In the US, the fight against climate change often looks more like a fight to achieve the public recognition that climate change is real. Flat out denial of science by the dominant strain of conservative politics and the reticence to take bold action on the part of moderates, combined with the self-interested, well-funded and short-sighted survivalist instinct of the fossil fuel industry, continues to hamper sustainable development in our country. We stagnate at home even as we attempt to export models for sustainable development to other parts of the world.
In our national culture, broadly speaking, we still uphold the rugged cowboy individual as the model for how to exist in the world. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia pointed out the degree to which Americans’ individualism hindered our collective response to the coronavirus. Lately, science and individualism haven’t seemed able to get along.
A good cultural marker for this is country music. In the US, recent years have given us country songs like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” by Jimmy Rose (championing a phrase that has been used widely in the coal industry’s propaganda campaign) and “Coal Town” by Taylor Ray Holbrook (the music video for which was produced in partnership with the United Mine Workers of America). It is worth noting that these artists are rather marginal country artists, both little known and both hailing from Appalachia, but have taken on specific significance in the debate around the political and cultural value of coal. More widely popular country music artists, at least those that produce popular music that is marketed as “country,” eschew the specifically political in favor of a few main themes: booze, romance, and general patriotism (guns, religion, troops, sports, farming, hunting, the paterfamilias, etc.). The wildly popular band Florida Georgia Line, in their summer 2020 hit “I Love my Country”, exalts the use of styrofoam plates while rattling off a list of American stuff: “Barbecue, steak fries / styrofoam plate date night.” It seems that, regarding sustainability, American country music either takes a hard pro-fossil fuels stance, or nonchalantly implies approval of the status quo. As far as the market is concerned, apathy towards climate change reigns. This is not entirely surprising, given the political climate.
What is surprising is how the analogous genre in Mexico, música regional, compares. Many of the themes heard in contemporary American country music are still present, both the good (importance of family, romantic love), the bad (binge drinking, misogyny) and the more complicated (guns, dogmatic religion). Mexican country music is even starting to incorporate Latin hip-hop and pop into their music, similar to how bands like Florida Georgia Line imitate rap lyricism in their own vocals. This all makes sense; to paint with broad strokes, it’s safe to say that Mexican society and cowboy culture developed in a manner parallel to the development of their American counterparts, and pop musical trends, such as the increasing relevance of hip-hop forms across the boundaries of genre, are increasingly global phenomena. However, Mexican country music, despite its conservatism, finds it within itself to engage with climate change.
At approximately the same time Florida Georgia Line was working on “I Love my Country”, Edén Muñoz, the lead singer of the Mexican group Calibre50 (“50-Caliber”) was working with fellow artists Alfredo Olivas, la Arrolladora Banda el Limón (“the Irresistible Lemon Band”), Pancho Barraza and C-Kan on a song called “Corazón Verde” (“Green Heart”). The song amounts to an impassioned plea for the listener to become conscious of climate change, understand how it is detrimental to human society, and actually do something about it. Pancho Barraza sings: “Estamos cavando nuestra propia tumba / y no es por asustarlos, viene lo peor” (We are digging our own grave / and not to scare you, but the worst is yet to come”). He goes on: “Falta de conciencia y no es coincidencia / que todos los días haga más calor” (“[There is] lack of awareness, and it’s no coincidence / that every day it gets a little bit hotter”). Tough solutions are not proposed, just tough rhetoric about what is happening right now. The music video shows the artists planting trees (which is more symbolically important than it is effective as a long-term strategy). Still, it’s a fine start, at least rhetorically.
Perhaps most importantly, the artists express concern for future generations: “¿Para qué esperarnos? Limpiemos el mundo / y cuidemos la casa. O ya se preguntaron / a tus hijos y a los míos / ¿qué les vamos a dejar?” (“What are we waiting for? Let’s clean up the world and take care of our home. Or have you already asked yourselves what’s going to be left for your children and mine?”). In the words of the singers, recognizing and fighting climate change is an urgent civic duty. The fact that this urgency is absent from cultural representations of American patriotism is baffling.
I mention this song not to hold up Mexico as an exemplar of environmental or cultural sustainability, or as an example of a society that always leverages science to increase the public good. Certainly, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico has hardly stood out as successful in its response. What’s more, these artists don’t exactly have a blank check to claim the moral high ground on whatever topic they choose. The same artists that here sing about making cultural and political shifts to fight climate change also sing in a glorifying way about guns, corruption and cheating on their wives and partners. I make this comparison between American and Mexican country music to illustrate that, outside of the US, even politically conservative cultures and ideologies elsewhere pass the very low bar of urgently believing in science. It is a bar that the US needs to pass soon. Coal may “keep the lights on” for now, but it will eventually burn down the house.
Ashford King is a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. He is also a musician and poet. He is originally from Kentucky.
If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be persuaded that the planet is on fire, and we need to do something to put it out fast. We see evidence all around us: California is again in the throes of a record wildfire season, glaciers the size of Manhattan are sliding into the sea, and in some of the most densely populated parts of the world, massive cities are being swallowed by the tide. There is little dispute that these disasters stem from our burning of fossil fuels, and that by most any measure, we are failing to prevent the worst.
To put it politely, we of Divest Princeton say these partnerships do more harm than good. True, they may create new and valuable knowledge, but that isn’t really why they exist. In one leaked exchange from 1998, Exxon representatives strategized about the need to “identify and establish cooperative relationships with all major scientists whose research in the field supports our position,” and to “monitor and serve as an early warning system for scientific development with the potential to impact on the climate science debate, pro and con.”
Taking this statement literally — and why shouldn’t we? — BP and Exxon’s support for Princeton is more than simple altruism. It’s more than good PR. Rather, it’s part of a years-long effort not to aid, but to manage climate research toward ends not in conflict with their extractive business model. Tellingly, these do-gooder oil companies plan to increase production 35% by 2030. This would be cataclysmic.
Their schemes are made possible by funding and power gifted by Princeton. We cannot tolerate, let alone enable these activities any longer. Not when they pose such obvious conflicts with our university’s core values and threaten our fellow students and faculty working around the world. Princeton must stand up for itself. How better than by divesting from fossil fuels?
The divestment movement has grown rapidly in recent years, with institutions like Georgetown University, Brown, Cornell, and Oxford recently joining its ranks. Collective actions have taken a toll — Goldman Sachs says that divestment is partly to blame for widespread credit de-ratings in the coal industry, and Shell is on-record saying divestment will present “a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.” Essentially, divestment works.
We argue that the moral imperative of divestment should be compelling enough on its own; if Princeton moved to divest and the markets didn’t budge an inch, at least then our conscience would be clean. At least then we could call ourselves “sustainable” with a straight face and live honestly by our motto: “in the nation’s service, and the service of humanity.”
Detractors maintain that any “demands” on Princeton’s endowment would constrain its ability to earn huge returns, depriving students of the financial support they need to prosper. This is absurd. Billion-dollar endowments like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have demonstrated that divestment can be a net positive. Fossil fuel stocks have also been declining for years. It looks increasingly clear that an investor gains little “diversifying” in fossil fuel, and that the risks of divestment have been well overblown. Shareholders — especially shareholders with a fiduciary responsibility like Princeton’s — should be looking for the exit.
In order to remain within 1.5°C of global warming by mid-century — the threshold at which the IPCC and Princeton’s own Sustainability Action Plan say “catastrophic consequences” will be unavoidable — the fossil fuel industry’s ambitious exploration and development will need to be mothballed. Undrilled oil fields and unmined coal will become stranded assets, or dead weight on their companies’ books. To have faith in these investments, Princeton must think stranded assets will actually go to use, in which case, Princeton ignores its own scientists and legitimizes the activities central to our climate crisis.
Others have argued that regardless of donors’ ulterior motives, divesting would only leave good money and research on the table. To these people, the “greenwashing” corporations seek from partnering with elite institutions is both inevitable and of little consequence compared to the novel scholarship their funding provides. The catch here is that quality research and a morally invested endowment are not mutually exclusive. There isn’t a rule saying our research must be funded by BP or Exxon — if Princeton truly valued this knowledge, it would channel its creative energies toward finding funding elsewhere.
