechanically burdened and is not heavily polluted, as if the plants were cultivated in the traditional way in the soil (fertilisation, spraying, mechanical interventions in the soil and thus the destruction of soil natural ecosystems, etc.), but with this technique of crop production and cultivation it is necessary to ask one selves about the consumption of water that has become a limited natural resource today.
An innovative idea was presented in one of the video reports of a company engaged in hydroponics plant cultivation and cultivation that presented an innovative idea regarding the use of water on the basis of which plants are grown. Water which feeds the plants becomes a natural ecosystem for fish farming. In this way they produce larger quantities of plants (food) while maintaining the natural ecosystem of animals (fish). Organic farming techniques are also available for soil treatment, where stricter rules and regulations apply to soil treatment, in particular for the introduction of artificial mineral fertilisers into the soil, the use of plant protection products and preparations, the maintenance of green cover, crop rotation and soil fertility.
Studies and research on the use of hydroponics, guidelines on organic farming, education and teaching people about the importance of nature conservation and biodiversity are the first indicators that positively regulate (balance) both agricultural productivity in view of preserving and enhancing biodiversity and maintaining healthy soil for future generations.
First picture: Dry lifeless soil. – Second picture: Rich, healthy and fertile soil. – Photos: https://www.pexels.com/search/ground/
Organic farming. Extensive orchard. Organic farming is defined by the use of fertilizers of organic origin such as compost manure, green manure and places emphasis on techniques such as crop rotation and companion planting. Biological pest control, mixed cropping and the fostering of insect predators are encouraged. Organic standards are designed to allow the use of naturally occurring substances while prohibiting or strictly limiting synthetic substances. For instance, naturally occurring pesticides such as pyrethrin and rotenone are permitted, while synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are generally prohibited. Synthetic substances that are allowed include, for example, copper sulfate, elemental sulfur and Ivermectin. Genetically modified organisms, nanomaterials, human sewage sludge, plant growth regulators, hormones, and antibiotic use in livestock husbandry are prohibited. Reasons for advocation of organic farming include advantages in sustainability, self-sufficiency, health, food security, and food safety. – Photo © Slavko Prijatelj
“While more than 6.000 plant species have been cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66% of total crop production in 2014.” I was stunned by these key facts in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Assessment (p.114). Could you elaborate on that?
Nataša Božjak: In chapter 4.2. of the fore mentioned literature State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, experts explain that the decline or reduction in the diversity of varieties in the production of certain agricultural crops that are globally important for food production, are attributed to a decrease in plant genetic diversity, genetic vulnerability, possible genetically reduced plant resistance to certain diseases, pests and phytosanitary agents. Furthermore, experts state that the methods of observation for more precise (specific) causes or indicators for monitoring the decline in genetic diversity (also some varieties in crop production), are not yet fully specified and developed, with which I agree. In our country, there is a decline in the number of varieties in the production of certain agricultural plants (e. g. potatoes).
It is true that we do not know all the reasons for the decline in the production of certain plant varieties yet, but there is certainly, besides genetic conditionality (vulnerability) among plant species, a big influence (contribution) of climate change (temperature, humidity, precipitation…), drought and flood stress periods, ecosystems biodiversity, conservation of natural and cultural assets, (appropriate) plant cultivation techniques, conservation of crop rotation, etc. Maintaining crop rotation on agricultural land also significantly reduces the genetic vulnerability of varieties, preventing only one variety of crops to dominate in large agricultural areas, which are either genetically less resistant to stress, pests, diseases or their pest (disease) control. Crop rotation with several varieties of agricultural plants also positively contributes to the improvement of biodiversity.
Damages from the flooded Drava require action. Flooding has a significant impact on crop production. – Photo © Slavko Prijatelj
The non-commercial research and communication organization Project Drawdown lists “Regenerative Agriculture” as no.11 solution to reverse global warming. Regenerative agriculture includes no tillage, diverse cover crops, on-farm fertility (no external nutrient sources required), no or minimal pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and multiple crop rotations. Are there already best practices for regenerative agriculture in Slovenia?
Nataša Božjak: Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient
dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming.
