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How Sprog Helped Me Succeed

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 11:44

Caring about environmental conservation is a passion that I’ve had during all my life and even a detail about some of my first memories. This was something I always thought I could do as a small hobby until I started to study at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. During my early college years I got involved into the Eco-Environmental Society, a student environmental organization that allowed me to notice that students could have a significant voice over environmental issues. While participating in this group, I was approached by a professor who wanted to research about plastic bottle waste in our campus and was looking for collaboration from our group. This started in 2010, were we learned about the massive quantity of plastic that was consumed at the university and noticed that very few students knew about this.

One thing that made me feel uncomfortable about many projects on campus was the fact that great things were being studied, but no actions were taken later on in order to fix the issue that the participants were working on. Having this in mind, I felt that the plastic bottle issue was too important to stay only in a poster or document and decided to start No more bottles, an educational campaign about the environmental impacts of bottled water.

At the beginning I was putting a lot of effort on this campaign but I didn’t know what exactly I was doing. I felt stuck on educating and was insecure on how to move forward to action, how to engage more people in this issue or what exact steps I needed to take to have my campus join the list of universities around the world that banned the sale of bottled water.

Around the time I started to feel some frustration about this campaign, I learned that the 2011 Puerto Rico Sprog was accepting applicants. I read the description of the program and it mentioned exactly the leadership skills I was looking to learn. I applied, got accepted and was really excited to learn how to succeed at organizing.

This program opened a new world of opportunities and gave me all the organizing knowledge I needed to work on No more bottles and the Eco Environmental Society while also looking forward to pursue other interests in the environmental movement. During this week I learned all the skills I needed to allow the campaign and organization to succeed; like recruiting, managing volunteers, working with communities, fundraising, campaign planning and much more. This was also the first time I saw that I could professionally dedicate my life to organizing and the first space where I found a large group of people that shared my same interests and passion for conservation.

All the motivation gained helped me to go back to campus and help the organization grow. I succeeded in finding passionate volunteers and redesigning the No more bottles campaign to move forward in banning bottled water on campus.

The following years we worked extensively in education with a research background, addressing the issues that people didn’t know about and the areas of the campus where we had not previously worked. We evaluated whether our campaign was being effective and what actions were helping spread our message. Additionally, we worked on having more accessible tap water by petitioning to have new drinking fountains, cleaning these and selling reusable bottles. After gaining more support from the community, we wrote a proposal to officially ban the sale of bottled water.

Even though we had done a lot of work, we still had to wait a year until the chancellor of the university agreed to meet with us in October 2013. After this, the proposal received a lot of support from wonderful professors, students and the administration. Later, in October 2014, we celebrated our victory in becoming the first campus in Latin America and the Caribbean to ban the sale of bottled water.

Currently, we are looking to expand this to the whole University of Puerto Rico, which consists of 11 campuses. We also continue to work on education about the importance of reducing plastic use. In our country, tap water is safe and accessible yet around 60,000 plastic bottles are consumed each month on campus and many people distrust this resource. Bottled water brings a series of issues like water privatization, oil extraction, lack of regulations and BPA, but it’s most noticeable impact in our island is the large quantity of waste and the fact that we lack recycling at a large scale, as well as landfill space.

Having a successful campaign was no easy task. It took years of patience, of learning from mistakes and looking really hard for solutions to some problems. This could have never been possible without good organizing skills, good motivation, a network of support and a great team that cares deeply about the cause. I gained all of this after attending Sprog and through the connections I made during that week.

It doesn’t matter how difficult your cause may seem, there is always a way to start and a place where you can make a real difference for the environment and society. I invite you to apply to Sprog and give yourself the best opportunity to meet passionate people who will help you grow as a leader while also gaining the skills that will take part in helping you make the change you want to see in the world.

From Compass

North Carolina's Brevard College First to Divest in the Southeast

Fri, 02/20/2015 - 12:40

College students, faculty, and administrators at North Carolina's Brevard College are cheering at Friday's news that the school will divest from fossil fuels by 2018 -- making it the first university in North Carolina and in the entire Southeast U.S. to divest!