“Elsewhere” could very easily be the university’s own wallet. Princeton is quick to remind us it holds the biggest per-student endowment in the country. The endowment today is a bit larger than $26 billion, roughly the size of Iceland’s GDP and larger than GDPs of half the world’s countries. In the lastten years alone, Princeton’s endowment has more than doubled. In this light, the money needed to sustain current research is practically a rounding error. If just a few Trusteesput their donations together, they could recoup Exxon’s latest $5 million donation in under five seconds!
We tried to anticipate these doubts in our divestment proposal, which was given to Princeton’s administration last February. Since then, we have met with Princeton’s Resources Committee and invited experts — former Committee Member Shannon Osaka, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Stephen Heintz, and Stanford researcher Dr. Ben Franta — to help present our case. Discussions will continue through the end of 2020, culminating in a forum with 350.org’s Bill McKibben in November.
As a reward for our persistence, the Resources Committee has indicated it might decide on our proposal by Christmas. If it approves, the proposal goes to the Board of Trustees, and the clock starts over. This, dear readers, is the “fast track.”
It has been demoralizing to watch Princeton, one of the world’s great centers of higher learning and a temple to empirical evidence, run interference for companies that have scorned the truth, knowingly endangered billions, and literally confessed to their ill intent. From its byzantine system for proposing divestments to its arbitrary requirement saying divestment must take the form of complete dissociation (a prohibitively high bar), Princeton’s strategy is to frustrate and outlast causes like ours. Most of the time, it succeeds.
But our cause is different from the others. With climate change, waiting is simply not an option. The immovable object will meet an unstoppable force, and the unstoppable force will win.
The longer we delay, the longer we allow fossil fuel companies to weaponize Princeton’s gravitas, spreading disinformation and quack science while purporting to be part of “the solution.” Until Princeton inevitably divests from these bad actors, we will continue to withhold our donations, continue to protest, and continue to organize, fighting fire with fire.
Divest Princeton is a volunteer movement of Princeton students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff. Sign their “No Donations Until Divestment” petition and learn more here.
Finding an internship as a Ph.D. student is hard. Finding one at a company you have legitimate interest in is even harder. In search of a more refined answer to the dreaded question, “so what do you want to do after you get your Ph.D.?” I started looking for opportunities in what is very broadly and vaguely referred to as “industry.” I stepped into Dillon gym on a muggy August day in the only pair of dress pants I own and looked around. Finance, biotech, management consulting, and oil & gas companies filled the room with tables and recruiters.
After talking to what turned out to be a bunch of dead ends that didn’t excite me much, I decided to check out one last table before leaving. A far cry from the multi-table, multi-recruiter teams with tons of free swag to give away like Exxon and Shell, Momentum Solar had a table with some flyers, business cards, and one recruiter. I didn’t wait in line or crowd around like at the others, and immediately got to talking with Peter Clark. What I remember most was his message that they were simply looking for “intellectual horsepower,” something that the CFO would repeat to a group of students who went to their South Plainfield HQ for an information session later that school year. I came away from my conversation not exactly sure what I would be doing if I worked there, but excited about joining a small, quickly growing company founded in sustainability.
At that info session some months later, I was impressed that the CFO, Sung Lee, took the time out of his schedule to speak directly with the group of prospective interns, and gave us all some background about where Momentum has been, and where it’s going:
Momentum Solar is a residential solar power installation company that was founded in New Jersey in 2009 by Cameron Christensen and Arthur Souritzidis. In 2011, they had just four employees. In 2013, six. They were ranked on the Inc. 5000 most successful companies in 2016 (with 250 employees), Inc. 500 fastest growing companies in 2017 (700 employees), and Inc. 5000 most successful again in 2018 (950 employees). They doubled their revenue from 2017-2018, and doubled again 2018-2019. Currently, Momentum has operations in seven states, from California to Connecticut, and shows no signs of slowing down. The solar industry as a whole also shows promising trends: since 2008, solar installations in the US have grown 35-fold, and since 2014, the cost of solar panels has dropped by nearly 50%.
After hearing this pitch, we toured the office, which, while full of diligent employees in front of huge screens, also boasts two ping pong tables and a darts board. The energy in the space was palpable, and Sung’s enthusiasm was contagious: I was sold.
Fast forward a couple months, and I was about to have my first day there. I *still* didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. On day one, my supervisor presented me with a few different projects I could choose from. While I wasn’t using the specific skills related to my research area here at Princeton, I was using crucial skills I developed along the way during my PhD research: programming and exploratory data analysis. I jumped right in to their fast-paced, quick-turnaround style of work, and had check-ins with Sung nearly every day. He made a concerted effort to include me and all the other interns on calls and in meetings, even if it was just to observe. The main project I worked on was writing a program to optimize appointment scheduling and driving routes, with the goals of improving efficiency from both a time and a fossil fuel standpoint: a great example of a sustainability practice helping a company’s bottom line.
People had told me before starting my Ph.D. that, unless I was planning on taking the academic route, the most valuable things I would learn would not be in my dissertation, but skills developed along the way. This rang true during my first professional experience in industry. Problem solving and independence were probably the two most valuable qualities that a graduate student can bring to an internship. Somewhat unexpectedly, teaching skills proved useful as well: it wasn’t enough to prove a point through a certain statistical test; it was crucial that a room full of people with diverse backgrounds understood what a certain figure or result meant.
Momentum continues to grow, regularly setting and breaking records. To date, Momentum has installed 174 MW of residential solar energy, enough capacity to power the equivalent of more than 33,000 average American homes. I know my experience was unique: I was treated as an equal, was mentored thoughtfully and intentionally, and had regular interaction with corporate-level executives. Working there was rewarding, and Momentum’s success is a glimmer of hope during an ever-worsening climate crisis.
Graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in internship opportunities with Momentum Solar should contact Peter Clark, Director of Talent Acquisition, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Molly Chaney is a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering. Advised by Jim Smith, her research focuses on the use of polarimetric radar to study tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events. Originally from Chicago, she is a die-hard Cubs (and deep dish pizza) fan. In her spare time she enjoys cuddling her dog, playing videogames, and indulging in good food and wine with her friends and family. If you have more questions about her experience at Momentum Solar you can contact her at email@example.com.
In 2013, a Liberian government official was recorded colluding with another high-ranking government official to embezzle public resources. On the tape, he was caught saying “you eat, I eat,” which signified an acceptance that the two would engage in personal enrichment at the public’s cost, without fear of consequences.
The Representative faced serious public backlash, but as with most cases involving top officials, there was no action. About two years later, the Representative’s daughter died from an asthma attack during Liberia’s Ebola crisis. The hospital could not treat her because they were overstretched by the pandemic. He sued the hospital for neglect and recklessness. This was the talk of the town. Ordinary Liberians thought his lawsuit should not be taken seriously because his allegedly corrupt acts had diverted resources from the health system.
While a case like this generates intense public disgust and debate, there are many layers of corruption in Liberia that are almost universally accepted. These cases are practically routine. For example, the Liberian police regularly stop taxis and private vehicles, and the driver reaches their hand out of the window for a handshake every time, exchanging bribe money in their palm. In most cases, public taxis don’t have the correct documents and these small bribes are less disruption than jail time.
Liberia is recovering from fourteen years of civil war and still trying to restore basic social norms. By the end of the war in 2003, corruption had permeated all layers of society, a by-product of a prolonged civil war that weakened government capacity to monitor and enforce rules, and a corroded social fabric that tolerated—and valorized—corruption. Often, paying bribes was more expedient than dealing with dysfunctional bureaucracies, and so bribes became normalized.
Generations of citizens have grown accustomed to believing that all public officials are corrupt. They tolerate instances of bribery in their daily lives, struggling to imagine a country where civil servants serve the public good over their own interests. Public officials, on the other hand, feel little pressure to pursue reform as long as citizens believe corruption to be an inseparable part of Liberian culture.
