If I was the mayor

If I had stood for the local elections I would have come with an ecological strategy that would have provided everything required for a campaigning politician; connection to a hot global issue, a ready made framework that would create jobs, cut pollution, solve transport problems, attract tourists and bring discipline to construction. And I would have a framework to slam other candidates for using eco labels in their campaigns but failing to address the threats of global warming and the upcoming energy crisis (this is known as “greenwash” in the UK).

The key to my ecological strategy would be to create an ecological city that would be attractive to foreign tourists, investors and residents. If the city is to become attractive to foreign tourists, and easier to get around, the result would be a more pleasant place to live and the real beneficiaries would be the residents of the city.

I would set ambitious targets in terms of reducing pollution and CO2 levels by 90% and this would require massive investment in infrastructure, transport and buildings – resulting in new jobs being created and big cuts in heating and utility bills (another promise that could be made at election time) and the development of new skills.

I would explain that cutting heating bills by up to 100% is now feasible by investing in the German PassivHaus technologies (most of which are not particularly high tech), and I would explain the vital importance of finding solutions to the twin threats of global warming (possible 6 metre rise in sea levels) and alternative fuel (according to the “peak oil” scientists, oil supplies will start to run out from 2012). These global threats could provide the urgency, motivation and theoretical framework that would be needed to sustain a long term political programme.

Voters need to be informed that we need to find solutions to the global energy crisis (which is only just starting) or we are going to face starvation, flooding, war and complete economic collapse. I would explain that western food supplies are over-reliant on petrol (“just think” I would say, “how much fuel is required to produce and transport the food you eat”) and that alternatives must be found. I would explain that environmentalists say that the solution is to sell food that is grown locally.

I would point out that Romania’s traditional agriculture, and excellent soil, may be able to feed the population in a post-oil world, and the importance of retaining this link to the past (as a key to the future). And I would explain that 700 hectares of fast growing forest can sustain a 1 megawatt power plant, which could supply over 4000 homes with electricity and hot water; and there is over 3 million hectares of degraded land in Romania, some of which is ideal for this type of energy crop. But I would try and avoid sounding like a fanatic or an obsessive, or a traditionalist, as there is nothing more boring than an impassioned environmentalist.

The keys to any ecological strategy are energy efficiency and renewable energy. Energy efficiency is basically cutting energy consumption by investing in thermal insulation, energy saving light bulbs, condensing boilers and the PassivHaus technologies. If householders understand the importance of saving energy – as part of a global movement to cut CO2 emissions – and realize that their contribution is important, it can be motivating.

But many people in Romania complain that global warming was caused by rich countries and should therefore be solved by them, and most people think their individual contribution (which will cost money in the short term) will be irrelevant. Although there is some logic in this argument, it is a wrong to think that we can’t all contribute to a solution. An election is an opportunity to debunk this myth, make people feel empowered and offer incentives for cutting consumption and generating energy.

As well as encouraging voters to take energy efficiency measures at home, some of which can be subsidized by the state, such as the existing programme of adding thermal insulation to apartment blocks, I would ensure that business and the public administration were obliged to start making real efforts to cut their energy use. This is starting to happen all over the EU and energy efficiency is also booming in the USA (led by the most unlikely green company on the planet: Wal Mart).

How many public buildings, schools and hospitals are grossly overheated and badly ventilated? How much damage does this do to the health of our children? How much is this costing the state budget? How much extra CO2 is being generated by this waste? Why are the incentives for public institutions to invest in energy efficiency so complex that they are unworkable? These questions need to be asked and an election is the ideal place to challenge the system and outline a new way.

One of the most effective ways of saving energy in a big building is to recover the heat that is in the air. It costs a lot of money to heat the air in an office, school, hospital or supermarket and because of poor insulation, and the need for constant ventilation, this heat disappears almost immediately – requiring more heat to be pumped in. The eco solution is to use a heat exchanger to transform the outgoing hot air to the fresh incoming fresh air. In this way you can recycle the heat that is already in a heated room. This PassivHaus technology can slash heating bills and improve ventilation.

