Green Vehicle Showdown

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I recently posted about a former Prius exec’s comments on hybrid vs. electric vehicles and why I thought hybrids could only be a stepping stone on the way to all electric vehicles (EVs). And, that post got me wanting to know more about both hybrid and electric cars – what are their capabilities? How practical are they? How affordable are they? And, how much do they really cut down on emissions? Well, I did some digging, and here is what I found out:

Let’s compare the Tesla (most popular EV) with the Prius (most popular hybrid).

TESLA S TOYOTA PRIUS
Range 265 miles max. 595 miles max.
Refueling time (assuming 40 miles/day) 1 hour 22 minutes in 240V outlet – daily Five minutes at any gas station – every 2 weeks
Refueling locations Electric charging stations

  • 8,642 public charging stations nationwide
  • 21,415 public charging outlets nationwide
Gas stations

Annual refueling cost (assuming 40 miles/day) $480 (using $0.11/kwh national average) $926 (using $3.086/gallon national average)
Annual CO2 emissions (assuming 40 miles/day) 5,077 pounds CO2 (using AZ energy matrix, which most closely mimics national matrix) 7,329 pounds CO2
CO2 difference between average gas-powered sedan (emits approx. 12,702 lbs. CO2/year when driving 40 miles per day) 7,625 pounds CO2 saved/year 5,373 pounds CO2 saved/year
Price $63,500 (after tax incentives) $30,000 (for Prius Five)

At first glance, the hybrid seems like the most reasonable choice. The hybrid goes farther and is easier to fuel, plus it costs significantly less to purchase upfront. The EV costs much less to refuel on an annual basis, but the upfront cost of the car would require 75 years of those savings to balance out overall spending. The EV emits fewer carbon emissions, but both vehicles offer a significant reduction from the standard gas-powered vehicle.

Yet, this chart doesn’t display the whole picture of this comparison because it doesn’t factor in driving habits here in the U.S. Do we really need to travel 595 miles before refueling? Turns out, most of us don’t!

  • According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the average vehicle trip length is 9.72 miles, and the average trip length to work is 13.36 miles.
  • According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average annual miles driven in the U.S. is 13,476 miles, which works out to a daily average of 36.92 miles (let’s call it 40 miles per day to make the math more straightforward).

So, if we’re only driving an average of 40 miles per day, the 265 mile range offered by the Tesla should be more than enough for most of us. We could plug in at home every night and be fully charged again with plenty of time for our next day’s travels. And, with charging stations popping up all over the country, traveling out of town is becoming easier as well. Tesla has over 100 “Supercharger” stations nationwide already, which can provide 170 miles of range in less than 30 minutes.

Plus, the EV will steadily grow more environmentally friendly. As the electric grid transitions toward more renewables, the carbon footprint of electricity will drop, while the carbon footprint of gasoline will remain constant. Already in states with more renewables, estimates indicate a tremendous CO2 savings with EVs:

  • Virginia (38% nuclear, 29% natural gas, 27% coal, 4% biomass, 2% hydroelectric) – EVs going 40 miles/day emit only 4,183 pounds of CO2/year
  • Washington State (69% hydroelectric, 10% natural gas, 7% nuclear, 6% coal, 6% wind, 2% biomass) – EVs going 40 miles/day emit only 1,142 pounds of CO2/year
  • See how your state compares! (multiply pounds per day by 365)

And, admittedly, hybrid CO2 footprints will drop as engines become more fuel efficient, but there is no chance a hybrid could reach zero emissions – while that is a distinct (albeit somewhat distant) possibility for EVs.

When it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, which is what’s necessary for climate change mitigation, there is no question in my mind that all-electric cars are the way to go. When you consider that day-to-day vehicle use for the average person falls well within the range of an electric car, the only factor becomes cost. But, EV prices are becoming more competitive. Teslas remain at luxury prices for now, but the Nissan LEAF (which has an 80 mile range) is only $29,000 – on par with the Prius. Plus, now that Tesla has opened up its patents to the public, the cost of EVs is likely to go down as their technology becomes more widely available and increased interest spurs on innovation. And, as assigning a price to carbon becomes a reality (and it is likely in at least some way, shape, or form, even if it’s not a direct tax, per se), electric vehicles are going to grow increasingly less expensive relative to hybrid and conventionally-fueled cars.