The school has a robust group of student organizers (Divest Brevard and the Brevard College Greens) who've been rallying, speaking, and working hard toward this goal since 2013.

"Divestment is important to our students because Brevard College is a place that, to quote from the mission statement, '(i)nspires social action,'" says Brevard student and co-president of Brevard College Greens Emily Crowley. "As students we feel it is important to embrace the inspiration Brevard has given us to ignite a movement that is important to all facets of the world."

The students worked closely with Jim Reynolds of the Sierra Club North Carolina's Pisgah Group - who is also a professor at Brevard. Together they got more than 400 students and faculty to sign on in support of divestment. The students also organized a sit-in - which prompted Brevard College President David Joyce to invite students to present to the Board of Trustees.

"Part of our mission is to teach students to connect knowledge to action," said Joyce in a statement after Friday's vote. "The process and outcome of this issue demonstrates our commitment to encouraging personal growth and inspiring social action."

Once again, I am so inspired and impressed by the leadership of young people in the move away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy in the U.S. These Brevard College students are to be commended - and I hope more colleges and universities in the state and across the Southeast follow the school's lead.

"Divestment for us means that our school is taking climate change issues seriously, that our administration cares about the desires of its students, and that our administration is committed to doing all that we can to contribute to solving issues that directly affect social, economic, and personal values and lives," said Crowley.

Congratulations to Emily, Jim, and the many, many others who helped make this happen.

Mary Anne Hitt From Compass

Duke Energy Continues to Foul North Carolina's Air and Water

Fri, 02/20/2015 - 11:14

An alarming report out Tuesday demonstrates that Duke Energy's Asheville coal plant has been emitting harmful sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution at levels considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the past several years. Areas affected include parts of South Asheville, Fairview, and Leicester, as well as trails in the Bent Creek Forest.
The analysis by Air Resource Specialists shows that concentrations of sulfur dioxide in the air near people's homes downwind of the Asheville coal plant are up to 3.5 times higher than what EPA has determined to be safe. According to the study, the plant's pollution has exceeded these minimum public health standards approximately one out of every three to four days since 2010.
Add to that another sad fact:  Nearly 20,000 children and adults suffer from asthma in Buncombe County.
"It is beyond my moral imagination that Duke Energy would permit this public health hazard to endanger our community," said Richard Fireman, M.D., retired Emergency Medicine Physician. "We know that air pollution from sulfur dioxide triggers asthma attacks and airway constriction. It exacerbates other respiratory problems including bronchitis and emphysema, requiring emergency medical treatment and hospital admissions. Sulfur dioxide can also form other toxic sulfur compounds that can aggravate existing heart disease, causing hospital admissions and unexpected, premature death."
Previously, watchdog groups have discovered dangerous pollution from the plant's coal ash pits, including mercury, leaking into the French Broad River in violation of the Clean Water Act. The plant is also the largest source of carbon pollution in Western North Carolina, making it the leading contributor to climate disruption in the region.
Also out Tuesday, news that Duke Energy will soon be facing up to $100 million in fines for Clean Water Act violation. But that's not the end of the company's woes regarding coal ash contamination:

A grand jury settlement won't affect state lawsuits over Duke's ash ponds or DENR's investigation of groundwater contamination, said Drew Elliot of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
"This is not some sort of global settlement," he said. "This is far from over."

From coal ash in the water to coal pollution in the air - how much more pollution will Duke Energy force on North Carolinians?

“While we've just learned about the extent and intensity of SO2 pollution in Asheville's air, Duke's coal plant has been a known source of pollution affecting our water and our climate for decades," said Kelly Martin, North Carolina representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
"It's time for Duke to take responsibility for this pollution and protect the health of our communities, not just some of the time, but all the time."

