Category Archives: environmental policy

How is the city of Somerville working towards being carbon neutral by 2050 while also adapting to climate change?

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Hannah Payne (MCP ’16), the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Somerville, joins the MIT ClimateX team to discuss these topics and more on Climate Conversations, available here.

Payne has considered the roles of public engagement and collaborative decision-making in crafting plans that will successfully navigate a city through the impacts of climate change. In her thesis, Engaging the public in climate adaptation planning: lessons from sixteen American cities, she identified how cities can collaboratively problem-solving for a climate resilient future by addressing the long-term risks and tradeoffs of adaptation policies. To read her full findings, check out her thesis, available via MIT Libraries on DSpace, here.

ClimateX is an online community focused on climate learning, discussion and action. The community originated from an award winning Climate CoLab proposal by two MIT alumni. To learn more about how the MIT community is attempting to share knowledge, ideas and discuss climate change, check out the ClimateX site, here.

Shifting from litigation to innovation in energy policy


David Musselman (SM’ 17) came to DUSP after a 30 year career as an attorney in the energy and environmental services industries, including two stints as a general counsel. In his words “I was ready to do something different, and MIT offered me the opportunity to explore a range of issues affecting communities including climate change, economic development and transportation issues.”

A month ago, Musselman started a new position as Director of the Municipal Energy Unit at the City of Boston. This new role which allows him to blend his years of experience with the new skills and ideas he learned at MIT.

Boston has committed to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030. One key aspect of this goal is reducing energy use from the City’s buildings – it owns over 300 buildings of a wide range of sizes, ages and uses including schools, libraries, police and fire stations, community centers. One of Musselman’s key responsibilities is overseeing a multi-department effort to reduce energy use.

He is leading a pilot program designed to identify energy conservation measures (ECM) and the expected savings. The savings will be used to finance the implementation of the ECMs. Working with an energy services contractor to conduct full audits of 38 buildings, Musselman and team will be able to identify potential ECMs and projected savings.

Utilizing this list, the City will select the measures and a energy services company will install them at a guaranteed price and will guarantee the savings. Based upon the guaranteed savings, the City will finance the work and repay the loans with the energy savings. The expectation is that once the pilot program is complete, there will be additional phases to address more buildings for the City, which will help it achieve its carbon reduction footprint goal.

Image credit: MIT Sustainable Design Lab via Boston Planning and Development Agency


Civic spaces and brownfield redevelopment, a case study of the Social Innovation project in Somerville, MA

art_culture_scribed_imageFormer brownfield sites offer opportunities for economic growth. How can industrial cities dealing with legacy of contained areas promote neighborhood-scale arts-oriented development? Can such sites benefit from policy integration? MCP Allegra Fonda-Bonardi did a yearlong study of the ARTFarm for Social Innovation in Somerville; Massachusetts to better understand how one city tried to find the right balance between environmental clean-up, real estate reinvestment and neighborhood control of the development process. She starts of with the premise that integrating city-wide environmental, social, and economic sustainability is possible, and that civic spaces that aim to meet multiple objectives are more likely to succeed than those that don’t. Allegra also discusses in her thesis the importance of demanding accountability from developers who offer to fund remediation, to ensure that a portion of the remediated land is used to meet neighborhood priorities. Did the ArtFarm create a precedent? You can find the answer to this question and more in Allegra’s thesis, here.

Preparing for the Storm: Contingent Climate Adaptation in South Asian Mega-Cities

1755814917_09ecb0f051_oSouth Asia’s coastal mega-cities are at risk. With staggering populations and high probabilities of flooding related to climate change, these cities face an extreme adaptation challenge. Distressingly, these cities often lack formal processes for enhancing climate resilience, focusing their planning efforts instead on broader economic development goals. What steps can these cities take to enhance their resiliency and increase their safety from the effects of climate change?

Madhu Dutta-Koehler (PhD ’13) examines this problem in her dissertation. Madhu looks closely at the capacity for adaptation planning in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India. She finds that these cities are remarkably constrained in the resources and attention that they are able to dedicate to climate adaptation efforts explicitly, but that they have nonetheless implemented a series of tangible projects related to enhancing resilience.

The cities have done this by aligning adaptation efforts with broader development goals. As part of a comprehensive effort to improve Dhaka’s future water supply, for example, planners have taken steps that will also mitigate the impact of climate-related flooding in the city. These “no regrets” moves that embed climate planning within broader policy goals have allowed the cities to make progress on climate adaption even though it is not being an explicit planning priority.