So, the more I look at the facts, the more I’m convinced that electric cars represent a reasonable – and necessary – transition.

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I still think electric cars are a good idea…

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“By definition we must move towards renewable energy. How can people argue against that?” –Elon Musk, Tesla CEO

Yale’s Environment360 blog recently featured an interview with former Toyota executive Bill Reinert, who was part of the team that designed the Toyota Prius. In the interview, Reinert reaffirmed his opinion that electric cars aren’t the way of the future, but rather we should continue to look to hybrid vehicles. And though Reinert has made important contributions to improving vehicle fuel efficiency and therefore reducing emissions (and while it’s interesting to hear his opinion on how we’ll power the cars of the future), I have some objections to a few of his comments.

Three quotes really caught my attention:

  1. “…it’s hard to see where the case for an electric car really comes in. Is it for carbon reduction? No, you’d have to decarbonize the whole grid to make that case, and that’s not likely to happen.”

Reinert assumes that we won’t transition our electric grid to one powered by renewable, low/zero-emission energy sources, yet that is exactly what we need to do. That transition won’t happen overnight, of course, but it does need to happen over the coming decades. And, even if we aren’t able to fully transition to a zero-emission electric grid, our electricity emissions should be a small fraction of what they currently are (and a small fraction of gasoline emissions).

  1. “So to ignore a car that gets 60 miles to the gallon – and the new hybrids will – and say that the electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline is ridiculous. It doesn’t use any gasoline but it uses carbon somewhere.”

Again, Reinert assumes that we won’t transition to a low/zero-emission electric grid, when in fact we are (slowly) moving in that direction, and that is what we need to do. Our electricity production accounts for 32% of our carbon emissions, so it is imperative that we transform the way we generate our electric power. Couple the 32% from electricity production with the 28% from transportation, and a transition to electric cars paired with renewable electricity production would reduce our emissions by 60%. And that’s what I think must happen – a shift to electric cars must be accompanied by a transition to electricity generation dominated by renewable, low/zero-emission fuel sources.

  1. “In comparison, by adding just a little weight in the way of a few extra gallons of gas to a 50 mile-per-gallon hybrid car, there can be a big extension of the hybrid’s driving range. And while I don’t expect the battery car to get dramatically better, the internal combustion engine is getting phenomenally better…”

Reinert assumes gasoline will always be readily available and therefore limits himself to thinking that the choice is between a battery and a gasoline-powered hybrid. But, that may be a false choice as we approach peak oil and continue to increase fuel economy standards. Hybrids are an excellent stepping-stone, in my opinion; they will help us increase our fuel efficiency and lower our carbon footprint while we update our infrastructure, but they are just one step on the path to all-electric vehicles.

I’m not sure Reinert is thinking about the big picture of a changing energy landscape. Instead, he assumes certain limitations to innovation and development that could be overcome when we think about climate action in a broader context.

This interview reminds me that one of the most important pieces of successful climate action will be cross collaboration between a wide variety of groups. Vehicle manufacturers aren’t the only ones who should plan the future of our cars and roadways. Everything in our society is interconnected. Our society – and our economy – is a complex web of people, resources, and demands. Not much is done in isolation anymore. So, planning shouldn’t be done in isolation either. Of course, high-level cross-sector planning is difficult, time-consuming, and hugely complex, but it’s far better to take the time to plan well than to backtrack and change course in 10 years.

As a side note, electric vehicle sales are on the rise. Plug-in sales this year are already 30% higher than this time last year, and the total number of plug-in vehicles on the road is up 84% from this time last year. With Tesla opening up its patents to promote electric car development and competition, both Nissan (Leaf) and Chevy (Volt) recording impressive annual electric sales, and BMW getting into the game with the i3, electric cars would certainly seem to have a bright future. Looks like I’m not the only one who still likes electric cars.

More to come on comparing electric vs. hybrid cars!