Heather Moyer From Compass

#COP21: Coming Together To Combat Climate Change: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 12:47


In the lead up to the COP21 climate negotiations this December in Paris, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is currently hosting its annual Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) session in Geneva, Switzerland. This session, ADP 2.8, comes just two months after the conclusion of COP20 in Lima, Peru, and presents the Parties -- the negotiating bodies for each country -- with a need to further develop and clarify the text that came out of Lima. This text will be used during the final 2015 climate negotiations in Paris.


Janice Meier is a volunteer with the Sierra Club who volunteers on the Club's behalf as a co-chair of the Climate Action Network's Technology Working Group. She was blogging from Geneva.



Fighting climate change: an idea whose time has come.


This was the Venezuelan delegate’s summary of where we were on the last day of the Geneva climate negotiations. It’s a beautiful vision, and one that I see as potentially achievable, but as in all things outside the “negotiating bubble,” prospects of that vision face a stark reality.


To begin with the reason for optimism: We’ve met the ADP’s mandate to finish a (voluminous) draft text for negotiation in Bonn, Germany in June, and we’ve gone further to agree on a direction to narrow down that text. Despite some initial confusion, the negotiations finished a full three days early, and Parties continued into the last day to praise the transparent manner in which decisions were made. This resulted in a true Party-owned text. In a marked turnaround from Lima, inter-Party cooperation and confidence in the Co-chairs seems to be leaving Geneva on a high note.


And some hoped we would go even further. In a last-day Contact Group session, the EU pointed out that we “did the bare minimum” of what was expected, pointing to the huge volume of text that needed sifting. I infer from the EU’s intervention that they were disappointed that we hadn’t begun culling the text, but then again, the EU was not responsible for making certain that the text “stayed banked,” the co-chairs were. Essentially, there are times for caution as well as ambition.


And nearly every Party speaking in the first ADP contact group on Friday said that without a rapid scale-up of success facilitated by careful steering from the Co-chairs in a quick reflection note and/or detailed scenario note addressing a variety of matters -- from no more than two (or three) parallel sessions to the suggestion to balance Work Stream 1 (WS1, long term goal) and Work Stream 2 (WS2, pre-2020 work), adaptation and mitigation, and all of the above together with Means of Implementation (MOI, Finance, Technology, and Capacity Building) -- the agreement in Paris may be but a vision.


And now the starkness: This was the easiest meeting of the year. We broached some sensitive issues but didn’t “negotiate” them. Now the rubber meets the road because during the June meeting in Bonn and at the two subsequent meetings in late August and October, we need to massage this mass of thoughts into strategic choices, including framing issues for decisions through Minister-level negotiations in Paris. These issues could include differentiation (how should countries at differing levels of development be treated differently), completeness (what is the scope of required information in the “contributions” — do they include information on the provision of MOI), cycles (what period of time the contribution covers),, comparability (common methodology for metrics to facilitate comparing effort) balance between focus on adaptation versus mitigation, the spectre of Loss and Damage ( how are vulnerable countries compensated when adaptation is no longer possible) and more.


So in my view, we are in good position but at a crossroad. Nearly all parties are cooperating. But all Parties, especially our beloved United States, will need “continued motivation” on the road to Paris as well as assurance that we do intend to hold their feet to the fire.


So what are we, fellow Sierra Clubbers and Civil Society, going to do to keep up the support and the pressure? Perhaps bring home some of that Geneva Spirit and get cooperation in high gear to ensure everyone gets the message that now is the time for action.

From Compass

Tanzania's President Kikwete Promises One Million Solar Homes

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 14:28

Photo courtesy of Cleantech Finance

India’s Prime Minister Modi is dreaming big on solar, aiming to use this clean resource to bring electricity to the 300 million Indians currently living without it. Ambitious as that is, it turns out he’s not the only national leader turning to solar to power development.

Today, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete announced a goal of providing one million Tanzanian households with reliable solar electricity by 2017. The initiative, “One Million Solar Homes,” will be implemented by leading beyond-the-grid startup Off-Grid Electric. Achieving this goal would be a milestone on the way to President Kikwete’s longer-term goal of achieving universal energy access for Tanzania by 2030.