Madhu provides a helpful way of thinking about adaptation efforts like this, labeling them as “contingent planning.” Contingent planning postulates a loose approach to climate change mitigation. It builds gradually towards long-term adaptation goals, but allows the details of implementation to conform to overall development goals. This sort of informal climate planning may not be ideal, but it might just be what saves the coastal mega-cities of South Asia. Read more about Madhu’s work in her dissertation.

The Role of the Political Scientist

In an ideal world, environmental management policy would follow directly from scientific research, which would spell out clear courses of action for decision-makeImagers to adopt. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The policy-making process is notoriously messy and science may be interpreted differently by multiple audiences and actors, severely diminishing the impact that scientific knowledge can have on policy outcomes. In this frustrating context, how can scientists ensure that their work is contributing positively to sound environmental management practices?

1748687107_4bdbba89eb_o In her thesis, Erica Simmons (MCP ’13) looks at three ways in which scientists have attempted to influence the political process in the case of the management of the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The first was the CALFED Science Program, which in the early 2000s adopted an approach of political neutrality, emphasizing instead the strengthening of relationship between scientists and policymakers of all perspectives. This was succeeded by a partnership between scientists at UC Davis and policy researches as the Public Policy Institute of California, which from 2007 to 2013 took on the role of political advocate and advanced explicit policy recommendations informed by scientific research. Most recently, the San Francisco Estuary Institute partnered with KQED, a regional public radio station, to develop a package of radio and interactive web content to educate the public about environmental management issues in the Bay-Delta.

These three approaches offer very different ideas about how scientists should approach policymaking, whether as a non-biased researchers, data-backed advocates, or public informers and educators. As Erica notes, these efforts have built upon one another and addressed the weaknesses of prior models: the UC Davis-PPIC partnership was purposely more politically assertive than CALFED, and the SFEI-KQED collaboration more actively drew the public into the policy discussion.

In the end, there is no blueprint for how scientists should approach policy issues, and the issue does not appear to be getting any easier. Still, scientists must adopt a strategy for how to interact with the policy discussion, and the methods they adopt can have important implications both for policy outcomes and for the public perception of scientific research. Read about these issues and more in Erica’s thesis.

As discussed in Erica Simmons theses, do you think it is possible for scientific findings to retain enough of their legitimacy inside the scientific community when they are being tailored to communicate and influence the broader populous?

Bringing Power to the People: Community-Scale Energy Efficiency Improvements

5641953722_9267e3147d_bMultifamily building residents—renters in particular—often fall through the cracks of traditional energy efficiency offerings. Building residents rarely have the ability or long-term incentive to pay for energy upgrades in their homes, and building owners have little motivation to reduce energy costs borne by residents. Standard utility energy efficiency programs—which rely mainly on financial incentives to encourage participation—have had little impact in encouraging efficiency.


Last spring, a group of DUSP graduate students devised a new model for multifamily energy efficiency in a practicum course led by Professors Harvey Michaels and Larry Susskind. The students proposed a solution that was based in equal parts on the use of non-financial incentives to encourage participation through a engaged city-scale implementer and community-based social marketing techniques, and the better use of building and energy consumption data to identify and target areas for potential efficiency improvements. By orienting program offerings around the social networks of communities and leveraging the energy data sources available to implementers, this model could unlock energy efficiency savings that have previously been off-limits to program administrators.


As a result of this effort, NSTAR and the City of Cambridge are working with MIT to scope out a pilot energy efficiency program in Cambridge that takes into account the added complexity of the multifamily sector. Read the group’s report here.

Adopting a Low Carbon Energy System: How Four Nations Have Made the Switch

5032602590_d77d4f3c43_oClean energy has been a major topic of interest of late, but the pace at which major change has occurred has been frustratingly slow and it is often hard to see how a shift to low-carbon technologies could actually happen in practice. Fortunately, we are able to look abroad to a number of success stories that can demonstrate how major transformation in the energy sector might occur.
In her dissertation, Kathy Araújo (PhD 2013) offers a comparative case study analysis of four countries that have dramatically altered their energy industries to incorporate a new technology. Kathy studies biofuels in Brazil, wind in Denmark, nuclear power in France, and geothermal energy in Iceland and shows how—in less than 15 years—all four of these countries have more than doubled the use of these resources and reduced their use of fossil fuels by at least 15%.
The diversity of these case studies show that transformative change can happen in diverse contexts. Further, Kathy demonstrates that technological complexity does not need to be a barrier to the adoption of new technologies and that nations do not necessarily need to wait for these technologies to become economically competitive before working to bring them to scale. Read more about the possibility for large-scale transition to low carbon technologies in Kathy’s dissertation.