Great Scot! Glasgow Scientists Make Hydrogen Fuel Breakthrough

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Is hydrogen the answer to cutting our cars’ greenhouse gas emissions?

We may be hearing more about hydrogen fuel again in the near future. Researchers at Glasgow University have recently discovered what could be a breakthrough methodology for producing hydrogen fuel from water. The new method utilizes renewable energy sources to run an electric current through water (electrolysis) to create hydrogen fuel 30 times faster than the current state-of-the-art production method. This method is a vast improvement over the currently prevailing practice, which relies heavily on fossil fuels (and therefore offsets the benefit of using hydrogen fuel in the first place). Using the new methodology, Glasgow scientists are eliminating those GHG emissions by finding a production method that favors zero-emissions renewable energy sources.

Do you remember when hydrogen fuel was all the rage? The idea of hydrogen fuel seemed to be top-of-mind 10 years ago, with President George W. Bush calling hydrogen highways the way of the future in his 2003 State of the Union address. In fact, the primary use people envision for hydrogen – even now – is for automobiles so that we can replace emission-heavy gasoline. Hydrogen can be used by vehicles in 2 ways:

  • burning hydrogen directly (in liquid form) much like a car would burn gasoline, or
  • as part of a hydrogen fuel cell, which reacts hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity and power an electric motor.

So, why didn’t hydrogen technology take off? Cost, safety, and storage demands were driving factors.

Hydrogen has the tremendous benefit of being clean burning with zero emissions – great for the environment! Hydrogen fuel cells are also very efficient, making them an attractive means of deriving sustained power, and liquid hydrogen stores 2.8 times the energy per unit of mass of gasoline. But, hydrogen’s storage needs are stringent (in its liquid form, hydrogen needs to be stored at or below negative 273 degrees C! [p. 85]). On the flip side, hydrogen fuel cells do not work at very low temperatures (I don’t know what qualifies as “very low,” but this could be potentially problematic in Northern climates.) Additionally, there is a definite safety risk associated with hydrogen – it is highly flammable, even more so than gasoline [p. 89].

Some car makers already think the benefits of hydrogen outweigh the costs, though. Toyota is betting on hydrogen fuel cell technology as the future of automobiles rather than traditional electric vehicles, as the car maker is releasing its Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan in the coming months. Hyundai already released its Tucson Fuel Cell crossover vehicle in California this past June.

But, will hydrogen fuel be the way of the future? I don’t know; I still have some lingering concerns.

Safety is of course a primary concern; if hydrogen can’t be stored or transported with near-perfect safety results, it shouldn’t be powering our cars yet. Plus, any safety and security needs will factor heavily into infrastructure costs. Although, infrastructure will need to change regardless as we transition away from fossil fuels and will surely come at a hefty – but necessary – cost.

My other concern is about water availability. How much water is needed for this fuel creation process? Solar and wind production use a small fraction of the water needed by nuclear, coal, or oil-powered energy. How does hydrogen compare? But, hydrogen fuel cells can produce water as the exhaust/output, so does any upfront water use balance out? With the availability of clean drinking water becoming a global development crisis, water consumption should be an important factor in any far-reaching energy decisions.

I suppose the research over the coming months and years will shed more light on the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel and its commercial feasibility. But for now, I think using sustainably-generated electricity (from solar, wind, wave, and geothermal sources) to power both our homes and our vehicles seems like the more appealing choice, both in terms of safety and economic viability.

The “Dirt” on Carbon Emissions

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Is the secret in the soil? We often think of carbon as only being in the air – as emissions, what we exhale, what plants inhale; but a great deal of carbon is also stored within our soil. Plants absorb and store carbon in the soil. So, when today’s industrial farming methods use tilling to overturn the soil, it actually releases large amounts of carbon into the air.

 

According to journalist and writer Kristen Olsen, we can help reverse climate change by returning to no-till farming methods, which will leave the soil undisturbed and will keep that carbon trapped underground. In fact, David Johnson, a scientist at New Mexico State University, estimates that we could potentially offset all of our current carbon dioxide emissions by returning just 11% of the world’s cropland to no-till farming. If that’s true – wow!