Tanzania’s announcement fits nicely into President Obama’s Power Africa goals. In fact, it was in Tanzania in June 2013 when Obama announced the Power Africa initiative, a U.S. government initiative that aims to double energy access in sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzania is one of the six focus countries of Power Africa.


Most importantly though, Tanzania’s announcement cements the importance of beyond-the-grid solutions -- distributed clean energy options like solar home systems for those living beyond the reach of the centralized grid. In a country like Tanzania where the vast majority of those without power live in rural areas and where 86 percent rely on kerosene and candles for light, these solutions offer the cheapest, fastest most direct way of putting power directly in the hands of people. Tanzania’s new announcement shows that political leadership now understands the transformative power of these solutions.


That’s really important because, when Power Africa was first established, only 2 percent of all funds were explicitly committed to beyond-the-grid solutions. But thanks to a rapid increase in investment from the private sector and exciting start ups like Off-Grid Electric, the initiative quickly changed course establishing the “Beyond the Grid” initiative and driving over $1 billion into this rapidly growing market.


It looks like that initiative is already bearing fruit given that the “One Million Solar Homes” initiative includes an investment of $7 million from the International Finance Corporation and financial contributions from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures program, SNV (Netherlands Development Organisation), and SunFunder. That is an important step forward for these agencies and should be applauded. Of course, these agencies are still nowhere near where they need to be when it comes to investing in new innovative solutions.             


Perhaps Tanzania’s leadership will help Power Africa focus its resources where they can have the most direct impact today -- beyond-the-grid energy access solutions.

Vrinda Manglik From Compass

How Many Electric Cars Do We Need to Save the Planet?

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 13:01

Compared to conventional cars, plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This is true even after accounting for the power plant emissions from the electricity to charge them. That's why environmental groups have been calling on policymakers, automakers, the media, and the public to support an accelerated switch to plug-in cars, while simultaneously slashing fossil fuel emissions in other ways -like improving mass transit and expanding solar power.

In his state of the union address four years ago, President Obama said, "we can break our dependence on oil and become the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015." Today we can more accurately estimate that we'll have roughly 400,000 EVs on the road by the end of 2015.  We will likely hit the 1 million mark around 2018. Still, not a bad start for a new category of passenger vehicles. EV sales have grown faster out of the gates than hybrid cars first did.

But we can – and should – do much better. Indeed, late last year, EVs made up only about .85 percent of total U.S. auto sales.

Sierra Club, the major environmental group, hired AlterAction - a behavior change consultancy -- to produce an in-depth analysis of the U.S. EV marketplace.  One finding really struck us: the U.S. needs 10 million EVs on the road by 2025 to have a shot at avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Even AlterAction's sunniest market projection indicates that we'll have only four-to-five million EVs on the road by 2025 if we charge ahead at the current modest pace of growth.  But we believe an aggressive campaign promoting the most effective EV programs and policies in the right locations could bump that number to 6-8 million EVs by 2025. And with many more NGO, government, and corporate stakeholders making this a priority issue, we could actually reach that 10 million EV mark within the next decade.

How do we get there? As we wrote in our last post in this blog series, some EV programs clearly are already working and should be expanded and replicated. These include high-level EV taskforces put in place by state government leaders, consumer incentives that make EVs cheaper to buy and more convenient to operate – such as cash rebates and carpool lanes access, initiatives that encourage the installation of charging equipment at places of work, and utility programs, such as off-peak charging rates and outreach to their customers.

And where in the country do we focus our attention? Part of the answer is the eight Northeast and West Coast states whose governors have already committed to the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Plan.  That plan promises 3.3 million EVs will hit the roads by 2025. There is A LOT of work to be done in these states to meet these commitments. Recently, a coalition of businesses and NGOs provided some specific recommendations and urged the governors of all the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to ramp up their EV programs.