Corruption has hindered much needed reconstruction and development in Liberia. Large-scale development projects have stalled or sputtered out as significant portions of their funding has bled out to expensive contracts, salaries for non-working employees, and skimming by management.
Relation to SDGs
Implementing the United Nations’ (UN) ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires substantial public sector financing and strong government institutions. In low and middle income countries, where the bulk of these investments are needed, public sector institutions are usually resource-constrained. High levels of corruption and financial mismanagement significantly reduce public sector resources allocated to enhance the public good and to tackle big structural problems, making corruption one of the biggest impediments to achieving the SDGs. Corruption also undermines the institutional capacity of agencies that should be in the frontline of implementing programs to alleviate inequality and multiple forms of deprivation.
“Almost one in five firms worldwide report receiving at least one bribery payment request when engaged in regulatory or utility transactions.” – United Nations Sustainable Development
Recognizing that resource-skimming reduces the per-dollar impact of otherwise effective development programs, the SDG committee designed Goal 16 towards improving “peace, Justice, and strong institutions” across the world.
Implementing and monitoring partners have also taken note of the link between corruption and the development cycle. José Ugaz, Chairperson of Transparency International, stresses that “with corruption, there’s no sustainable development,” highlighting the inability of institutions that are riddled with leakage to deliver upon major development projects. Similarly, Transparency’s Advocacy Manager, Rukshana Nanayakkara, comments that “without sufficient, careful investment taking place in just and inclusive societies, development happens very slowly.” Even where development projects are implemented nominally, corruption and embezzlement can prevent them from reaching their intended level of impact.
An analogy of a road funded by public money goes a long way in explaining how corruption can hinder development. Suppose that in rural Liberia, six villages are not connected to the main transportation system, rendering both inward service delivery and outward participation in the economy difficult. An international aid agency has delivered to a Liberian transport official some millions of dollars to construct the road, and expedite the integration of these villages into the service and good economy. With 50% of funds lost to embezzlement, one can imagine three of the villages remaining unconnected entirely, reducing the public goods output of the project. More commonly, however, the road is built to all six villages – but with the use of poor construction materials due to lucrative service contracts and skimming, the road may last only a year. After a few short months, the villages are in need of development assistance once again.
Problems like these indeed kept the Liberian Port Authority from reopening for almost a decade, stymieing the post-war recovery of the entire national economy.
Integrity Idol’s Answer
Despite the omnipresence of corruption in Liberia, some organizations continue to think critically about attacking the core biases that enable it. One such organization, Accountability Lab, supports change-makers to develop and implement positive ideas for integrity in their communities, unleashing positive social and economic change. One of their flagship programs is Integrity Idol, which fights corruption by spotlighting non-corrupt civil servants to promote non-corrupt practices and encourage public confidence in governance. Integrity Idol began in 2014 in Nepal, spread to Liberia in 2015 after the end of the Ebola crisis, and has since spread to four other developing countries around the world. The program operates in Liberia as follows:
“Local teams of volunteers travel across their countries gathering nominations from citizens, hosting public forums and generating a national discourse on the need for public officials with integrity. The nominees are narrowed down to a final five in each country with the help of independent panels of experts.
“These finalists are then filmed and these episodes are shown on national television and played on the radio for a week, creating a national discussion offline and online. Citizens can vote for their favorites through SMS short-codes and through the website. The winner is crowned in a national ceremony in the capital.
“Integrity Idol celebrates individuals, but those that serve the public good. It provides an outlet for a national conversation in positive terms about the change we’d like to see and the people we would like to be working in government on our behalf.” –Integrity Idol website
What problems did Integrity Idol face?
Though Integrity Idol’s answer to the sources of corruption is novel, it nonetheless faces a few key challenges in implementing its program in Liberia. The program’s answers to these questions may offer useful tools for policy designers of public visibility programs in other developing countries.
Initially, many of Liberia’s numerous non-corrupt public servants may have feared that exposure would make them targets of more corrupt colleagues or superiors. Integrity Idol addressed this problem by forging partnerships with key Liberian ministries, portraying the program and its contestants as no direct threat to current corrupt officials. The public visibility of the program, and its non-confrontational approach to publicity, encouraged proper participants while almost totally eliminating government interference.
To identify non-corrupt civil servants in remote or less accessible municipalities, Integrity Idol utilized a word of mouth system for nominating applicants. Rather than limiting nominations for civil servants to only current public employees, the applications were open to all citizens. Anyone who had positive interactions with a public servant was encouraged to share their story in the form of a nomination, and a plurality of nominations was the first indicator of a strong candidate.
To ensure identified civil servants indeed conducted their jobs with integrity, Integrity Idol implemented a system of multiple checks and verifications. Program staff traveled to the workplaces of the nominees and interviewed the nominees, their public servant colleagues, and citizens with whom they interacted. This multi-layered and personal process has helped keep glory-seekers outside the Integrity Idol net.
Finally, Integrity Idol faced an additional challenge of reaching contestants in remote areas of the country due to poor road conditions, especially during the rainy season. The program skirted this challenge by adjusting their annual calendar to the rhythm of the geography, avoiding intensive travel during the rainy season – including the showcasing of final contestants in the capital, Monrovia. The program’s solicitation and presentation dates are flexible, adjusting yearly to the seasons and to local conditions.
Integrity Idol’s Impact
Arriving in Liberia as researchers, we expected high-level government resistance to Integrity Idol. After all, any program seeking to undermine the ability of corrupt officials to profit from their position will create the conditions for spoilers – those officials have something to lose if the national culture moves past corruption. Surprisingly, we observed no government opposition whatsoever; in fact, many branches of the national government were extremely receptive to the program’s goals and methods, and had facilitated its growth and spread over the past few years with such favors as space on the national public broadcast radio.
Because Integrity Idol focuses on “naming and faming,” it is seen as a positive force for the morale of civil servants and the citizenry alike. Avoidance of “naming and shaming” ensured that the program was not seen as a threat even to corrupt officials; whatever challenges they might face would come from national sources of anti-corruption authority, mostly other government agencies. It also focuses citizens on medium-level bureaucrats: nominees are often those who interact with both citizens and their fellow civil servants. The conduct of high-level bureaucrats is more difficult for a citizen to observe at a granular level, while most street-level bureaucrats have too personal a relationship to the citizens who know them, and their conduct is not readily observed by their superiors. Therefore, both the high-level official and the bribe-collecting policeman who opened this article are nominated less often than the mid-level office manager of a public waste system, or water management office, or land deed office – to name a few examples.
But Integrity Idol’s goal is not to expose every policeman who takes a bribe. Certainly, in countries with high petty bribery, inventive citizens have developed smartphone apps to report such misdeeds and help citizens feel more empowered to resist corruption, but this can also make them targets of retribution. Integrity Idol seeks instead to address the national culture of corruption endemic in its host countries where, like in Liberia, a generation of young adults have grown up believing corruption is ubiquitous. By focusing on so-called “mules,” public servants who quietly do their duties with diligence, Integrity Idol is trying to strike at the heart of this misconception, with the idea that in a decade or a generation, the impact of anti-corruption society will trickle up and down to those petty police and high representatives.
Integrity Idol events receive wide viewership when shown on television, and even wider listenership when broadcast over the national radio. Additionally, solicitation for Integrity Idol has been consistently high in the 5 years since its foundation, hovering at around 5000 applicants per year. These numbers were sustained even during periods of hardship, such as during reconstruction following the Ebola Crisis. Finally, the Liberian government has backed up its tacit acceptance of the program with visible and high-level attendance at Integrity Idol events. Notably, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joined the award ceremony for the 2017 Idols, and more recently, the nomination of a defense sector employee as a finalist brought public buy-in from the formerly obstinate security agencies.