 

Tilling soil can also release the nitrogen applied as fertilizer. On average, crops absorb only 30-50% of the nitrogen applied to the soil, so tilling can cause significant amounts to enter the atmosphere as nitrous oxide. Unfortunately, nitrous oxide (N2O) is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. N2O has a lifetime of 120 years in the atmosphere, and its global warming potential (GWP) is 310 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year timespan. Still not as potent as artificial refrigerants like HFCs, but N2O emissions are certainly worth limiting! Add to that the fact that tilling is a major source of soil erosion, one of the key contributing factors to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and it seems like a no-brainer that our farmers should go “no-till.”

 

But, what are the benefits of tilling? If it were such an easy practice to give up, wouldn’t all farms have already switched to no-till practices? In fact, no-till farming is growing in the United States at about 1.5% per year and 35.5% of American cropland has at least some no-till portions, but only 10% of American farms are full-time no-till operations.

 

Tilling can help stop weed growth because turning over the soil tears up existing weeds and buries weed seeds resting on the surface deep enough so they can’t sprout. In this way, tilling reduces the amount of herbicides farmers need to kill weeds. These herbicides increase farmers’ costs while also having a negative impact on the environment. Although, new organic (i.e. non-chemical) ways of practicing no-till farming are on the rise.

 

So – to till or not to till?? While I am a huge proponent of reducing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change, I know that maintaining both economic and agricultural sustainability are critical to our wellbeing. As is often the case, I think it will be important to find a happy medium. Earthbound Farm (producer of organic salad greens) employs a “low-till” methodology, whereby they turn up only half an inch of soil, rather than the traditional six inches, in between plantings. The small amount of tilling helps bury weed seeds enough to prevent them from sprouting, but it releases only a fraction of the carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, Earthbound estimates that the organic soil in their fields absorbs 123.2 million pounds of CO2 each year (61,600 tons or the equivalent of taking 11,200 cars off the road).

 

Will low-till farming be the wave of the future? I’m not an agricultural expert, but it seems to hold potential. I think what I like best about the idea of low or no-till farming, though, is that it reminds us there is more than one way to reduce our carbon footprint. Switching to renewable fuels will undeniably be an important factor in mitigating climate change. But, such a complex and multi-faceted problem will also have many and diverse solutions.

 

Agriculture accounts for 10-12% of global emissions, according to the IPCC, so it seems natural that we should consider ways to reduce agricultural emissions as well as emissions from energy production and vehicle travel. And, no-till farming doesn’t require fancy new technology to achieve these reductions – rather a return to a more traditional method of farming.

 

So, let’s invest in our innovators and creators who are championing new fuels and energy systems, but let’s also remember how much we as a society already know and reach into our own thinking caps for practical solutions to combat climate change.

Americans Already Taking Action Against Climate Change

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It’s a new year, and everyone is still feverishly committed to their New Year’s resolutions. After all, January is the time for reinventing oneself, committing to self-improvement, and setting new goals. I love when New Year’s comes around because I enjoy thinking about all of the possibilities that a new year brings.

It is in that spirit that I thought January the perfect time to share a recent study done by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. I’ve shared their work before, telling you how Americans really do want more renewable energy. But that is not the only subject they’ve studied – the two schools continue to poll American citizens on their viewpoints, their habits, their goals, and their ideas for improvement when it comes to climate change. This information is powerful, and I can only hope it gets put to good use.

So what is this research duo up to now? About a month ago, they released a joint report on “Americans’ Actions to Limit Global Warming in September 2012.” The study looks at the actions of Americans to reduce their energy consumption over the course of one month, thus lowering their carbon footprint by reducing the amount of emissions produced by electricity generated on their behalf. It also looks at “green” consumer, citizen, and communication behaviors.

So what are the highlights of the study?

  • 53% of Americans “always” or “often” set their thermostat no higher than 68°F in the winter. (I must be part polar bear – I set mine to 62°F!)
  • 57% of Americans report that all or most of the bulbs in their homes are CFL bulbs (compact fluorescent light bulbs, which are exponentially more energy efficient and longer-lasting than incandescent bulbs).
  • 60% of those polled believe that if everyone in the United States took similar energy-saving actions it would reduce global warming (I happen to agree) – but this figure is down from 78% in 2008!
  • 32% believe their individual actions to save energy will reduce their contribution to global warming – but this figure is also down from the 2008 figure of 48%.
  • 52% of Americans say they have or intend to reward or punish companies for their action or inaction to reduce global warming (consumer feedback is very powerful, which I brought up last year in talking about voting with your wallet).