Due to the fore mentioned measures, we have noticed a decrease in the negative effects of agriculture on the environment in recent years in Slovenia, which is reflected in a more rational use of pesticides and mineral fertilisers, an increase in the share of nitrogen-binding plants in the crop rotation and an increase in the under-represented agricultural plants in the sowing structure. The Natura 2000 in Slovenia comprises 25% of the preservation of important bird species and 33% of the preservation of important habitats of the territory, which is almost twice the EU average. In 2017, the area of agricultural land intended for organic farming increased again.
Crop rotation on fields. Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar or different types of crops in the same area in sequenced seasons. It is done so that the soil of farms is not used for only one set of nutrients. It helps in reducing soil erosion and increases soil fertility and crop yield. Growing the same crop in the same place for many years in a row (monocropping) gradually depletes the soil of certain nutrients. With rotation, a crop that leeches the soil of one kind of nutrient is followed during the next growing season by a dissimilar crop that returns that nutrient to the soil or draws a different ratio of nutrients. In addition, crop rotation mitigates the buildup of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one species is continuously cropped, and can also improve soil structure and fertility by increasing biomass from varied root structures. – Photo ©Slavko Prijatelj
Can you explain the relevance and utilization of “natural aquaponics” in Slovenia?
Nataša Božjak: Aquaponics is a combination of growing fish and plants at the same time. It is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, where bacteria are used to create a closed flow of nutrients between the aquaculture and vegetable parts of the system. This allows us to grow fish and vegetables in a closed system very effectively. Both hydroponics and aquaculture each have their weaknesses. By integrating both into one system, we turn these weaknesses into strengths.
In hydroponics, plants are grown without soil in a nutrient rich water. Plants may also be rooted in an inert (one that does not in itself alter the chemical properties of water) substrate. The purpose of the substrate is to serve as a plant support. Plants have constant access to water and the necessary nutrients, resulting in rapid and lush growth. The inert substrate may be gravel, sand, vermiculite, rock wool or expanded clay. Plants growing in such a substrate are constantly being repaired to achieve optimal growing conditions. In classical hydroponics, the problem of high costs quickly arises because all plant nutrients must be purchased and added to the system.
In aquaponic cultivation of the majority of nutrients are obtained from fish excrement (much more lover costs). In hydroponics, various salads, chicory, basil, spinach, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, pumpkins grow well. Aquaculture is the cultivation of aquatic organisms such as fish, algae, crustaceans and shells in artificial environments.
In Slovenia, we are best known for fish farms. Many species of fish can be farmed, most often freshwater fish such as carp, sheatfish and tilapia. Aquaculture can produce up to 40kg/m3 of crops. Traditionally, farming fish and other aquatic organisms requires a large amount of water, since the substances that the fish excrete have to change constantly. By incorporating plants and bacteria into the system, this water is purified and reused, thus largely increasing efficiency and reducing the negative impact of farms on the environment. In aquaponics, fish excrete waste products from food digestion into the water (1). These products are toxic for fish and, if there are too many in water, it causes fish poisoning. These waste products (mostly ammonia) are, with the help of bacteria in the water, converted into forms that are no longer as toxic for the fish (2), while being a key nutrient for plant growth (3). In this way, the plants purify the water in which the fish live, thereby obtaining the nutrients for their growth. All this occurs in a closed system in which water circulates between the various elements of the system (4). In practice, this means avoiding fertilisation and watering of plants, reducing the environmental burden and also producing fish as an added advantage. All this, however, represents a key advantage over the conventional method of food production.
In Slovenia aquaponics is becoming an increasingly useful method of food production. People choose aquaponic system for fish farming, growing vegetables, others turn to it because the land they cultivate is not fertile enough, and some choose it because they need to clean the water in a more environmentally friendly way (with the help of plants). It is interesting to note, that in Slovenia, there is an example in aquaponics with ducks. The ducks were intended for the extermination of snails in vegetable production (ducks were settled in a pond). The aquaponics system, located separately next to the pond, is used to clean the water in the pond. The system is constructed from a large tank (1000 l), where a submersible pump draws water from a pond to a wooden sink, in which vegetables are cultivated on a substrate from clay, and where water from a 1000 l tank flows. In the sink, the water is purified with the help of cultivated plants (vegetables) and when the purified water reaches the proper height, it automatically drains back into the pond with the help of the “bell” siphon.