Despite its successes, the impact of Integrity Idol in Liberia has been observably less positive than in some of the other 5 host countries, such as founding host Nepal. On the program’s ultimate goal of changing public perceptions of corruption, the figures are lacking. Where Integrity Idol Nepal has brought public opinion against endemic corruption to record high levels (80% of survey respondents believe “some public officials work in the interest of the people”), the work in Liberia has struggled to penetrate as deeply (just over 50% of Liberian respondents to the same question). This question, polled in 2018, ignores the respective changes over time, and massive country-level differences, but it does capture at least part of the scope of the problem. Perhaps this reduced penetration is due to Liberian culture and the lasting impacts of conflict; either way, it must be tackled.
For researchers interested in furthering the UN SDGs, it is worth asking whether Integrity Idol is actively contributing to anti-corruption per Goal 16. Measuring corruption is incredibly difficult because much of corruption is based on public perception. With just a quick survey of public opinion or a glance at NGO-collected democratization figures, Liberia appears to be getting worse, despite Accountability Lab’s best efforts. Transparency International releases an annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) that measures perceived public sector corruption based on expert assessment and opinion surveys. In 2011, Liberia scored 51/100 on the CPI, where 0 demarks a highly corrupt society and 100 a very clean one. The country worsened by 10 points in 2012; today, Liberia scores only 31/100. Furthermore, Liberia’s corruption indicators are always contested and disregarded by the public when they do show signs of improvement because people believe they do not represent the views of the average Liberian.
An analysis of country-level trends in Liberia reveals, however, that Integrity Idol might simply have a tougher job in Liberia than in Nepal or other host countries. Under President Sirleaf (2006-2017), the Liberian government instituted a number of anti-corruption and auditing institutions and enacted laws to make corruption harder to carry out. It also instituted other transparency initiatives that have made the public sector more accountable. Compared to the immediate post-war years, Liberia has made progress in decreasing corruption, but with the absolute figures so high, and amidst a number of highly-public scandals, the public struggles to believe in any improvement. Even President Sirleaf noted in her final state of the nation address that she had failed her pledge to make corruption public enemy number one. Given the scale of corruption in Liberia and the vast income differences between public officials and the ordinary citizen, the average Liberian will still remark that corruption has not decreased or will say they do not believe corruption can be eliminated, especially in the public sector.
But these trends are not unique to Liberia. Transparency International notes that of the 180 countries measured for their index, “more than two thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI,” a trend that is “contributing to a crisis in democracy around the world.” Under these conditions, it is worth asking whether Integrity Idol is not stemming the tide of an even worse backslide in Liberia or other countries. Consider the following counterfactuals. Since 2014, a few high-level officials have been charged and brought to court, but the government has lost almost all the cases. Other officials have simply left the country during their trials in an attempt to wait out public outrage. It would appear these perpetrators have escaped justice. But if the deeper goal of Accountability Lab is to make citizens reconsider their views on the ubiquity of corruption, perhaps these are victories: the official has not been convicted, but he has been tried; he has not been caught, but he has been forced to flee the source of his illicit gains. Without Integrity Idol and the anti-corruption measures of President Sirleaf, it is difficult to say whether these officials would have ever stood trial in the court of public opinion.
Integrity Idol has made some significant progress in penetrating national awareness, but the problem of corruption remains intractable due to its deep relationship with years of conflict and hardship. Changing the national culture in Liberia will take time, and each incident of high-level corruption that is exposed will damage public confidence, even as such revelations (and hopefully, prosecutions) demonstrate that other elements of the Liberian justice system are beginning to get their act together. While Integrity Idol itself is not outing and prosecuting highly public, high-level officials who engage in large government scandals, it may be fostering a government or a national culture that is more willing to demand this accountability. The impact of the program, while difficult to measure, is likely wrapped up in microscopic normative changes.
Given a longer time horizon, Integrity Idol’s biggest achievement may actually be its relationship with the national government; without pressure to nominate ethically-compromised candidates, the program is free to build up genuine public confidence in its pool of non-corrupt public figures. As that pool grows each year, and Idol winners return to their communities as current and prior civil servants, they will inspire a new generation of Liberians to ask more from the leaders and accept less in the way of corruption. Maybe some of the idols’ contemporaries will be inspired to give up petty corruption and join the Liberia of the future themselves.
Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.
James Kiawoin is an MPA candidate in Public Affairs studying International Development and Global Health. As a Liberian native, James has seen firsthand the impact of years of war and transitions on citizen confidence in the government. He is available on Twitter (@JEkiawoin).
Sakari Ishetiar is an MPA candidate in Public Affairs studying US policy competition with Russia especially in the Middle East and North Africa. He is interested in how governments communicate their policies to citizens. He is available on Twitter (@ishetiar) and by email (Ishetiar01@gmail.com).
The rising popularity and falling capital costs of renewable energy make its integration into the electricity system appear inevitable. However, major challenges remain. In part one of our ‘integrating renewable energy’ series, we introduced key concepts of the physical electricity system and some of the physical challenges of integrating variable renewable energy. In this second instalment, we introduce how electricity markets function and relevant policies for renewable energy development.
Modern electricity markets were first mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in the United States at the turn of millennium to allow market forces to drive down the price of electricity. Until then, most electricity systems were managed by regulated vertically-integrated utilities. Today, these markets serve two-thirds of the country’s electricity demand (Figure 1) and the price of wholesale electricity in these regions is historically low due to cheap natural gas prices and subsidized renewable energy deployment.
The primary objective of electricity markets is to provide reliable electricity at least cost to consumers. This objective can be further broken down into several sub-objectives. The first is short-run efficiency: making the best of the existing electricity infrastructure. The second is long-run efficiency: ensuring that the market provides the proper incentives for investment in electricity system infrastructure to guarantee to satisfy electricity demand in the future. Other objectives are fairness, transparency, and simplicity. This is no easy task; there is uncertainty in both supply and demand of electricity and many physical constraints need to be considered.
While the specific structure of electricity markets varies slightly by region, they all provide a competitive market structure where electricity generators can compete to sell their electricity. The governance of these markets can be broken down into several actors: the regulator, the board, participant committees, an independent market monitor, and a system operator. FERC is the regulator for all interstate wholesale electricity markets (all except ERCOT in Texas). In addition, reliability standards and regulations are set by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), which FERC gave authority in 2006. Lastly, markets are operated by independent system operators (ISOs) or Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs) (Figure 1). In tandem, regulations set by FERC, NERC, and system operators drive the design of wholesale markets.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first learn about how electricity markets work. A basic electricity market functions as such: electricity generators (i.e. power plants) bid to generate an amount of electricity into a centralized market. In a perfectly competitive market, the price of these bids is based on the costs of an individual power plant to generate electricity. Generally, costs are grouped by technology and organized along a “supply stack” (Figure 2). Once all bids are placed, the ISO/RTO accepts the cheapest assortment of generation bids that satisfies electricity demand while also meeting physical system and reliability constraints (Figure 2a). The price of the most expensive accepted bid becomes the market-clearing price and sets the price of electricity that all accepted generators receive as compensation (Figure 2a). In reality it is a bit more complicated: the ISO/RTOs operate day-ahead, real-time, and ancillary services markets and facilitate forward contract trading to better orchestrate the system and lower physical and financial risks.
Because real electricity markets are not completely efficient and competitive (due to a number of reasons), some regions have challenges providing enough incentives for the long-run investment objective. As a result, several ISO/RTOs have designed an additional “capacity market.” In capacity markets, power plants bid for the ability to generate electricity in the future (1-3 years ahead). If the generator clears this market, it will receive extra compensation for the ability to generate electricity in the future (regardless of whether it is called upon to generate electricity) or will face financial penalties if it cannot. While experts continue to debate the merits of these secondary capacity markets, some ISO/RTOs argue capacity markets provide the necessary additional financial incentives to ensure a reliable electricity system in the future.
Sound complicated? It is! Luckily, ISO/RTOs have sophisticated tools to continuously model the electricity system and orchestrate the purchasing and transmission of wholesale electricity. Two key features of electricity markets are time and location. First, market clearing prices are time dependent because of continuously changing demand and supply. During periods of high electricity demand, prices can rise because more expensive electricity generators are needed to meet demand, which increases the settlement price (Figure 2a). In extreme cases, these are referred to as price spikes. Second, market-clearing prices are regional because of electricity transmission constraints. In regions where supply is low and the transmission capacity to import electricity from elsewhere is limited, electricity prices can increase even more.