So, not only do Americans want to take action against climate change – they ARE taking action. Which is great! Companies and government officials may be dragging their feet, but individuals are willing to take steps to reduce energy demand now. Power to the people, right?

But unfortunately it looks as though Americans’ faith in the power of the individual to impact climate change has been decreasing over the last four years. Why? Perhaps people are disheartened by the devastating extreme weather events of 2012 despite their climate-friendly actions? Perhaps the sensationalist coverage perpetuated by the media has scared people into thinking it is too late to take action? It’s hard to pin down the exact reason for this decrease in confidence, but perhaps a new year will bring with it renewed confidence! One can hope so. But more importantly, perhaps this waning confidence in the power of the individual will convince us that we have to work together to effect change at the national – not just the individual – level. And that requires voicing your concerns to your representatives in Congress, supporting environmental groups that lobby for stricter regulations, and supporting the renewable energy industry.

In the meantime, individual action can still create significant progress, and we can see that Americans are willing to take those actions. People have clearly responded by making the changes they’ve been instructed to make by environmental organizations or public serve announcements (e.g. lowering the thermostat and switching to energy efficient light bulbs). So, organizations must continue to present new ways for individuals to change their habits that can make a difference in energy demand. Perhaps if we were to create such action plans for companies and governments we could even expect to see these results reproduced on a larger scale? Food for thought!

SPOTLIGHT on Concord, Massachusetts: Ditching Disposable Plastic Water Bottles

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If you look hard enough you’re always sure to find something inspiring going on in the world. On this Monday morning, I stumbled upon a green action definitely worth applauding: Concord, Massachusetts has placed a ban on single-use plastic water bottles.

We’ve seen bans placed on plastic shopping bags in a number of cities already, but Concord is the first U.S. city to extend that ban to disposable water bottles. After a three-year effort by the Ban the Bottle campaign, Concord’s new law prohibits the sale of non-sparkling, unflavored liquids in single serving PET (polyethylene terephthalate – a type of plastic) bottles smaller than one liter. Wow – that’s a lot of qualifiers! As you can surmise from the language, sodas, flavored waters, and sparkling waters are not included in the ban – nor are larger bottles of flat water, such as gallon sizes. Additionally, exceptions will be made for emergency situations. However, even with all of these exceptions, eliminating small disposable water bottles alone will be a marked improvement.

Here are a few facts about these single-use plastic water bottles, courtesy of Ban the Bottle:

  • Production of the plastic water bottles used by the United States each year requires 17 million barrels of oil – that’s enough to power 1.3 million cars for a year!
  • Each year, it is estimated that over 38 billion plastic water bottles end up in landfills.
  • Antimony, a chemical found in these PET plastic bottles, has been shown to cause health issues, such as dizziness and depression – even in small amounts.

The bottom line: we use a lot of disposable plastic water bottles every year, and that requires a lot of resources. What if we were to redeploy those resources elsewhere?

If national budget talks have taught us anything, it’s that compromises are often necessary. We must give and take to create a favorable outcome. Giving up all fossil fuels overnight is an unrealistic goal. But we can steadily reduce fossil fuel dependence. What if reducing plastic water bottle usage allowed us to ease more slowly into stricter vehicle emissions standards? Eliminating disposable plastic water bottle production could be a good way to reduce oil consumption without asking people to give up their cars. And wouldn’t it be easier (and far less expensive) to switch to carrying a reusable water bottle than to buy an electric vehicle today or to start biking to work from your suburban neighborhood? Don’t get me wrong – we will still need to reduce oil use by our vehicles (and this is already underway with rising electric and hybrid vehicle sales and the increased CAFE standards enacted last year) and make serious efforts to switch to renewable forms of energy (here we are also making slow but steady progress), but these changes will take much more time because cars and energy infrastructure are such large investments. Reducing disposable water bottle usage is something we can do today.