From Slovenia to the Peloponnese: 3000 hydropower plants are to be built in the Balkans. Within the context of the international campaign “Save the Blue Heart of Europe”, Riverwatch and EuroNatur mapped 80,000 kilometres of rivers, of which 76% are so valuable that they are defined as “No-go-Areas” for dam projects in the “Eco-Masterplan for Balkan Rivers”. How can financial incentives for such developments best be examined and monitored with regard to their subsequent environmental impacts? How can efforts to protect flora and fauna be reconciled with the production of sustainable energy?
Nataša Božjak: As many as 60 percent of the world’s major rivers are affected by dam construction or water abstraction. 60 years ago, there were about 5,000 dams worldwide and today there are over 45,000 dams. For most aquatic animals, impoundment is an impassable border that divides the river into two separate ecosystems and the species into a separate population.
The resulting smaller ecosystems are more susceptible to environmental disturbance than one large, and small populations are dying out faster. Regulating river banks and riverbeds reduce the habitat of wildlife and plants which grow near or in the water, contaminated water impairs the quality of the remaining habitat. Smooth concrete or stone-covered riverbeds no longer offer many animal hiding places – snails, bivalve molluscs, crustaceans and fish, dragonflies; even less so for mammals and birds.
When small animals disappear, the watercourse is no longer attractive to larger animals that feed on them. Where there is no life, the watercourse loses its self-cleaning ability. Fewer plant and animal species live in polluted rivers and streams than in clean ones. Between 1970 and 2000, populations of freshwater organisms declined by half – this decline in fauna is greater than that in seas or on land. However, those rare species that are resistant to pollution have multiplied in many ways unnaturally.
Financial incentives for such developments can be examined and monitored with respect to their subsequent environmental impacts through EU subsidies and their related databases (records).
Efforts to protect flora and fauna can be reconciled with the production of sustainable energy through other renewable sources (wind and solar power), as mentioned in a study by Dr. Jürgen Neubarth, The role of hydropower in selected South-Eastern European countries.
The aforementioned study states that even if all planned hydroelectric power plants in South-East Europe were to be constructed, most countries would still fail to meet EU renewable targets with just hydropower. Moreover, hydropower is not even necessary: The potential of wind and solar is up to twice as high as the current electricity demand in the sun-kissed Balkan countries and exceeds the potential from hydropower by about five times.
Studies and research have shown that by building hydropower plants and dams, we reduce the biodiversity of living things in rivers, lakes, etc. We are also altering habitat and displacing some of the already endangered species of animals and plants. On the other hand, we have other uses of renewable energy, such as wind and sun, which endanger the habitat of wildlife significantly less and to a lesser extent degrade their and our environment. Research suggests that wind and solar energy generate electricity with less negative impact on the environment.
First Picture: Biodiversity in rivers. Painter’s mussel (Unio pictorum) in rivers and lakes (Ptuj). Second picture: Construction of a high dam of a small hydroelectric power plant on the Drave river. – Photos © Slavko Prijatelj
Dam of a small hydroelectric power plant on the Drava river. Regulating river banks and riverbeds reduce the habitat of wildlife and plants which grow near or in the water, contaminated water impairs the quality of the remaining habitat. Smooth concrete or stone-covered riverbeds no longer offer many animal hiding places – snails, bivalve molluscs, crustaceans and fish, dragonflies; even less so for mammals and birds. – Photos © Slavko Prijatelj
Sludge disposal as a result of the construction of small hydropower plants – destruction of the natural ecosystem on river Drava. – Photos © Slavko Prijatelj
Nataša Božjak: Globally speaking, I think that we do not need additional energy to be produced, since we have enough energy in the current situation, we just have to ask ourselves, how we manage it. If we look at the fact that almost every inhabitant has a cellphone, internet access, we have to ask ourselves, are we spending all this energy in a sustainable way?
According to data from the World Bank, the percentages of population with access to electricity is far from fairly distributed globally. Thus, how can we co-create a fair development process where the distribution of sustainable energy for all goes hand in hand with the evolvement of ethical models for dealing with information and communication technologies sustainably?
Nataša Božjak: My opinion is based on the assumption, the more you produce, the more you need and the more you spend. Where is the limit when it comes to rational use of energy (electricity)? Obstacle I see is that with the development of the economy, infrastructure, social system, education system, not least information and communication technology, we are striving for increasing production and at the same time increasing energy consumption (including electricity). In the current amount of energy produced, the most important is the way of producing energy (including electricity), which must be more environmentally friendly (sustainable energy or clean energy).
