Sometimes you have to travel half way around the world to become inspired at home. Our recent visits to Cambodia, Ecuador, and Belize not only exposed us to foreign cultures but also opened our eyes about much we consume back here in Santa Fe. We sought a place with an equivalent lifestyle that is much more efficient. Our answer was to search for the past, in this case, Europe, where folks consume half the energy per capita of Americans. Folks like Antonia, a delightful eight-year old whom we met one day in Freiburg, Germany, as her dad was teaching her how to ride a unicycle, which for her was not a toy but one of many different ways for her to happily move around her neighborhood that consciously puts the mobility needs of kids before cars. It’s a place that allows Antonia to skip across the trolley tracks to her school while big sister Charlotte takes the trolley to her school and father Walter bikes on a paved trail to his job, allowing the family to eschew owning a car.
While modern European cities and subdivisions fall prey to excesses all too often prevalent in America, traditional European cities display significantly lower carbon emissions than us, yet they maintain a high standard of living and strong economic development. Ken learned of a conference on climate change and urban design in Oslo, Norway, and he submitted an abstract about how New Mexico plans to cut its energy use by 20%. The paper was accepted (posted at www.kenhughes.org), and we put together a September 2008 trip to get a first-hand feel for the European example.
Servas members opened up their homes: Randi and Olav in Bergen, Norway; Jacob in Copenhagen; Edelgard and Gabriela in Marburg, Germany; and Heidrun & Walter & Charlotte & Antonia in Freiburg, Germany. Our cohousing neighbor Vidia linked us up with her delightful friend Oystein who lives across the fjord from Oslo. Santa Fe friends Roger and Peggy rented us their lovely flat in Nice, France, and Ellen located www.vrbo.com/18667 a Parisian apartment near the Arc de Triomphe.
European inspiration was overwhelming. Ken met with staff of the Copenhagen Climate Change Council. If the 60's gave us super rock groups like Cream, this decade gives us a super climate groups like this 24-person board that includes two Americans, Obama’s DOE Secretary Stephen Chu and visionary Shai Agassi. Agassi's Project Better Place is applying the cell phone model and teaming up with Denmark's largest utility to put its excess wind power into electric car batteries. Since cars usually sit idle during most hours in a day, the utility economist explained to Ken, their battery power can be harnessed to juice up the grid. Denmark, by the way, waives its 181% new car tax on purchases of all electric cars; Uncle Sam take note. With 35 percent of Danish adults biking to jobs that pay a minimum $19 per hour (and a 1% jobless rate) Copenhagen offers a vision of a carbon-light society. Let's hope the world is equally inspired in December when the city hosts the next climate change conference, this time with America's honest participation.
We saw bike sharing programs in action in both Oslo and Paris. When Ken biked in Paris 30 years ago, it was a rarity. The Vel Lib program has literally transformed the City of Lights. Parisiennes easily access bikes at docking stations placed near their 6-story apartment buildings. Just ride a bit, park it, do what you need to do and find another bike when it's time to pedal on. Repeat as needed.
Soon Paris may sport car sharing: Ken met with MDI (www.mdi.lu), a company near Nice hoping to win a car sharing contract with the Paris mayor's office, offering a 2 meter-long Air Pod that runs on compressed air. It would be the perfect vehicle for Paris as well as cities the world over.
Solar is front and center in Germany, not exactly the world’s sunniest spot. Medieval Marbury requires solar on all new and renovated homes, and Freiburg, with citizen-led rejection of nuclear and coal fired power plants, and with 10% of roofs sporting solar panels, prides itself as Germany's environmental capital. The Mayor's solar program director told us of plans to solarize the entire city in the near future. As with Copenhagen, it is impressive how Freiburg residents exercise many options to get around: the network of trolleys and bike trails throughout the city, and strolls afforded in vast green spaces not far from residential neighborhoods. In fact, our host family lives in the Vauban neighborhood that is designed for families that choose to live without a car, because they can.
Europe is blessed with trains connecting just about every place, with more superfast trains on the way. In fact, our TGV train ride between Marseilles on the Mediterranean and Paris was only two hours. Little wonder that France is one of the few countries to actually live up to its Kyoto carbon reduction pledge.
So, how can we cut our energy use by not just twenty percent, or to catch up to the Europeans at fifty percent below our prolific ways, but to get to the eighty percent reduction scientists like Dr. Chu we need to stave off the worst effects of global climate disruption? Let's start with something we take for granted in America: free parking. Let's value that parking at, say, $100 a month and issue a "living green card". Your card decreases in value each time you use it to open the parking lot gate at work or shops. You can avoid that by arriving by some other means - walk, Segway, bike, carpool, train, bus. You can use your card to buy a transit pass, or rent a regular bike, an electric bike, or a carbon-negative car at any docking station located in populated and popular areas of Santa Fe. Savings on the cards could also be parlayed into purchases of kilowatt hours at the local community supported solar array, with credit going on your monthly electric bill. Or the card can purchase energy efficiency measures for your domicile. Such a green living incentive program could readily get Santa Fe on the path toward an 80 percent reduction in carbon-laden fossil fuels.
If chance favors the prepared mind, so, too, will President Obama's search for places to partner with the Federal government to put people to work in the greening of our communities. If Santa Fe wishes to become a partner with the Obama Administration, it should emulate the kind of vision and action we witnessed in Copenhagen and Freiburg. Antonia would not have it any other way.