Several recent developments have complicated the economics of generating electricity in wholesale markets. First, low natural gas prices and the greater efficiency of combined cycle power plants have resulted in low electricity bids, restructuring the supply stack and lowering market settlement prices (Figure 2b). Second, the introduction of renewable power plants, which have almost-zero operating costs, introduce almost-zero electricity market bids. As such, renewables fall at the beginning of the supply stack and push other technologies towards the right (higher-demand periods that are less utilized), further depressing settlement prices (Figure 2c). A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory expects these trends to continue with increasing renewable deployment.
In combination, these developments have reduced revenues and challenged the operation of less competitive generation technologies, such as coal and nuclear energy, and elicited calls for government intervention to save financial investments. While the shutdown of coal plants is welcome news for climate advocates, nuclear power provided 60% of the U.S. carbon-free electricity in 2016. Several states have already instated credits or subsidies to prevent these low-emission power plants from going bankrupt. However, some experts argue that the retirement of uneconomic resources is a welcome indication that markets are working properly.
While renewable energy advocates support such policies, system operators and private investors argue these out-of-market policies could potentially distort wholesale electricity markets by suppressing prices and imposing regulatory risks on investors. Importantly, they argue that this leads to inefficient resource investment decisions and reduced competition that ultimately increases costs for consumers. As a result, several ISO/RTOs are attempting to reform electricity capacity market rules to satisfy these complaints but are having difficulty finding a solution that satisfies all stakeholders. How future policies will be dealt with by FERC, operators and stakeholders remains to be resolved.
As states continue to instate new renewable energy mandates and technologies yet to be well-integrated with wholesale markets, such as battery storage, continue to evolve and show promise, wholesale market structures and policies will need to adapt. In the end, the evolution of electricity market rules and policies will depend on a complex interplay between technological innovation, stakeholder engagement, regulation, and politics. Exciting!
Kasparas Spokas is a Ph.D. candidate in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department and a policy-fellow in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University. Broadly, he is interested in the challenge of developing low-emissions energy systems from a techno-economic perspective. Follow him on Twitter @KSpokas.
While capital cost reductions and popularity are key to driving widespread deployment of renewables, there remain significant challenges for integrating renewables into our electricity system. This two-part series introduces key concepts of electricity systems and identifies the challenges and opportunities of integrating renewables.
What are electricity systems? Physically, they are composed of four main interacting elements: electricity generation, transmission grids, distribution grids, and end users (Figure 1). In addition to the physical elements, regulatory and governance structures guide the operation and evolution of electricity systems (these are the focus of part two in this series). These include the U.S. Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC), the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), and numerous state-level policies and laws. The interplay between the physical and regulatory elements has guided electricity systems to where they are today.
In North America, the electricity system is segmented into three interconnected regions (Figure 2). These regions are linked by only a few low-capacity transmission wires and often operate independently. These regions are then further segmented into areas where independent organizations operate wholesale electricity markets and areas where federally-regulated vertically-integrated utilities manage all the physical elements (Figure 2). Roughly two-thirds of the U.S. electricity demand is now located in wholesale electricity markets. Lastly, some of these broad areas are further subdivided into smaller balancing authorities that are responsible for supplying electricity to meet demand under regulations set by FERC and NERC.
Electricity systems’ main objective is to orchestrate electricity generation, transmission and distribution to maintain instantaneous balance of supply and continuously changing demand. To maintain this balance, the coordination of electricity system operations is vital. Electricity systems need to provide electricity where and when it is needed.
Historically, electricity systems have been built to suit conventional electricity generation technologies, such as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and hydropower. These technologies rely on fuel that can be transported to power plants, allowing them to be sited in locations where electricity demand is present. The one exception is hydropower, which requires that plants are sited along rivers. In addition, the timing of electricity generation at these power plants can be controlled. The ability to control where and when electricity is generated simplifies the process by which an electricity system is orchestrated.
Enter solar and wind power. These technologies lack the two features of conventional electricity generation technologies, the ability to control where and when to generate electricity, and make the objective of instantaneously balancing supply and demand even more challenging. For starters, solar and wind technologies are dependent on natural resources, which can limit where they are situated. The areas that are best for sun and wind do not always coincide with where electricity demand is highest. As an example, the most productive region for on-shore wind stretches along a “wind-belt” through the middle of U.S. (Figure 3). For solar, the sparsely populated southwest region presents the most attractive sunny skies (Figure 3). As of now, long-distance transmission infrastructure to transport electricity from renewable resource-rich regions to high electricity demand regions is limited.
In addition, the timing of electricity generation from wind and solar cannot be controlled: solar panels only produce electricity when the sun is shining and wind turbines only function when the wind is blowing. Therefore, the scaling up of renewables alone would result in instances where supply of renewables does not equal customer demand (Figure 4). When renewable energy production suddenly drops (due to cloud cover or a lull in wind), the electricity system is required to coordinate other generators to quickly make up the difference. In the inverse situation where renewable energy generation suddenly increases, electricity generators often curtail the electricity to avoid dealing with the variability. The challenge of forecasting how much sun and wind there will be in the future adds more uncertainty to the enterprise.
A well-known challenge in solar-rich regions is the “duck-curve” (Figure 5). The typical duck-curve (named after the fact that the curve resembles a duck) depicts the electricity demand after subtracting the amount of solar generation at each hour of the day. In other words, the graph depicts the electricity demand that needs to be met with power plants other than solar, called “net-load.” During the day, the sun shines and solar panels generate electricity, resulting in low net-loads. However, as the sun sets and people turn on electric appliances after returning home from work, the net load increases quickly. Electricity systems often respond by calling upon natural gas power plants to quickly ramp up their generation. Unfortunately, natural gas power plants that can quickly increase their output are less efficient and have higher emission rates than slower natural gas power plants.
These challenges result in economic costs. A study about California concluded that increasing renewable deployment could result in only modest emission reductions at very high abatement costs ($300-400/ton of CO2). This is because the added variability and uncertainty of more renewables will require higher-emitting and quickly-ramping natural gas power plants to balance sudden electricity demand and supply imbalances. In addition, more renewable power will be curtailed in order to maintain stability (Figure 6), reducing the return on investment and increasing costs.
Although solar and wind power do pose these physical challenges, technological advances and electricity system design enhancements can facilitate their integration. Several key strategies for integrating renewables will be: the development of economic energy storage that can store energy for later use, demand response technologies that can help consumers reduce electricity demand during periods of high net-load, and expansion of long-distance electricity transmission to transport electricity from natural resource (sun and wind) rich areas to electricity demand areas (cities). Which solutions succeed will depend on the interplay of future innovation, state and federal incentives, and electricity market design and regulation improvements. As an example, regulations that facilitate long-distance electricity transmission could significantly reduce technical challenges of integrating renewables using current-day technologies. To ensure efficient integration of renewable energy, regulatory and energy market reform will likely be necessary. For more about this topic, check out part two of our series here!
Kasparas Spokas is a Ph.D. candidate in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department and a policy-fellow in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University. Broadly, he is interested in the challenge of developing low-emissions energy systems from a techno-economic perspective. Follow him on Twitter @KSpokas.
Magnificent, a hairdresser who lives and works in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, is one of ten adults gathered together in a community space. Meanwhile, an equal number of children paint pots outside, fill them with soil, and plant seeds to grow. On the topic of the lead-contaminated water flowing from the taps of many city homes, Magnificent asks, “What can we do, as a community, to address this issue?” This is Earth Day at the Orchid House: Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability and Justice, planned by the organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair and the SAGE Circle. We are discussing environmental justice issues in Trenton, a place just fourteen miles from Princeton but worlds apart in terms of access to resources such as clean water.