Distribution and redistribution of electricity to less developed countries and regions is also important and essential. We know that without electricity (energy) there is no further development and progress, but we also know that energy production puts an additional strain on the environment. Why not have the energy (electricity) we can currently produce in a more environmentally friendly way (green energy), equally or fairly redistributed to less developed regions and countries. In this way, the population in less developed regions and countries would have better and greater access to electricity, while at the same time the development of these regions and countries would increase.
Biodiversity in river Drava. First picture: Pike (Esox lucius), second Picture: Stone crayfish (Austropotamobius torrentium). In rivers without dams, life is very diverse. Young pike need places in lakes and rivers, where they can take shelter between plants so they are not eaten. Rich submerged vegetation is needed. With the construction of artificial meanders and dams, not only the rich and diverse fauna but also the flora disappeared. Austropotamobius torrentium, also called the stone crayfish, is a European species of freshwater crayfish in the family Astacidae. It is mostly found in tributaries of the Danube, having originated in the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula. Stone crayfish is one of the most endangered European cancers of ten-footed animals, which is also on the list of protected animal species in Slovenia. The preferred habitat of A. torrentium is cold, fast-flowing streams, although some live in larger rivers and lakes. It digs burrows in the banks and hides under submerged roots or rocks, emerging at night to feed. Adult A. torrentium consume a variety of plant materials, including fallen leaves, while the juveniles chiefly feed on aquatic invertebrates. The species is sensitive to low levels of dissolved oxygen, and to chemical pollution. – Photos © Slavko Prijatelj
Learn, Reflect, Empower: Education is an indispensable element for achieving sustainable development. The United Nations “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development” (2005-2014) sought to mobilize the educational resources of the world to help create a more sustainable future, while Project Drawdown refers to “Educating Girls” as no.6 solution ot reverse global warming.
Through which measures can we best promote education for sustainable development?
Nataša Božjak: Education, abilities and skills are the basic requirements for encourage our behaviour change and for sustainable development to become part of our everyday life. Therefore, success in changing non-sustainable trends depends primarily on the quality of education for sustainable development at all levels of education, with significant emphasis on teacher education and lifelong learning. The topics that education for sustainable development should include are: sustainable use of energy and transport systems, sustainable consumption and production patterns, health, media and responsible citizenship and equal opportunities issues, knowledge of information and communication technologies and regional differences.
Education for sustainable development, or rather “sustainable education”, should be divided into several levels, namely on kindergartens/schools, ministries, public institutions, non-governmental organisations and local communities. Significant change, which allows implementation of sustainable development into the education system, is the education to act and not just to inform (educate) about sustainability issues.
Key principles for sustainable education, on which further actions to promote sustainable development should be based, are:
- Linking the fundamental pillars of sustainable development: the environment, the economy and society are the three fundamental pillars of sustainable development that must be in balance. In the field of education, however, it can be observed that the greatest emphasis is on the environmental aspect. An interdisciplinary approach is important for sustainable education and the role of social sciences and humanities must be emphasised.
- Take into account the local context: international and national strategies are important but should provide the possibility of adaptation to the local environment. Each environment is specific and unique, thus it requires individual implementation of sustainable education. The program and implementation must be customised to the local characteristics and needs, the functioning of the local community, resources, networking and partnerships with the local community, local economy, etc.
- Comprehensive school approach: apart from the fact that the contents of sustainable development are present in the curricula, learning objectives, the impact of school is very important. It can be said that sustainability is not enough to think about, it is also necessary to live it.
- Teacher education and lifelong learning.
- Establish school networks (local, national and international): networks are important as they can provide support for teachers, who receive support through good practice, knowledge sharing and exchange of experience.
- Learn the experience of others: eco-schools, healthy schools, UNESCO schools and other schools can be an example of how to integrate the concept of sustainable development into the school system. Here, we can emphasise again the importance of establishing a network through which knowledge, ideas, etc., can be transferred.
- Implementation plan: the implementation of education for sustainable development is not possible “overnight”, an action plan must be drawn up, which must also be in line with the values of sustainable development. The action plan should be designed as a national framework for schools to develop their plans and activities towards sustainability.
