EarthTalk / E- The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I heard about something called the Green Cafe Network. What is it and what are they trying to accomplish for the environment? -- Jane Stevenson, Los Angeles
The Green Cafe Network, a project of the nonprofit Earth Island Institute, seeks to reduce Americans' environmental impacts by greening the coffeehouse industry and harnessing cafe culture for community environmental awareness. By educating and working with cafe owners and staff, GCN helps network members reduce waste, save energy, conserve water and increase community stewardship. GCN's 30-plus cafes scattered across Northern California (as well as one in New York City and another in Keshena, Wisconsin) are committed to reducing their carbon footprints, promoting environmental responsibility and generally operating in as sustainable a manner as possible.
The approach of the GCN is to build on the influence of key institutions -- neighborhood cafes and Americans' infatuation with coffee -- to try to raise environmental awareness and spur individual action. The idea is that when people see their local cafe as a positive example of green business practices and community building, there is a ripple effect, and the community is strengthened accordingly.
For cafes interested in getting involved, GCN provides personalized consulting services to help owners reduce their ecological footprints, enhance and streamline their operations, and set a visible good example of environmental responsibility for the community at large. Services can address specific areas in need of attention, such as energy and water conservation, waste reduction, toxics minimization and eco-friendly purchasing, and also overall efforts to green the business from top to bottom. GCN can also consult on green building issues in the design, construction and remodel phases of a cafe's lifecycle. With a project tagline of "Love Our Planet a Latte," how could one not love what GCN is doing?
Cafes and coffee shops can take steps to align environmental considerations with business operations even without membership in GCN. The Barista Exchange website, for one, offers a treasure trove of information and tips on greening up cafes and coffee shops through energy and waste reduction, eco-friendly procurement and the sourcing of organic fair trade coffee. U.S. coffee shops serve up about 25 million cups every day, so coffee shops can make a huge difference by being green.
For its part, the nation's leading coffee retailer, Starbucks, has been a pioneer in greening the coffee industry, and the company considers environmental stewardship a priority. With dedicated programs for increasing recycling, conserving energy and water, sourcing greener beans, using sustainable building techniques and materials in new stores, and offsetting carbon emissions, Starbucks has worked hard to set a green example.
Of course, cafe owners and staff aren't the only ones responsible for greening your coffee habit. You can play a role too. One obvious place to start is to bring in your own reusable mug to fill up on your favorite blend to cut down on paper cup waste. And requesting fair trade coffee will help ensure living wages for coffee workers out in the fields and send a message to cafe owners that you value doing the right thing.
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Dear EarthTalk: As I understand it, "Debt-for-Nature Swaps" are arrangements by which countries can erase debt by preserving land. Are any being done today? -- Bill Hunt, Topeka, Kan.
The debt-for-nature swap concept, whereby a portion of a developing nation's foreign debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures, dates back to the mid-1980s when Thomas Lovejoy of the non-profit World Wildlife Fund first proposed it as a way to deal with the problems of developing nations' indebtedness and the negative consequences for their natural resources and diverse environments.
The theory goes that if a country with, say, valuable tropical rainforests, is up to its ears in debt, it will sell off or otherwise deplete those natural resources, instead of protecting or conserving them, in order to raise the money needed to pay off its debts. Debt-for-nature swaps can therefore be useful financial mechanisms for helping countries reduce debt without destroying their most valuable natural resources.
Since the first swap was brokered with Bolivia (to protect its Beni Biosphere Reserve and adjacent areas) by the nonprofit Conservation International in 1987, many national governments and conservation groups have engaged in similar types of debt-for-nature swap negotiations, especially in tropical countries which contain diverse and threatened species of flora and fauna. Costa Rica has exchanged tens of millions of dollars in debt to protect some of its most pristine and biologically productive rainforests.
In 1998 the U.S. government passed the Tropical Forest Conservation Act to codify debt-for-nature swaps, including formally welcoming nonprofit groups like Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, WWF and others to help arrange the deals and oversee implementation of local initiatives. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report found that since 1987, debt-for-nature swaps have channeled upwards of $1 billion toward tropical forest conservation initiatives instead of back into creditor nations' coffers.
But far fewer deals are occurring today for a number of reasons. For one, says the Congressional Research Service, other agreements for debt restructuring and cancellation have reduced developing nations' debt by significantly more than debt-for-nature swaps can. Another is that the concept has fallen somewhat out of favor. Some experts argue that the financial benefits are overstated, that funds are misdirected to less needy countries, that external debt is not a primary driver of deforestation and other environmental ills, and that funding does not necessarily equate to effective implementation of conservation strategies.
Criticism aside, some deals are still getting done. In 2008, France forgave $20 million in debt owed by Madagascar to help the biodiversity-rich nation triple the size of its protected areas to better protect its native flora and fauna. In 2010, the U.S. forgave $21 million in Brazilian debt to fund several ecosystem protection initiatives in Brazil's still vanishing tropical rainforests. The U.S. has also forgiven debt from the Philippines, Guatemala and Peru in recent years in exchange for on-the-ground conservation efforts. Germany and the Netherlands have each forgiven some of their foreign debt to tropical nations for forest protection as well. So while debt-for-nature swaps are not as popular as they once were, they are still a key tool in the toolbox of environmentalists looking to promote conservation in tropical countries.
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