03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Greener than You Think Down Under

On a whim, I spent part of the holiday season in Sydney, Australia, one of few major world cities I have never visited. Sydney is a great place to tour, but you better bring lots of money, as prices are very high, more like London or Paris than most U.S. cities. So long as you can afford it, the sightseeing is terrific.

It could be argued that the Sydney Aquarium is among the best in the world, boasting incredible specimens of sting rays, dugongs, giant sea turtles, crocodiles, and many more. The design of the building itself is first rate, great viewing even with big crowds, especially where you walk "through" the huge tanks with giant fish passing over your head - it appears the six inch thick glass is strong enough. The famous Opera House is even more breathtaking in person, and the indoor views are as stunning as the exterior. You can climb to the top of the giant Sydney Harbor Bridge on foot, try that in the States with our lawsuit-happy society. The Art Gallery of New South Wales offers a world class collection spanning the centuries. The champagnes, petit syrah, and shiraz continue to get better and better. The food is generally good, and a growing variety of organic and natural choices are offered. As for the customer service, well, I'll circle back on that in a moment.

To my surprise, I found the folks Down Under are ahead of us in a number of ways when it comes to going green. I stayed in the City Centre area of downtown, which is noticeably clean and tidy. Strange looking "Go Green" passenger-carrying bicycles with full canopies, kind of like the pedi-cabs in Central Park, periodically troll by. A natural gas powered fleet of city buses circulates regularly. Dual-flush toilets are very common in public places. Separate recycling containers are inconsistent but available. Apparently most residential neighborhoods are given three separate bins, for bottles and cans, compost, and regular trash. And unlike many U.S. downtowns, many building lights and signs are turned off at night to conserve power.

What's most impressive are the strict new rules - in an economy at least as compromised as ours - pertaining to energy efficient new construction. All homes must meet stringent energy efficiency standards to receive building permits; each home must also have a rainwater collection system which supplies the toilets. There seemed to be a high level of awareness and support for these policies, at least among the various citizens I encountered.

Unfortunately, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been unable to pass a national cap and trade or equivalent policy to limit carbon output. Like our Senate, the Australians have failed to push meaningful climate change legislation across the goal line. When discussing this with the local intelligentsia, the feeling is that Australia is behind other nations and is missing out on a chance to rebuild their economy around renewable energy and clean tech. Policies such as scrapping their solar incentive program are inconsistent with Rudd's declaration that "climate change is the greatest moral and economic challenge of our time," according to The Australian on December 30th.

My only complaint is that service is "relaxed" compared to our standard in major cities. Even in the heart of downtown Sydney, the pace and intensity is not the same as America. In many cases we couldn't get waited on at all unless we literally grabbed a waitperson. You sometimes felt like you were intruding by asking for someone to take your order. ]To the good, it feels like there is a higher standard of ethics and integrity among the retail trade: I had several salespeople send me up the street to direct competitors if they didn't have what I was looking for. Cab drivers don't try to rip you off. It seemed that in general, a deal's a deal, no strings. Very refreshing.

Globalization is definitely affecting Sydney. You still see the traditional, burly Crocodile-Dundee type guys on the street, but in general foot traffic reveals a melting pot not unlike London or New York. I think I will have to come back to see the Outback regions and scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef.

As always, I'm curious to hear your impressions of how green Australia is, and, whether you agree with me about the service. Thanks for reading. If you are interested in reading more about energy efficiency upgrades and rainwater catchment systems, please click here.