- Important features of a sustainable school: greening the school and the school district is needed, teaching should not be confined to classrooms and the school itself should become “eco” by reducing the carbon footprint.
In Slovenia, we have been introducing measures and guidelines for achieving more environmentally friendly, organic and green agriculture through the implementation of an active EU agricultural policy for many years. Using these guidelines and transferring knowledge to good agricultural practice, we are implementing a series of measures in agriculture:
- agri-environmental-climate measures;
- measures for preserving, sustainable use and development of genetic resources in agriculture;
- measure for organic farming practices and methods;
- measures for areas with natural or other specific restrictions;
- animal welfare, plant and animal habitats – Natura 2000, etc.
With the aim of protecting the environment and adapting to climate change:
- reduce carbon footprint;
- strengthen soil nitrogen binding to increase soil fertility;
- introduction of buffer zones, with the aim of protecting surface and groundwater from pollution by agricultural sewages (discharges);
- increasing crop rotation and land cover throughout the year;
- rational and correct use of fertilisers, pesticides and plant protection products; reducing the use of mineral fertilisers, etc.
Biodiversity in rivers, river Drava. Where dams and artificial river beds are not built, the flora and fauna is diverse and diverse. – Photo © Slavko Prijatelj
Given that the impact of cities on the natural environment continues to grow, can you give examples of strategies for integrating the urban and the natural environment in a cooperative and sustaining fashion?
Nataša Božjak: An interesting study “Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management (Key Principles and Approaches for 21st Century Cities)” by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) by David Dodman, Gordon McGranahan and Barry Dalal-Clayton provides guidance, strategies and good practice examples of how to combine the impact of growing and developing cities on the collaboration and conservation of the natural environment.
Growing cities can have an impact on the surrounding sensitive ecosystems – such as wetlands, forests, mountain ecosystems, etc., and need increasing amounts of resources, which could result in over-exploitation. However, the unprecedented rate of urban growth represents a unique opportunity to build more sustainable, innovative and equitable towns and cities.
The concentration of people and economic activities in towns and cities inevitably creates localised pressure on the environment; although urban areas are now home to about half the world’s population, they occupy only 2.8 per cent of the world’s land area. This dense concentration of people in a tiny proportion of land area creates some environmental problems, but can also help to reduce others.
With the growing proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas, decisions made about the environment in towns and cities will have increasing consequences for planetary environments and ecosystems, as urban residents draw on food supplies and raw materials from ever-widening geographical areas. In addition, this process can also generate a wide range of co-benefits (both economic and social), including poverty reduction, in particular locations.
Indeed, the report “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication” emphasises that measures to green cities can increase social equity and the quality of life in several ways:
- enhancing public transport can reduce inequality by improving the access to public services;
- using cleaner fuel for transport and power generation can reduce both local pollution and health inequality; – reducing traffic and improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists can help foster community cohesion and health;
- improving access to green spaces can make children more resistant to stress and can lower the incidence of behavioural disorders.
A more recent study of low – and middle income countries identified a range of potential intervention areas that address concerns of economic development, poverty and environmental improvement (at both local and global scales). These include:
- The creation of ‘green jobs’: although the net employment benefits of green jobs have been disputed in many temperate and high-income cities (efforts towards strengthening the green economy may simultaneously lead to a contraction in existing industrial activities), in contexts where there is not currently a significant industrial base there is more likely to be a net gain.
- Environmental rehabilitation can enhance ecosystem services, improving the quality of the environment while reducing costs of remedial air and water treatment.
- Expanding access to energy through greening energy supplies can provide electricity to households that were previously reliant on wood or kerosene: this can improve health by reducing indoor air pollution and reduce energy costs for low-income groups.
- Recycling initiatives – whether formal or informal – can reduce the total amount of solid waste generated and can provide employment.
- ‘Greening’ of urban areas can provide a range of tangible and intangible benefits to urban residents, particularly if this takes into account low-income areas.
The lists above identify a range of benefits deriving from integrating the environment in urban planning and management. These can be broadly synthesised into three main sets of benefits:
- economic benefits (from investment in new industries, cost savings for industrial activities, creation of jobs, support for livelihood activities, increased access to income generation opportunities);
- health benefits (from improved environmental conditions, increased physical activity);
- and quality of life benefits (from improved access to environmental amenities).