Environmental justice means that all people have a right to a safe and healthy environment with clean drinking water, fresh food, and life-supporting homes. Its inverse, environmental racism, means that environmental hazards disproportionally shape the landscapes and lives of people of color. A 1987 report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, and a 2007 report, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, confirm that race stands as the most potent indicator of proximity to commercial hazardous waste facilities. Why? Because a long history of racist policies has shaped places in the United States along racial lines, concentrating people of color in areas often near toxic sites while cleaving places into segregated spaces partitioned by highways, train tracks, and walls. The development of industrial facilities in areas populated by people of color shaped US cities in the twentieth century as white people moved to suburbs—a state-subsidized project that ballooned after World War II. Further, the Federal Housing Authority’s A-D ranking system from 1934-1968 used the racial composition of neighborhoods as criteria for insuring private loans, making it nearly impossible for Black people to obtain a mortgage.
Responding to these conditions, community leaders in Warren County, North Carolina merged the environmental and civil rights movements in the late 1970s to address toxic dumping in their predominantly Black community. This became the environmental justice movement, which sought to incorporate environmental problems confronting communities of color into growing mainstream environmental consciousness. Urban centers, such as Trenton, are what Ruth Wilson Gilmore, director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, describes as “sinks of hazardous materials and destructive practices.” This is largely due to the organized abandonment of “marginal people on marginal lands.”
. . .
Most who live in Trenton know not to drink water straight from the tap. It became obvious after I moved into my Mill Hill home in 2016 that the water tasted oddly metallic and slightly rotten, and we began to buy 5-gallon jugs from the grocery store, the kind that pull your back when you lift them up if you’re relatively small like me. Soon after, news outlets began to report that Trenton’s water supply is contaminated with lead; lead poisoning is dangerous for young children, causing developmental delays and learning challenges, and affects adults too. Even more disturbingly, test results from a 2016 study showed that twenty of the Trenton Public School District’s twenty-six buildings have at least one sink or water fountain emitting water with lead concentrations that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. At Daylight/Twilight, a high school in downtown Trenton across the street from where we held our Earth Day event, a sink had levels as high as 1,600 parts per billion. Despite this study and media acknowledgement that Trenton Water Works has become a “failure” as a public utility, public officials have failed to communicate with Trentonians about the risks of drinking its water and how to remediate it. A July 31, 2018 letter sent to Trenton residents from Trenton Water Works indicates that contamination stems from lead service line pipes, banned for use since 1960. An added insert acknowledges that, “We violated a drinking water requirement” due to the fact that they failed to replace 7% of the lead service lines within one year of action level exceedance.
This neglect stems from the fact that Trenton is a “forgotten place,” typically regarded by its middle-class neighbors through the skewed lens of racist and dehumanizing tropes, particularly violence and poverty. But how did we get here?
Multiple historical events have shaped Trenton’s environment. For centuries, the Lenape people lived in organized communities along the shores of the Delaware River until the 18th and 19th centuries, when genocidal projects displaced and killed many, while some remain in the region today. In 1679, Quakers led by Mahlon Stacy established a town called Falls of the Delaware and built a gristmill. William Trent purchased this land in 1714 and expanded the mill to become the major source of commerce—made possible by slave labor. In the 1800s, industrialists began to manufacture pottery, iron, and steel. The 1920s brought automation, mergers and consolidations, and attacks on organized labor. In the 1960s, businesses began to close shop in search of cheaper labor, and people with nominal wealth and resources capitalized on the expanding highway system, one cutting through the heart of the city, and moved to suburbs. The aforementioned race-based housing policies enhanced racial segregation, and white flight in Trenton’s environs continues today. While economic development often inoculates the wealthy from the ravages of capitalism, the disenfranchised—whose poverty contours along racial lines—must fight for their very lives. The famous Trenton riots of April 1968 that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King expressed the anger and frustration of the Black community confronting concentrated poverty and unemployment.
A few decades later, the NJ Department of Transportation’s construction of the Route 29 extension that began in 1998 destroyed one of the city’s remaining environmental treasures: “a corridor of sycamore trees along the [Delaware] river’s embankment.” This cut off “the community’s once free and easy access to the water’s edge.” This area was once called “South Trenton’s Jersey Shore,” where kids swung from rope swings and frolicked in the water while adults fished upriver. Today, Trenton is full of contradictions. Trentonians rarely cross the highway to reach the Delaware River shore, despite their proximity to the water. The 2008 financial collapse largely thwarted aspirations for redevelopment and wrought a foreclosure crisis exacerbated by skyrocketing taxes. At the same time, Trenton is a vibrant and close-knit place, where “everyone knows your business [and] your neighbors watch your back.” It hosts city treasures like the Trenton Coffee House and Vinyl, Championship Bar, and Classics Books. Its current revitalization can be attributed in part to recent migrants from Central America.
Video of a performance by the band Buy Nothing, featuring Abdul Wiswall, owner of Trenton Coffee House and Roaster, performing a song about Trenton’s lead contaminated drinking water. (Source: Tess Jacobson).
I recount this history to show that, when tackling environmental racism in Trenton, a narrow focus on the intentional decisions of racist individual policymakers cannot possibly address the myriad environmental injustices that the people of Trenton face. Rather, the issue of lead poisoning and the failure of those with political power to address this problem cannot be separated from long and overlapping histories of racism, capitalist restructuring, and careless development plans literally built into the environment. Addressing this issue requires first and foremost an awareness of the many processes that have historically produced the organized abandonment of the city.
This brings us back to Magnificent’s inquiry: What can we do, as a community, to address this issue, or rather, all of these issues? Some of my neighbors believe that only two options exist for Trenton: the current state of disinvestment OR gentrification, the latter of the green variety that entails the planting of trees and the revitalization of waterways for tourists and professionals moving into the city. Yet neither of these options will serve people already living there, those who can barely pay the bills for the lead-contaminated water.
New Jersey-based public health psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove argues that when considering these rooted, metabolic connections of people to places a third way is possible. She calls this “Urban Alchemy.” It calls for holistic redevelopment grounded in community-based planning and collective place-making, a process that requires the coming together of people to fight for the whole. It calls for “unpuzzling fractured spaces” so that people can move freely and reconnect with people and places, for example, heeding calls to remove the Route 29 freeway. While bottom-up strategies such as urban alchemy are needed, strategies such as “social urbanism” involve government investment in infrastructure and services for the poor, including clean water and improved transit. These are the keys to an urban ecology that promotes environmental health and general well-being.
The organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair has initiated this process by opening up space to collectively envision what environmental justice means. We support not only lead-free water, but also community-based agriculture and arts, mom and pop stores, the retrofitting of abandoned buildings to benefit neighborhoods, sanctuary spaces for migrants, an anti-exploitative economy, and restorative justice and rehabilitation not incarceration. Grassroots, collective learning and visioning can serve as a foundation to make Trenton a healthier place, with clean water and other life-sustaining resources. It can spur informed action grounded in the daily lives and experiences of people living in the city, and in solidarity with people in places like Flint, Michigan.
This work does not aim for a balance between development and sustainability, or, in the case of Trenton, between gentrification and sustainability. This is a false choice. Planning and development must work to recuperate our connections to resources so that we can make thriving places for all, for many generations. The environment isn’t a distant place for recreation. It’s here, in our homes and neighborhoods, wholly embedded in our social and political life. Our environment makes the difference between a healthy life enriched by vibrant community and one cut short by toxic exposure. Consider not only the water we drink but also the food we eat and the systems that bring them onto our plates, the places we mingle with neighbors, the air we breathe and the industries that pollute it, the jobs we work and how our labor interacts with land to produce profit, our modes of transportation, and our systems of waste disposal, to offer a few examples.
Our efforts can take cue from environmental justice activists who have engaged in collective action for decades to envision economic and social alternatives that affirm all forms of life. Most importantly, this work recognizes that our communities and our environments are wholly interconnected, shaping our lives, livelihoods, and life chances, and the urgency of making our cities and neighborhoods life-affirming places for all.
Laurel Mei-Singh recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in American Studies at Princeton University and now serves as an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i. She is currently writing a book that develops a genealogy of military fences and grassroots struggles for land and livelihood in Wai‘anae, Hawai‘i. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Might there be a remedy for the worldwide temperature and rainfall changes caused by humanity’s emissions? If so, what would the cure cost? We watch as Mr. Human grapples with these questions with the help of Dr. Planet.