Much like plastic bags, plastic water bottles are convenient, but they are far from a necessity. Reusable water bottles come in a variety of sizes and materials and can just as easily carry filtered water for those who don’t like what comes from the tap.

I love finding small actions that can make a big difference, and reusable water bottles are a perfect example. Switching to reusable water bottles takes only a small effort but can have a lasting impact on the environment. So if you can, try switching to a reusable water bottle today!

A plastic water bottle ban is a small but admirable step toward greening a community, and I hope many more cities will follow in Concord’s footsteps.

Is your city doing anything particularly green? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

SPOTLIGHT on Nantes, France – European Green Capital for 2013

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Nantes

Happy New Year, everyone! With a new year come new hope, new energy, and new vision. So this year, I would like to increase the scope of GreenIsMyThing to include posts highlighting laudable green actions of cities, states, or countries around the world. And Nantes, France is the perfect place to start…

Why? Nantes was named as the “European Green Capital” for 2013. The European Green Capital designation began in 2010 with the city of Stockholm, Sweden and has since been awarded to Hamburg, Germany (2011), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain (2012), and now Nantes, France. Copenhagen, Denmark is set to receive the designation in 2014. The European Green Capital award is an initiative of the European Commission. The rationale is that because 80% of European citizens live in cities and because cities are a significant source of environmental harms, cities are an excellent place to focus greening efforts.

What is so special about Nantes? Its residents are taking the threat of climate change to heart and have decided to take some serious action.

1)   This metropolitan area of 600,000 people has adopted a climate action plan that aims to reduce carbon emissions 30% below 1990 levels (the reference year set by the Kyoto Protocol) by 2030.

2)   Nantes is also a leader in global climate conversations. The city spearheads a worldwide coalition of cities participating in UN climate negotiations and co-chairs with Copenhagen a working group of European cities working to address climate change. They are also going to be the host of 8 upcoming environmentally themed meetings, including EcoCity 2013 in September and an international meeting on wetlands in October.

3)   They are heavily investing in their public transit systems. In fact, 95% of homes are within 300 meters of a transit stop (that’s about 400 steps, according to Google). That means 95% of the city’s households can use public transportation to get around if they so choose. How? In recent years, Nantes has reintroduced streetcars and light rail in the area, created a dedicated busway, and has developed a bikesharing system. All of these improvements have helped Nantes achieve per capita CO2 emissions of only 4.66 tonnes! (To put this into context, per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. are 17.3 tonnes.)

That’s all pretty impressive, right? But there’s more. Nantes has initiated three projects to further enhance and focus on sustainability.

1)   Île de Nantes – This project will revitalize a large “brownfield” area of industrial development into an “eco district” that will contain a large park, housing, public transit stops, and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.

2)   Ma Ville Demain 2030 (My City of Tomorrow 2030) – This project strives for civic engagement to determine Nantes residents’ long-range vision for the region, and sustainability has become an important part of that vision.

3)   Estuaire – This project will place pieces of public art along the river in order to draw interest and attention to the area’s estuary and its many environmental benefits, the hope being that increased knowledge will increase residents’ pride in and desire to protect the estuary.

I love all of the green things that Nantes is doing. No one can transform to being completely green overnight, but Nantes is making sustainability an important part of the city’s identity so that becoming greener is a continued part of local development. The European Green Capital designation rightly reinforces this commitment by praising these practices and lifting up Nantes as a positive example for the rest of the European Union.

I also love the European Green Capital initiative as a whole. First, it focuses on change at the local level, which tends to be more effective than changes at a national level. Action at the local level is easier to coordinate and implement, not only because of the smaller scale, but also because pride and concern for one’s own city can be highly motivating. More importantly, the initiative encourages sharing of best practices between cities so that effective ways of increasing sustainability can be realized on a larger scale. I think the United States could benefit greatly from a similar green cities initiative and form of recognition.

All in all, two thumbs up to the European Green Capital initiative and to Nantes, France for making greener cities a priority and a reality.

Is your city doing something green and noteworthy? If so, feel free to share it in the comments!