Taken together, these global and local benefits provide a compelling case for integrating the environment in strategic urban planning and management – and emphasise that effective solutions to global environmental problems will require substantial action on the scale of individual cities. Integrating the environment in urban planning and management can also contribute to increased levels of resource efficiency – both within cities and for the world as a whole.
Resource efficiency involves reducing the total environmental impact of the production and consumption of goods and services, from raw material extraction to final use and disposal. Within cities, it can enhance quality of life by minimising resource extraction, energy consumption and waste generation while simultaneously safeguarding ecosystem services. At the same time, it can contribute to a global transition to a green economy and help to achieve sustainable development.
A range of strategies can be used to integrate the environment in urban planning and management. City Development Strategies have shown how to integrate environmental concerns in long-term city visioning exercises. These strengthen relationships between stakeholders, but need to take nationally mandated planning cycles into account. Environmental mainstreaming can help to incorporate relevant environmental concerns into the decisions of institutions, while emerging ideas about the green urban economy show how density can generate environmental and social opportunities (including through green urban infrastructure) and can foster environmental and social innovation and competition.
Environmental strategies for urban areas need to be supported by key underlying principles. Political support and commitment are vital, as is broad – based enthusiasm from urban residents. The strategies need to be underpinned with governance structures that facilitate integration of environmental concerns in the planning process. Therefore, financial limitations have frequently impeded meaningful environmental action, the report not only identifies direct mechanisms for funding environmental activities, but also presents an economic case for the benefits of addressing environmental issues.
One approach that lends structure to understanding how the environment can be integrated into planning decisions is the environmental mainstreaming approach. It is often used to assess the incorporation of environmental concerns in urban planning and management. Environmental mainstreaming is “the informed inclusion of relevant environmental concerns into the decisions of institutions that drive national, local and sector-specific development policy, rules, plans, investment and action”. Environmental mainstreaming is about much more than the inclusion of key ‘green’ words in plans and strategy documents, but rather reflects a longterm process of institutional and behavioural change, involving many pathways (both bottom-up and top-down), driven by civil society as well as government, and including economic, technical and political concerns.
Another strategy is to achieve a greener economy which includes:
- providing public infrastructure that allows people to take advantage of the potential health benefits of compact urban living, which, in wealthier settings, may include more opportunities for walking and cycling, and in poorer settings, better access to affordable water and sanitation services;
- developing the sort of energy-efficient public transportation systems that reduce congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, while even/also allowing low-income residents to take advantage of dense settlement;
- taking advantage of urban density (including through the provision of decentralised infrastructure) to help reduce pressure on environmentally sensitive areas, without resorting to involuntary removals of existing residents;
- avoiding policies that actively encourage the sort of sprawl that imposes unnecessary environmental and transport costs;
- encouraging public agencies, private enterprises and civil society groups actors to exploit the benefits that urban density can provide for both mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Infrastructure also mediates between cities and their environments, helping to determine levels of resource use, pollution and the cities’ contributions to long term sustainability.
The role that the public sector already plays in investing in urban infrastructure and/ or setting up regulatory systems and developing public/ private partnerships, can put public agencies in a good position to support urban infrastructure that contributes to a green economy. The relevance of green infrastructure can clearly be seen in Copenhagen, where ‘greener’ local drainage of rainwater and diversion of storm water to reduce flooding is cheaper than traditional measures (such as expanding the sewage network), while simultaneously improving the quality of life for urban residents through increasing the number of parks, streams and ponds.
A recent report on optimising urban infrastructure for the green economy identified eco-efficiency and social inclusion as the overarching principles, and used a range of case studies to illustrate how these principles could be pursued, including (Robinson B, Swilling M (2012). Urban patterns for a green economy: Optimising infrastructure. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Nairobi):
- a closed loop landfill site in Durban, South Africa;
- a biofuel powered public bus system in Linkoping, Sweden;
- a bus rapid transit system in Lagos, Nigeria;
- community-driven ecological sanitation in Lilongwe, Malawi;
- energy efficient apartments in Sofia, Bulgaria;
- recycling in Curitiba, Brazil;
- a climate action plan in Portland, USA;
- a concerted strategy for doing more with less in Singapore.