Dr. Planet was about to put an end to a long, hard day of work when the distress call came in.
“Dr. Planet! Dr. Planet! Our planet Earth needs your help!”
Dr. Planet quickly boarded his medical spaceship and sped towards the solar system. As the ship passed through Earth’s atmosphere, his instruments began to gather the planet’s climate records. The temperature indicator began to blink red. Then the indicator for circulation changes in its atmosphere and oceans. Then the sea ice indicator.
The moment Mr. Human boarded his spaceship, Dr. Planet knew why the planet was ill.
Mr. Human was holding a long, black cigar labelled ‘Fossil Fuels’. It was still smoking at the tip. In front of him, the reading on his carbon dioxide indicator soared.
“We know that,” said Mr. Human. He sounded as if he had not slept for days. “We’ve known about it for decades. I was so excited after the Paris meeting, when the world first agreed on concrete pledges to cut down emissions. Then we did our sums and realized that even if every country fulfilled its promised reductions, global mean temperatures were still set to increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius come 2100. And then the United States announced that they would pull out of the agreement, which was…”
Mr. Human’s gaze fell as he trailed off. He then straightened and looked Dr. Planet in the eye. “Dr. Planet, you are a renowned planetary climate surgeon. Do you have a geoengineering treatment that might be able to cure our Earth?”
Mr. Human took out a few geoengineering brochures and laid them on Dr. Planet’s desk. They had been produced by the hospital’s marketing department.
Dr. Planet resolved to have a chat with the marketing department about a more moderate portrayal. He was getting tired of patients either believing that geoengineering was a panacea or cursing him for attempting to play God. In fact, the carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering tools he possessed only allowed for a limited range of outcomes. More importantly, all of the choices involved tradeoffs and risks. However, experience had taught him that it was best to begin by explaining the science.
Carbon dioxide removal
Dr. Planet picked up the first brochure. It was about Canadian entrepreneur Russ George, who in 2012 dumped a hundred tons of iron into the ocean to trigger a massive plankton bloom. There were record hauls of salmon right after the fertilization. George also pointed out that the plankton removed carbon dioxide from the air as they grew.
“It’s easy to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” began Dr. Planet. “The problem is keeping the carbon dioxide out. If the fish is harvested and used as food, the carbon makes its way back into the air. Also, when the plankton respire, or are eaten by organisms higher up the food chain, most of that carbon is released once again. In addition, the immediate phytoplankton growth triggered by fertilization robs the iron or phosphorous that might have been used by other organisms. If you are looking for a long-term solution, don’t get tricked into looking only at the initial gains.”
“Besides, iron fertilization can’t be the only solution. In the most optimistic scenarios, the bulk of the carbon uptake would be used to form the shells of marine organisms such as diatoms. Since the shells would eventually fall to the bottom of the ocean, there would be a net removal of carbon from the surface. But based on the availability of iron-deficient waters around your planet, I estimate that iron fertilization can sequester at most 10% of human annual emissions.”
Mr. Human brightened as he saw that this technology could store about 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. If humanity continued emitting at 2014 levels, this would lock up about 45 years of carbon dioxide emissions. When he came to the section on costs, his jaw dropped. “Double the cost of our existing power plants?” He took out his bulging wallet and removed a stack of bills. Dr. Planet wondered if Mr. Human considered this so cheap that he was willing to pay upfront.
Mr. Human waved the bills. “Look at all the IOUs! There is no way we can afford that cost. I’ll bet the aerosol plan is cheaper than that.”
Solar radiation management
Mr. Human pointed to a printout explaining how particles called aerosols could be placed high in the atmosphere. Choosing aerosols that reflected solar radiation would help cool the Earth’s surface.
Dr. Planet understood why Mr. Human liked the aerosol plan. It made sense to place the aerosols far above the surface. That way, it would take many months before the aerosols settled below the clouds, where rain could flush the particles from the air. Furthermore, after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, global-mean temperatures in the Northern hemisphere fell by half a degree Celsius. With such a natural analog in mind, it was no wonder that Mr. Human thought he knew what to expect. He even was correct on the costs. Starting from 2040, dedicating 6700 flights a day to sulfate injection would keep global-mean warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This would involve a mass of sulfates roughly similar to that of the Pinatubo eruption and would cost about $US20 billion per year.
“It would be cheaper,” agreed Dr. Planet. “But tell me, is global mean surface temperature all you care about?”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Human. “Rainfall is important too. Also, I want to make sure we keep the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and reduce…”
“Then I should let you know that using aerosols means making a choice between overcorrecting for temperature or precipitation,” said Dr. Planet. He used the same serious tone a human doctor might use to explain that chemotherapy might remove the tumor, but would also cause you to vomit and lose all your hair.
Mr. Human folded his arms. He looked most unconvinced.
As Dr. Planet cast about for a good explanation, his eyes fell on Mr. Human’s wallet. It was still on the table and still full of the IOUs. He picked up a stack of name cards from his table.
“What if I asked you to place all of the cards into your wallet?”
Mr. Human frowned at the thick wad of paper. “I would have to remove some of my old receipts, or the wallet wouldn’t close.”
“Think of the Earth’s surface as the full wallet,” Dr. Planet said. “If we put in energy from increasing sunlight, your Earth has to throw out some energy. Because we’re trying to keep the temperature unchanged, the surface can’t radiate more longwave radiation by warming. It therefore has to transport heat, which mostly happens through evaporation. In the atmosphere, what comes up must come back down eventually, so increasing evaporation increases rainfall.”
“So, increasing radiation towards the surface increases rainfall,” said Mr. Human. “Don’t sunlight and carbon dioxide both do that?”
“They do,” said Dr. Planet. “But the atmosphere is mostly transparent to solar radiation and mostly opaque to longwave radiation from carbon dioxide. Energy entering via solar radiation thus has a stronger impact on the surface and rainfall. Hence, trying to correct for the change in temperature from carbon dioxide by stratospheric aerosols is expected to lead to an overcorrection in precipitation .”
Mr. Human was silent for a while, before he perked up. “Well, a slight change in the weather we’re used to isn’t that bad, especially if it avoids a worse outcome. Besides, you’ve only talked about the global-mean. With some fine-tuning, I’m sure we could come up with an aerosol distribution that delivers a good balance.”
“However, given the lack of rigorous clinical trials on planets like your Earth, I must warn you that it will remain a highly uncertain procedure,” said Dr. Planet. “For one, we will encounter diminishing marginal returns as we attempt to increase the sulfate load to achieve cooling. The increased amount of sulfate in the atmosphere could form bigger particles that reflect sunlight less efficiently rather than create new ones.”
“The treatment procedure of sustaining the thousands of aerosol-injection flights will require the commitment and coordination of all the peoples of your planet. A disruption due to conflicts could be catastrophic. If the aerosol concentrations are not maintained, the decades’ worth of change from greenhouse gases that they are holding back would manifest in a couple of years. The change would be so sudden that there would be little time for you to adapt.”
Mr. Human paled. Countries might well balk at paying the geoengineering bill. After all, that was money that could go to feeding the poor or to reducing a budget deficit. A rogue country might threaten to disrupt the injections unless sanctions were lifted. Or a country that might benefit from warming could sabotage the flights…
“I think you already know what I’m about to say,” said Dr. Planet as Mr. Human buried his face in his hands. “There’s no magic pill here. There never has been. I can help perform some stopgap surgery by removing carbon dioxide or provide some symptomatic relief through solar radiation management. Ultimately, though, your species has to stop lighting up in the way it has.”
Mr. Human sighed; he had to deliver the sobering news that geoengineering was riskier and more complicated than his colleagues they had expected. As he rose from his chair, he realized that he was still holding his smoking carbon cigarette. The numbers on Dr. Planet’s carbon dioxide detector were still rising. He watched the readout as it went past 400ppm, then 410ppm. With a regretful sigh, he ground the lit end of his cigar into an ashtray and stepped out to continue the long journey ahead.