We shouldn't ignore certain other pockets of the country where we can accelerate EV adoption, too. For example, Georgia is among the most popular states for EVs because of its generous $5,000 EV consumer credit, which advocates are currently fighting to defend. A recent report shows that EV drivers in Georgia are currently saving a combined $10 million a year in fueling costs, and last year these Peach State drivers prevented 22,000 tons of GHG emissions. Additionally, Kansas City Power & Light recently announced it plans to install 1,000 EV charging stations, which could boost EV sales in part of the Midwest.

In California, Pacific Gas & Electric just announced its plans to install 25,000 new EV charging stations, including at two of the most important types of locations for EV chargers: at workplaces and multi-unit dwellings. The air quality is so bad in parts of south and central California that policymakers have set a goal to electrify nearly all passenger vehicles on the road by 2032. Translation: even the Golden State, the EV capital of the U.S., needs to significantly ramp up its ambitious EV programs.

Getting to 10 million EVs in the U.S. by 2025 will be a major challenge, but we know a lot already about what works and where to focus. In our next post, we’ll lay out a vision for how to get the public charged up and demanding these cars.

Mike Walker is the founder and CEO of AlterAction, and his blog is here. Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club's Director of Electric Vehicles Initiative. Emily Norton and Jeff Fisher also contributed to this post. Photo credit: Gian Metzger.

From Compass

UK Takes Historic Step to Fight Climate Disruption and Phase Out Coal

Tue, 02/17/2015 - 12:05

While the U.S. was celebrating the President’s Day weekend, and shortly after the Republican-led Senate rejected legislation upholding climate science, the leaders of the three main parties in the United Kingdom signed an agreement to work together across party lines to tackle the climate crisis head-on. Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron joined forces with Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg as well as Labor Party leader Ed Milliband to:

  • Seek a legally binding, global climate deal that limits temperature rises to below 2°C.

  • Forge an agreement on carbon budgets according to the Climate Change Act.

  • Accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy and to end unabated coal for power generation.

This announcement comes after sustained advocacy by groups working to protect the health of UK citizens from both the danger of climate disruption and pollution from coal-fired power. According to the Health and Environment Alliance pollution from coal plants cause 1,600 premature deaths, 363,266 lost work days, and over one million incidents of lower respiratory symptoms every year in the U.K., costing $1.7 to $4.7 billion each year. Moreover, the nation is forced to find coal from unfriendly sources, spending around $1.5 billion on coal imports from Russia even as the situation deteriorated in Ukraine and new sanctions were introduced.

But this new pledge goes far beyond simply addressing domestic concerns around the use of coal and climate – it sets the tone as we go into the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris later this year. While the naysayers like to claim the U.S. would be acting alone, it is clear that there is global momentum for action. From the historic agreement between the U.S. and China in November, to this news out of the UK, we are seeing proof that countries around the world are prepared to take concrete steps to counter climate change.

Nicole Ghio From Compass

A Love Story for Global Divestment Day!

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 10:06


To kick off Valentine's Day weekend, the University of Illinois Beyond Coal Campaign is hosting  “Breaking Up with Coal,” an event in honor of Global Divestment Day featuring a twenty foot long comic about breaking up with coal.


Starting Friday afternoon, UIUC students can stop by, grab a valentine, warm up with a cup of hot chocolate, and participate in a photo petition to call on U of I to break up with coal.


The UIUC Beyond Coal Campaign has come a long way in the fight to divest. Last November, the campaign launched a major petition drive and achieved an unprecedented 6:1 vote on a ballot initiative from the student body in favor of coal divestment. Currently, it is estimated that $5.1 million dollars of the active University endowment pool, of about 1.81 billion dollars,  is invested in the “Filthy Fifteen” largest coal mining and utility companies.

Transitioning from coal to a clean energy future will prevent premature death, asthma attacks, and heart attacks. So this Valentine’s Day, we are asking students to pledge to save a heart by taking part in a photo petition supporting UIUC’s breakup with coal.  