A strategy for improvements in conventional infrastructure is also important, including even incremental ones such as:
- increasing the share of solid waste recycled;
- improving the efficiency of electricity generation and distribution system;
- decreasing water losses in the water distribution system;
- improving the efficiency or fuel mix of the public transportation system;
- introducing information infrastructure that can reduce the demand for resource intensive services;
- improving urban water flows so as to reduce flooding risks.
Public transport System. – Photos: https://www.pexels.com/search/ground/
“It begins with an ethos of responsibility for the whole — to mimic nature’s quest to give back more than it takes. We must accept our role as contributing members of a larger system and allow that ethos to inform our day-to-day decisions,” says Dakota Walker in my previous interview. In your point of view: How can we best follow the footsteps of nature: Doing more good instead of only less bad, increase our handprints through positive actions and decrease our footprints?
Nataša Božjak: Climate change is real and requires attention from all of us. The immense challenge can make one feel helpless and overstrained ‐ but that does not need to be the case. I think, that every little contribution towards climate protection and sustainable development is helpful. Sustainable use of resources does not necessarily mean giving up on comforts and conveniences, but being judicious about what and how we do things. Riding in a car or using electricity is not wrong. Using energy carelessly and wastefully is wrong. Each of us has to be smart and sensible about the choices we make and the lifestyle we choose.
This is because climate change is closely linked to consumption. Consumption involves exhaustive use of materials and energy. This is linked with our lifestyles: what we buy, how we use our energy resources, which transportation we choose and how we live. How can we know how much materials and energy each of us utilises to maintain our lifestyle? And what can we do to help reduce the pressure on the earth’s resources?
The footprint and the handprint are two complementary concepts that help people find their own best way to lead a more sustainable lifestyle that would contribute towards a sustainable society and planet. The Ecological Footprint is a measure of human pressure on earth’s resources. Every human being has an ecological footprint. It is the lifestyle that determines how small or big an individual’s footprint is. Handprint is a measure of what we can do individually, and together, to restore the balance between consumption and the planet’s carrying capacity.
I think everyday actions of individuals add up and have a global influence, both positive and negative. Positive actions impact on the three aspects of sustainability: environment, society and economy, and improve the conditions for life on our planet today and in the future. The handprint helps analysing personal sustainable action and to reach out to others around us. It evaluates which daily behaviors we follow for ourselves, in our family and household, with our neighbors and the surrounding community. Also, it looks at our lifestyle choices in our home, school, university and working space; in our village, town or city, and helps to take stock how we impact our home planet, for better or for worse.
To start with here are some small things that each of us can do to make a difference:
- Save Electricity: Whenever we use electricity we put green house gases into the air. By turning off lights, TV, computer when not in use, you can help a lot. It saves energy and of course money.
- Bus, Bicycle, Walk: More cars driving on the road lead to more green house gases emissions. Try to car pool. Take a bus or train whenever you can. Cycle or walk wherever you can.
- Drive the Change: Get parents to change their driving habits to drive gently and within speed limits, to keep the vehicle regularly serviced and tuned. When planning to buy a new vehicle, survey the market for more fuel efficient and environment‐friendly vehicles.
- Become Resource Savvy: conserve energy at home and school; save water, save paper; prevent waste (recycle, reuse, refuse what you do not need – plastic bags, extra packaging); do not burn waste; compost biodegradable waste; keep electrical appliances in good condition ensure that air filters on air conditioners are clean, fridge coils and tubelights dust free. Depend less on artificial aids for cooling and heating and more on nature… sunlight and natural ventilation.
- Buy Local: Buy your food fresh from local markets. Avoid packaged, preserved and imported goods. Trucks and planes bringing goods from far away – from within or outside the country – use huge amounts of fuel for transportation and more energy goes into their storage.
- Be a Concerned Customer: Choose products and services that use environment friendly technologies and energy efficient practices. Why not consider a solar water heater or cooker? No fossil fuels, no emissions, just pure sunlight!
- Save a Tree, Plant a Tree, Maybe More: Trees are great for absorbing carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas from the air. Every tree you prevent from being cut or that you plant and nurture till it’s grown, will serve through its life‐time in absorbing carbon dioxide, even while it provides beauty and shade, shelter and food and keeps the soil firm and healthy.
