Leaders Edge Magazine - Jan/Feb 2010

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It is unlikely that we can reach any one goal without reaching the others. Moving the global economy off the decline-and-collapse path depends on reaching all four goals. The key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through full-cost pricing. For energy, this means putting a tax on carbon to reflect the full cost of burning fossil fuels and offsetting it with a reduction in the tax on income.

If the world is to move onto a sustainable path, we need economists who will calculate indirect costs and work with political leaders to incorporate them into market prices by restructuring taxes. This will require help from other disciplines, including ecology, meteorology, agronomy, hydrology, and demography. Full-cost pricing that will create an honest market is essential to building an economy that can sustain civilization and progress.

Some 2, economists, including nine Nobel Prize winners in economics, have endorsed the concept of tax shifts. Harvard economics professor and former chairman of George W. This may be the closest thing to a free lunch that economics has to offer. These are real costs. Someone bears them. If not us, our children. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world energy economy.


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Phasing in full-cost pricing will quickly reduce oil and coal use. Suddenly wind, solar, and geothermal will become much cheaper than climate-disrupting fossil fuels.

Vince Laws - CV

We are economic decisionmakers, whether as corporate planners, government policymakers, investment bankers, or consumers. And we rely on the market for price signals to guide our behavior.

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But if the market gives us bad information, we make bad decisions, and that is exactly what has been happening. We are being blindsided by a faulty accounting system, one that will lead to bankruptcy.


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Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth. A decade ago, a phenomenally successful company named Enron was frequently on the covers of business magazines. It was, at one point, the seventh most valuable corporation in the United States.

Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask

Their audit showed that Enron was bankrupt—worthless. We are doing exactly the same thing, but on a global scale. If we continue with this practice, we too will face bankruptcy. Another major flaw in our market economy is that it neither recognizes nor respects sustainable yield limits of natural systems.

Consider, for example, the overpumping of aquifers. Once there is evidence that a water table is starting to fall, the first step should be to ban the drilling of new wells. If the water table continues to fall, then water should be priced at a rate that will reduce its use and stabilize the aquifer.

When the aquifer is depleted, the water-based food bubble will burst, reducing harvests and driving up food prices. Or consider deforestation. Proper incentives, such as a stumpage tax for each tree cut, would automatically shift harvesting from clearcutting to selective cutting, taking only the mature trees and protecting the forests.

Not only do we distort reality when we omit costs associated with burning fossil fuels from their prices, but governments actually subsidize their use, distorting reality even further. Following Iran on the list of countries that heavily subsidize fossil fuel use are Russia, Saudi Arabia, and India. Some countries are already doing this. Belgium, France, and Japan have phased out all subsidies for coal.

Chapter 13. Saving Civilization

Countries in the European Union may phase out coal subsidies entirely by President Obama has announced plans to start phasing out fossil fuel subsidies in As oil prices have climbed, a number of countries that held fuel prices well below world market prices have greatly reduced or eliminated their motor fuel subsidies because of the heavy fiscal cost. Among those reducing subsidies are China, Indonesia, and Nigeria.

A phaseout of oil consumption subsidies over the next decade would cut oil use by 4. Eliminating all fossil fuel consumption subsidies by would cut global carbon emissions by nearly 6 percent and reduce government debt. Moving subsidies from road construction to high-speed intercity rail construction could increase mobility, reduce travel costs, and lower carbon emissions.

Closely related to the need to restructure the economy is the need to redefine security. One of our legacies from the last century, which was dominated by two world wars and the cold war, is a sense of security that is defined almost exclusively in military terms. It so dominates Washington thinking that the U.

In the 21st century strength should be measured by what we can build together. A number of studies have looked at threats to U. The United States still has a huge military budget, committed to developing and manufacturing technologically sophisticated and costly weapon systems. Since there is no other heavily armed superpower, the United States is essentially in an arms race with itself.

What if the next war is fought in cyberspace or with terrorist insurgents? Vast investments in conventional weapons systems will be of limited use. Given the enormity of the antiquated military budget, no one can argue that we do not have the resources to rescue civilization. The far-flung U. It belongs to another era.

