Monthly Archives: January 2013
Coal is the backbone of the American electric sector. It fuels half of the country’s electricity generation and it is cheap and readily available in places like Wyoming and West Virginia. Coal also accounts for approximately 40% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.
In the hope of perpetuating the use of a cheap and secure fuel, fossil fuel interests and their allies have urged the development of subterranean CO2 sequestration using a technology called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The coal industry has branded CCS as a “clean coal technology” and has depicted it as a solution to climate change that will allow the country to continue to burn coal without emitting CO2. Utilities, industry and the government have pledged billions of dollars for clean coal projects.
Support for “clean coal” went all the way to the top: President Barack Obama advocated for it during his first presidential campaign, saying, “This is America, we figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America, and make it work.” Even some environmental advocacy organizations, such as National Resources Defense Council, have supported CCS.
In her thesis, Rachel Henschel (MCP ’09) investigated the impacts of Carbon Capture and Storage and the reasons behind the support is has received from politicians and environmental groups, and concluded that CCS does not make sense. First, the technology cannot be built and scaled in time to mitigate climate change. Additionally, CCS will be so expensive that utilities have not been willing to invest in it. It also poses serious environmental and health risks such as water source contamination, earthquakes, and death by asphyxiation. Read more about Rachel’s conclusions in her thesis here, and share your opinion on EPP’s Facebook group.
Nicknamed the “Emerald City” for its lush evergreen forests, Seattle has a reputation as a forward-thinking and environmentally-minded city. However, even in the progressive Pacific Northwest, powerful institutional barriers can materialize to oppose environmental planning efforts. Kim Foltz (MCP ’10) tells the story of Seattle’s decades-long flirtation with interurban rail and reveals the great difficulty with which progress has been made.
Transportation planning is one of the most intractable problems in sustainability. Transport systems are incredibly complex and deal with multiple and diverse barriers in the realms of finance, logistics, and politics. Also, because they often depend on special tax increases, large transit projects are generally subject to voter approval. Beginning in the mid-1990s, transportation planners in the Seattle area tried to establish public support for a light rail system through the electoral process. Transit advocates have made incremental electoral gains over the years–most recently in 2008–but as Kim shows, these victories have been hard-won and reflect the resistance that planners face in securing public mandates for ambitious projects.
Kim demonstrates the vulnerabilities that transit planners were subject to in the political process. Politically savvy rail opponents were initially able to hijack the public conversation by framing the region’s transportation problem solely as one of congestion, favoring new road-building campaigns and ignoring mass transit’s environmental benefits. Additionally, the need for public support throughout a three-county area led to competition among the various cities involved in the interurban rail project. These problems were exacerbated by what was originally a poor public outreach campaign on the part of the transit agency, and have resulted at several points in watered-down plans and concessions to political opponents. While transit advocates were eventually able to build support for a rail system in the Seattle area, the political process that led to their ultimate victory was exhausting and time-consuming.
In her thesis, Kim weighs the benefits and drawbacks of making planning decisions through the ballot box. Read more here, or engage in a discussion about the public’s role in planning on EPP’s Facebook group.
Due in large part to years of heavy irrigation, the portion of the Arkansas River that cuts through southeastern Colorado is one of the most saline rivers in the United States. This has dangerous environmental and agricultural implications, and is complicated by the state’s strictly regulated system of water rights. Increasingly, policymakers seek to resolve natural resources problems such as these by creating water quality trading markets that offer financial incentives for environmental protection. However, these markets have generally underperformed, threatening to leave us with the unsatisfactory options of inaction or costly technological solutions.
Beaudry Kock (DUSP PhD ’10) believes that a market-based approach can work, but that it must be reoriented to reflect the reality of social and economic interactions. Policymakers typically design environmental markets by assuming that actors will behave in an economically rational manner, but in practice that is often not the case. Financial self-interest is rarely the only factor that individuals consider, and they are often unable to determine what the lowest-cost decision will be before acting. Instead, decisions are often based on precedent, recommendations from friends and colleagues, or other factors that fall outside the bounds of rational choice theory. Environmental markets need to address complex motivations, and Beaudry’s dissertation lays out a way to do this.
Through a collaborative fact-finding process involving local stakeholders, Beaudry shows how to reduce salinity levels in the Lower Arkansas Basin by as much 10%. He finds that, by implementing a package of incentives, policymakers can address the diverse preferences of the market. Some actors respond best to traditional financial incentives while others are more likely to be swayed by improved information regarding the financial and environmental consequences of their previous decisions or by social network interventions that take advantage of various community ties. Beaudry shows how environmental markets can succeed by appealing to various triggers—both rational and irrational—of human behavior. Read Beaudry’s dissertation here to learn more about his recommendations and share your thoughts with EPP’s Facebook group.