Forest. Forests provide a diversity of ecosystem services including: converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and biomass (a full-grown tree produces about 100 kg of net oxygen per year); acting as a carbon sink (therefore, they are necessary to stop climate change. According to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to avoid temperature rise by more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, there will need to be an increase in global forest cover equal to the land area of Canada (10 million km2), by the year 2050); aiding in regulating climate (for example, a research from 2017, show that forests induce rainfall. If the forest is cut, it can lead to drought); purifying water; mitigating natural hazards such as floods; serving as a genetic reserve; serving as a source of lumber and as recreational areas. – Photo © Slavko Prijatelj
Everyday actions of individuals add up and have a global influence. – Photo: https://www.pexels.com/search/ground/
Pushing beyond neutrality: How can companies and factories reimagine themselves as positive ecosystems and become net-positive facilities?
Nataša Božjak: There is an interesting article about how a new methodology, Factory as a Forest, was introduced by the company Interface, to transform facilities from ‘zero footprint’ to provide the same benefits as highperforming ecosystems. They see becoming climate positive as a natural progression; the next logical step in the sustainability journey for leading firms. The company has been striving to get their factories to ‘zero’ impact, use recycled and closed loop materials, develop low carbon products, and make their supply chains sustainable. (Most recently through its Climate Take Back sustainability strategy and by making all of its flooring products carbon neutral.) Beyond 2020, Interface is looking to make its factories function more like forests, use dispersed materials, develop products that sequester carbon, and establish supply chains that “benefit all life.”
Factory as a Forest has been designed to complement companies’ existing strategy, whether as a project alongside existing initiatives or as a vehicle to help achieve goals such as net positive buildings or contributing to the sustainable development goals.
It can be boiled down to a four-step process: 1) Identify a local reference ecosystem; 2) Quantify the performance; 3) Create design strategies; and 4) Implement design recommendations.
- 1. Identify a local reference ecosystem: Ecosystem services (the benefits such as food and waste assimilation that people obtain from ecosystems) can vary from place to place. Since they function differently, Biomimicry 3.8 recommends figuring out which eco-region a facility belongs to and identifying a nearby ecosystem to mimic. One way to do this is by using Resolve’s Ecoregions 2017 interactive map, which allows you to zoom into locations on a world map to find out what their ecoregion is and which others are nearby. With this information, you can start to dig into some specifics. What are the ecosystem services provided by local, healthy ecosystems near your site? Vital ecosystem services include carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, air filtration, water storage and biodiversity support, to name a few.
- 2. Quantify ecosystem and site performance: Once you’re familiar with your ecosystem muse, you can start measuring its Ecosystem Performance Standards and setting goals and performance benchmarks for your site around ecosystem services such as water storage and purification, pollution detoxification, soil fertility enhancement or supporting pollinators. It is important to narrow down your focus to what is manageable and what fits with your company’s operations and strategy. For Interface, this leads to more focus on issues such as carbon and water, which are the core to their strategy. From there you can identify and decide on specific metrics. For example, if you’re looking at a local ecosystem’s water runoff, consider how your facility could match that of the ecosystem. Your facility’s current performance would act as the baseline and your target would be to match the ecosystem.
- 3. Create design strategies: Continue keeping your local ecoregion in mind while developing design strategies to reach your goals.
- 4. Implement design recommendations: Finally, it is time to implement. Interface sold the approach internally as a pilot program with these four simple steps and encouraged the audience to take advantage of this seemingly simple and manageable way to adopt and deliver an ambitious vision with 10-20 year aspirational goals. The Factory as a Forest approach also allowed Interface to do short-term, mid-term and long-term planning to make the facility a positive contributor to its community.
Erin Meezan (VP and Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface) said scaling such an approach is one of its biggest challenges, not only because of its place-based nature, but also because metrics for ecosystem services and parallel facility metrics remain imperfect. However, she is optimistic that Interface will still have a significant positive impact at the local level. While a multi-national company may not have very much transferable knowledge from one of its facilities to the next, neighboring facilities could benefit. Erin Meezan is considering partnering with other manufacturers near Interface’s pilot factory to help reduce the community’s impacts.
I think the strategy described above is a very good example of how companies and factories can reimagine themselves as positive ecosystems and become net-positive facilities.