While energy efficiency measures can be used to cut energy consumption, renewable energy solutions need to be introduced in order to cut our reliance on oil and gas. Many people are now aware of the potential of wind and solar energy and more obscure solutions like biomass (in which waste can be transformed into energy) and geothermal are becoming known about too.

There is a strange paralysis when it comes to implementing renewable energy solutions in Romania, even though vast sums of money are available for this through EU and private investment funds. If I was standing for mayor I would use this opportunity as my main weapon in winning the battle for city hall. Confident that the funds are there to back up my promises, I would explain my plans to transform people’s waste into electricity and hot water and say that each apartment block should have solar panels on its roof in order to give residents free hot water for much of the year, and each business and institution needs to play its part too.

I would develop the concept that there is no such thing as garbage, and point out that not only should waste be recycled (which is where the debate is currently at), but each type of waste can be turned into hot water and electricity. If organic waste, for example, is processed in an Anaerobic Digestor, the result is methane gas and high quality fertilizer. A problem can be turned into a solution and everybody can be part of this simply by separating their garbage.

Considering that Bucharest is approaching gridlock, it is not surprising that transport was one of the hottest issues at the local elections. But who actually came with a viable solution? There were lots of promises of more car parks, intelligent traffic lights, better roads and the like, but no inkling of a strategy that would actually resolve the problems. And western experience shows that building more roads does not resolve the problem, as more cars are sold and the roads get more blocked.

The only solution to Bucharest’s traffic problems are massive investment in public transport – more metro and tram lines, more buses, suburban rail lines and bike routes – and a more aggressive attitude towards drivers. But this cannot really be sustained by a ruling class that believes totally in the internal combustion engine and who look down their noses at public transport and bikes as suitable only for the proles. And memories of the appalling standards on public transport under Communism prevail.

An ecological strategy for transport could break this impasse by giving the motivation to move from cars to buses, trams, trains and bikes, and also make it seem trendy to catch the bus. If voters could be persuaded that they can contribute to a global solution by giving up their cars and cycling to work (the best way of getting around town according to this voter) things could start to change. Bucharest’s creaking metro system is proof that people will use public transport even if it is grossly overcrowded.

If I was mayor I would declare a policy of zero tolerance regarding illegal parking, pointing out that ordinary citizens are displaced from their rightful place on the streets – the pavements – by drivers who feel it is their right to park wherever they like. But this is not a right anywhere else in the EU. Why should it be here? And I would make a great effort to win the police over in starting to tackle traffic violations – particularly the increasing amount of drag racing that takes place at night – and not merely helping drivers cut through the chaos more quickly. Attitudes towards traffic need to change and the environmental perspective is a good basis for this (for example, penalties for excessive CO2 pollution caused by speeding).

And I would inspire voters by saying if we can show other cities how we have slashed energy consumption, and shifted to renewable energy, our city will become the example for all others in Romania. The other great advantage of going green is that it develops new jobs, skills and technologies, all of which can then be sold to other areas that need green products and services. One of Arnold Schwarznegger’s key drivers in his greening of California is the promise of generating jobs and exporting know how, and California is emerging as a global leader when it comes to solar energy.

I have been talking about cities and Bucharest in this article, but a successful eco strategy could be developed in any small town or village in Romania. And the first place to go green, to develop the technologies, to save and generate the energy, and to do it successfully, will profit by showing the others the way. Maybe I should set my sights on being elected in a village, where implementing a green strategy should be a bit more simple – but its value as a case study would be equally large.

This article was published in VIVID magazine and can be seen here.

A Romanian version of this article was published in Dilemma Veche and it can be seen here..

2 Responses to If I was the mayor

  1. Chris Shirley - Smith says:

    I fully agree. I am currently trying to influence certain key people to change their ways, but unfortunately corruption is endemic and they have a lot of practice in hiding it!

    Worst of all is the apparantly uncontrolled development motivated entirely through personal greed.

  2. Bogdan Istodor says:

    Interesting view! You have my vote!Too bad you won’t ever be our mayor!
    Best regards!

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