Divestment campaigns across the nation will be hosting flash-mobs, vigils, sit-ins, pledges, and rallies to pressure their institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Recently, Stanford University, the City of Seattle, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and countless other religious organizations and institutions have committed to divesting from coal.


The University of Illinois is making significant headway on addressing climate change. U of I is the first Big Ten university to submit a climate action plan, pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, end coal combustion from the local Abbott Power Plant by 2017 and just broke ground on a 5 MW solar installation. The University is also writing new plans that look at moving up its carbon neutrality date, which includes 100% clean energy purchasing.   


As UIUC leads the way for large universities and clean energy, one crucial step will be for the University to divest. The University’s achievements regarding carbon neutrality will always be limited by its investments in coal.

Join UIUC for Global Divestment Day! And take the pledge to go fossil free today!

Erika Weir From Compass

#COP21: Geneva: Effort Rising In The Face Of Challenge And New Strategies

Fri, 02/13/2015 - 13:59

In the lead up to the COP21 climate negotiations this December in Paris, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is currently hosting its annual Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) session in Geneva, Switzerland. This session, ADP 2.8, comes just two months after the conclusion of COP20 in Lima, Peru, and presents the Parties -- the negotiating bodies for each country -- with a need to further develop and clarify the text that came out of Lima. This text will be used during the final 2015 climate negotiations in Paris.


Janice Meier is a volunteer with the Sierra Club who volunteers on the Club's behalf as a co-chair of the Climate Action Network's Technology Working Group. She is blogging from Geneva.


The story for this ADP session is shaping up to be one of excellent cooperation and stepped-up Party effort as the new Co-chairs’ strategic planning seems to be engendering effective cooperation. While this session must produce a draft negotiating text by May in preparation for an agreement in Paris, the co-chairs approach of focusing first on Parties’ text additions seems to have reassured Parties that they are being heard and inspired their focused effort.


This is not to say that differences have disappeared. There has been reference made to the disagreement on differentiation (how countries at different levels of development should be treated differently) being papered-over in Lima, that make clear that “slick language” won’t save the agreement. Then there is the question of handling “Loss and Damage,” that is, what happens in the most vulnerable countries when the impacts of climate change are beyond adaptation. And there are a host of others as well.


But, overall, the mood in the rooms has been upbeat in Geneva, and already, we’ve seen dramatic shifts from the process in Lima -- where you couldn’t pay a delegation to moderate the length of their interventions in Lima, in the opening plenary in Geneva, we had Parties agreeing to hand in text for file rather than read out their interventions. And in the ADP sessions since, Parties have engaged constructively to follow the new Co-chairs lead, including focusing first on new text submissions as a definitive way to put to rest Parties’ fears that text was being ignored.


And there have been real wins for environmental non-governmental organizations as a number of Parties took up ECO’s Human Rights challenge and almost competed to introduce the text that was suggested in an ECO article, and likewise, offered long sought after text on the assessment of potentially risky climate technologies


But mid-week, the process seemed to hit a snag when the Co-chairs suggested reverting to the Lima text and announced that the results of the “streamlining process” that was about to be embarked on would not be reflected in the new draft text. What was not made immediately clear is that their reason for doing so was to protect the draft text that they had. Had they re-opened that text and if any disagreement had ensued they risked not having enough time left to get to agreement again this week and missing the mandate for text before May.


In essence, the process was a victim of its own success. Because Parties agreed to the draft text so quickly, there was unplanned time, but because the draft text needed to be protected, no further change could be made to it. The meeting adjourned a bit early, and the next morning began with a discussion on guiding questions that gave the parties time to better understand each other’s positions. In the afternoon the streamlining work began, again with Parties cooperating to find solutions.


Yes, this process has challenges and is likely to have many more between now and Paris -- including how to deal with a voluminous text -- but the good news is that if this new-found effectiveness carries through 2015, we may be on the high road to a successful Paris agreement. Let’s give the negotiators kudos and all the support we can muster.

From Compass