We can most effectively achieve our security goals by helping to expand food production, by filling the family planning gap, by building wind farms and solar power plants, and by building schools and clinics. The principal reason that environmental groups, both national and local, are opposing coal plants is that they are the primary driver of climate change. In addition, emissions from coal plants are responsible for 13, U. What began as a few local ripples of resistance to coal-fired power quickly evolved into a national tidal wave of grassroots opposition from environmental, health, farm, and community organizations.

In a national poll that asked which electricity source people would prefer, only 3 percent chose coal. The Sierra Club, which has kept a tally of proposed coal-fired power plants and their fates since , reports that plants in the United States have been defeated or abandoned.


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  • This point, frequently made by lawyers from Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental legal group, combined with widely expressed public opposition to any more coal-fired power plants in Florida, led to the quiet withdrawal of four other coal plant proposals in the state. Morgan Chase announced that any future lending for coal-fired power would be contingent on the utilities demonstrating that the plants would be economically viable with the higher costs associated with future federal restrictions on carbon emissions.

    Later that month, Bank of America announced it would follow suit. This ash is not an easy material to dispose of since it is laced with arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic materials. This is in addition to 98 coal ash sites that are polluting local water supplies that were already identified by the U.

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    In response to these and other threats, new regulations are in the making to require an upgrade of the management of coal ash storage facilities so as to avoid contaminating local groundwater supplies. In addition, EPA is issuing more stringent regulations on coal plant emissions, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The goal is to reduce chronic respiratory illnesses, such as asthma in children, and the deaths caused by coal-fired power plant emissions. Morgan, Citi, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo, had ceased lending to companies involved in mountaintop removal coal mining.

    Massey Energy, a large coal mining company notorious for its violations of environmental and safety regulations and the owner of the West Virginia mine where 29 miners died in , lost all funding from three of the banks. TVA, for example, announced in August that it was planning to close 9 of its 59 coal-generating units. Duke Energy, another major southeastern utility, followed with an announcement that it was considering the closure of seven coal-fired units in North and South Carolina alone.

    Progress Energy, also in the Carolinas, is planning to close 11 units at four sites. In Pennsylvania, Exelon Power is preparing to close four coal units at two sites. And Xcel Energy, the dominant utility in Colorado, announced it was closing seven coal units. In an analysis of the future of coal, Wood Mackenzie, a leading energy consulting and research firm, sees these closings as a harbinger of things to come for the coal industry.

    The chairman of the powerful U.

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    Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, observed in early that the United States may no longer need any additional coal plants. Regulators, investment banks, and political leaders are now beginning to see what has been obvious for some time to climate scientists such as James Hansen: that it makes no sense to build coal-fired power plants only to have to bulldoze them in a few years. The remaining plants could be shut down by turning to renewable energy—wind farms, solar thermal power plants, solar cells, and geothermal power and heat.

    Between and , U. During the same period, and despite the recession, new wind farms came online, adding some 21, megawatts of wind-generating capacity. Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, are now starting to focus on closing existing coal plants. The movement is also going international, as campaigns are now under way in several countries to prevent the construction of new coal plants and to close existing ones.

    Denmark and New Zealand have already banned new coal-fired power plants. Hungary is on the verge of closing its one remaining coal plant. Ontario Province, where 39 percent of Canadians live, plans to phase out coal entirely by Scotland announced in September that it plans to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by and percent by , backing out coal entirely. Other countries are likely to join this effort to cut carbon emissions. Even China, which was building one new coal plant a week, is surging ahead with renewable energy and now leads the world in new wind farm installations.

    These and other developments suggest that the Plan B goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by may be much more attainable than many would have thought a few years ago. The idea of a pollution-free environment is difficult for us even to imagine, simply because none of us has ever known an energy economy that was not highly polluting. Working in coal mines will be history. Black lung disease will eventually disappear. And, finally, in contrast to investments in oil fields and coal mines, where depletion and abandonment are inevitable, the new energy sources are inexhaustible.

    While wind turbines, solar cells, and solar thermal systems will all need repair and occasional replacement, investing in these new energy sources means investing in energy systems that can last forever.

    Leader's Edge

    These wells will not go dry. Although some of the prospects look good for moving away from coal, timing is key. Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet? To me, saving Greenland is both a metaphor and a precondition for saving civilization.

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