Balancing Benefits: What should be prioritized in energy efficiency policy?

?????????????????Energy efficiency offers many benefits: lower energy bills for residents, a more manageable electric grid for utilities, and fewer carbon emissions for us all. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) added another policy goal when it asked that energy efficiency also serve as an engine for job growth and economic recovery. Designing a large-scale energy efficiency initiative that satisfies multiple objectives is challenging, and it raises important questions about what the ultimate goal of such policies are and what kinds of performance metrics should be used to gauge success.

In his thesis, Josh Sklarsky (MCP ’10) looked at the various lenses through which ARRA’s efficiency programs have been viewed. He noted that, while the primary goal of ARRA funding was to rebuild the economy in a more sustainable way by creating “green jobs”, its two main mechanisms for accomplishing this built on existing programs with separate established goals. The first was the Weatherization Assistance Program, which began in the 1970s and is intended to reduce energy bills for low-income residents. The second was the Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant program, established in 2007 to enable community-level efficiency improvements. Josh describes how, by offering increased funding for both programs along with an additional objective, ARRA created an amount of uncertainty for program managers who had to decide how to proceed.
Josh also discusses the varying metrics proposed for measuring the success of ARRA, although he found a problem with their overwhelming reliance on quantitative means. To understand both whether ARRA efficiency programs succeeding and what level of success they had, he suggests that DOE grant monitors conduct a qualitative review of community-level efficiency plans and use the results to create a standard evaluation methodology for determining what’s working.  Read more about Josh’s thoughts on providing Federal guidance for local efficiency programs in his thesis here.

How the Anti-Regulation Movement Threatens Environmentalism

In the 1970s, an environmental awakening spread through American society and resulted in much 9780262018272of the landmark legislation – the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and many others – that define our current system of environmental regulation. While additional protections have been added, much of environmentalists’ struggle in the decades since has been focused on maintaining this high-water mark and ensuring that regulations are implemented in an environmentally protective fashion. But as Professor Layzer details in her book, Open for Business: Conservatives’ Opposition to Environmental Regulations, American environmental protections have been the target of a decades-long assault that threatens to drastically reduce their effectiveness.

A conservative, anti-regulatory movement has grown dramatically in response to the implementation of environmental laws. Opponents of environmentalism, fearing the effect of regulation on business and the economy, and distrusting the Federal government, have slowly build a case against environmental protection. While they have not overturned any major pieces of environmental legislation, they have been very effective in influencing the way regulators exercise discretion in implementing environmental rules. Perhaps more significantly, they have made environmentalism a controversial issue and shifted the popular image of the Federal government from one of protector against industrial excesses to a heavy-handed opponent of private enterprise.

Professor Layzer’s book details the growth of the conservative anti-regulator movement over the course of the past few decades, and illustrates many of the tactics and actors involved in provoking the backlash against environmentalism, both at the elite and grassroots level. Open for Business is available through the MIT Press.

Using Utility-Community Partnerships to Enable Deeper Energy Savings

2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a major boon for local energy efficiency programs. With ample federal funding, municipalities were able to achieve substantial energy electric_metersavings. But as ARRA wound down, many important local efficiency programs were in danger of being left unfunded. How can communities continue to make progress on energy efficiency in the absence of federal funding?

In 2011, Professor Harvey Michaels and a group of graduate students in MIT’s Energy Efficiency Strategy Project (EESP) examined this issue and developed a strategy for utility-community partnerships for energy efficiency. Energy utilities—tasked in many states with providing ambitious energy savings—are in a position to offer substantial funding to help underwrite efficiency programs. Local governments and community groups—with their substantial property assets, regulatory authority, and social networks—can provide access to the hard-to-reach energy savings that have historically eluded utility-funded programs.

EESP proposes a model of a mutually beneficial energy efficiency utility-community partnership. The group focuses specifically on delivering savings in public buildings, involving utilities in the development of more stringent energy codes and benchmarking efforts, and conducting better program marketing through existing community organizations. They also demonstrate how a local revolving loan fund could be established to provide continual benefits to utilities, program partners, and local communities. Read more about the group’s suggestion in EESP’s white paper.