Acknowledgments: This article was inspired by a group discussion with Dr. Simone Tilmes at the 2017 Princeton Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Workshop on Climate Engineering. Katja Luxem and Ben Zhang read an early draft and helped improve the clarity of the article.
Xin is a PhD candidate in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, a collaboration between the Department of Geosciences and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. She combines high-resolution models and theory to better understand the changes in tropical rainfall extremes as the atmosphere warms. She is also interested in innovative approaches to science communication.
In 1998, the Costa Rican Sala Cuarta (their highest judicial body) issued a ruling against a company that had dumped 12,000 tonnes of waste orange peels in one of the country’s flagship protected areas, Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). The ruling came at the urging of some members of the Costa Rican environmental community, and studies had found elevated levels of d-limonene–a suspected carcinogen–in local waterways as a result of the company’s actions, raising tensions with neighboring Nicaragua over the possible pollution of their downstream eponymous lake. The court ruling demanded the immediate removal of the orange peels from where they lay–a site that some had labeled ‘an open air dump.’
A keen observer at the time would have noted one immediate hiccup with the court’s order: those 12,000 tonnes of orange waste? They didn’t exist anymore.
Six months of unfathomable ecstasy on the part of four species of flies had converted the mega pile o’ peels into several inches of black, loamy soil, smothering the invasive African grass that had previously dominated the heavily degraded corner of the national park. Oh, and d-limonene? Turns out it’s more of a cancer-fighter than a cancer-causer (See Asamoto et al. 2002 Mammary carcinomas induced in human c-Ha-ras proto-oncogene transgenic rats are estrogen-independent, but responsive to d-limonene treatment. Japanese Journal of Cancer Research), and can now be purchased on Amazon for $0.16/gram (note I do NOT endorse herbal supplements as a general rule–talk to your doctor if you or your transgenic rat suffer from mammary carcinomas).
See, the orange peel dumping was actually part of a grand plan hatched by rockstar ecologist turned conservationist, Dan Janzen (best known for his hit singles like ‘Herbivores and the Number of Tree Species in Tropical Forests’ and ‘Why Mountain Passes Are Higher in the Tropics’, but I prefer his deep tracks ‘How to be a fig’ and ‘Mice, big mammals, and seeds: it matters who defecates what where’). He and his partner Winnie Hallwachs had noted the following upon observing the development of a huge new orange juice processing facility on ACG’s northern border by a company called Del Oro: (1) most people don’t like peels in their orange juice, (2) megatonnes of orange peels probably weren’t the easiest thing to deal with on the cheap, and (3) of the 170,000+ species of creature in ACG’s forests, at least one probably would nosh some citrus rind. Upon discovering that Del Oro planned to construct a multi-million dollar plant to turn their waste into low-grade cattle feed, Dan and Winnie engineered the following plan:
Dump orange peels on former cattle ranches recently incorporated into ACG.
Amazingly this plan nearly worked perfectly! Del Oro was all over the idea of getting a little weird with ACG. After a promising test deposition of 100 truckloads of orange peels in 1996, Del Oro and ACG signed a contract wherein the park would provide waste disposal (and interestingly, formalized water provisioning and pest management ecosystem services that Del Oro enjoyed by virtue of being neighbors with a fat block of mountainous rain-, cloud- and dry forest) in exchange for donating a huge amount of still-forested land that they owned on the ACG border. Janzen threw in some ecological consultation and help in getting eco-friendly certifications as a sweetener. A seemingly beautiful win-win deal.
But of course, we can’t have nice things.
You may have already pieced together what happens next: after executing the first year of the contract wherein Del Oro trucked in ~12,000 metric tonnes of peels and pulp into a heavily degraded corner of ACG that was seemingly caught in a state of arrested succession, a rival orange juice company caught wind of the party, and did as one does when they get spurned by a guest list omission: they sued.
What seemed to get lost in the debates that raged at the time though, was what effect all these orange peels would have on the forest itself. Dan and Winnie had the intuition that killing off the fire-prone grass and adding nutrients to a plot of land that had been continuously trampled by bovid beasties for a couple hundred years would be a positive change for an aspiring forest, but that wasn’t a certainty.
After the fallout from the lawsuit and the court ruling, it’s understandable that Dan, Winnie, and ACG’s staff didn’t want to draw too much attention to the site (a couple of ACG officials nearly were thrown in jail for failing to adhere to the court order). They visited a few times early on to photograph the progress, and sent a botanist in the very early years to write down what species of plants were occurring in the fertilized area and the surrounding pasture, but other than that the project was more or less consigned to the quirky annals of ACG history (alongside such fascinating historical tidbits as a starring role in the Iran-Contra Affair–read the book Green Phoenix by Bill Allen for the full fascinating history of the park).
The reason I’m relating this story is that some collaborators and I started revisiting this site a few years ago, and we were so blown away by what we saw that we had to tell the world. The area where the orange peels had been? It had become just about the lushest forest I’d ever seen. Literally, vines on vines on vines. And the surrounding pasture? Still pretty much looked the same as in old photos.
In the summer of 2014, I set up Princeton senior thesis student Jon Choi ‘15 at the site, and let me just say, he scienced the crap out of it. We set up some vegetation transects and developed a soil sampling regime, and then he went full Tasmanian Devil in a labcoat. We’re talking camera traps, audio recorders, pitfall traps, and theoretical modelling of ecological state transitions–the whole nine meters. It truly impresses me that he managed to say so much about what ultimately boils down to a very simple observation: orange peels jump-started forest recovery–where there would otherwise be a stunted savanna, there’s now forest so thick you literally have to hack your way through with a machete.
After a few years of trying to distill this work into something palatable to reviewers, journal editors, and our team of co-authors, we are proud to finally drop our LP: ‘Low-cost agricultural waste accelerates tropical forest regeneration,’ available exclusively from Restoration Ecology.
In all seriousness, I really do believe there’s an incredibly exciting idea at the core of this project: it wasn’t just a win-win initiative. It was win-win-WIN. Carbon was sucked out of the atmosphere, biodiversity was increased, and soil quality improved. All FOR A PROFIT! Despite this, we couldn’t find a single other example of ag waste being used to speed forest recovery. We hope that changes. The world really shouldn’t contain both nutrient-starved degraded lands and nutrient-rich waste streams.
Tim is a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology studying large-scale tropical forest restoration. More broadly, he is interested in the effective communication of and policy solutions to complex environmental challenges in an era of global change. He’s on Twitter (@treuer) and tumblr (treuer.tumblr.com).
The world faces an urgent need to drastically reduce climate-warming CO2 emissions. At the same time, however, reliance on the fossil fuels that produce CO2 emissions appears inevitable for the foreseeable future. One existing technology enables fossil fuel use without emissions: Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). Instead of allowing CO2 emissions to freely enter the atmosphere, CCS captures emissions at the source and disposes of them at a long-term storage site. CCS is what makes “clean coal” – the only low-carbon technology promoted in President Donald Trump’s new Energy Plan – possible. The debate around the role of CCS in our energy future often includes questions such as: why do we need CCS? Can’t we simply replace fossil fuels with renewables? Where can we store CO2? Is storage safe? Is the technology affordable and available?
Fossil fuels are abundant, cheap, and flexible. They currently fuel around 80% of the global energy supply and create 65% of greenhouse gas emissions. While renewable energy production from wind and solar has grown rapidly in recent years, these sources still account for less than 2.1% of global energy supply. Wind and solar also face challenges in replacing fossil fuels, such as cost and intermittency, and cannot replace all fossil fuel-dependent processes. The other major low-carbon energy sources, nuclear and hydropower, face physical, economic, and political constraints that make major expansion unlikely. Thus, we find ourselves in a dilemma: fossil fuels will likely remain integral to our energy supply for the foreseeable future.
CO2 storage and its role in the energy transition
CCS captures CO2 emissions from industrial sources (e.g. electric power plants) and transports them, usually by pipeline, to long-term storage sites. The ideal places for CO2 sequestration are porous rock formations more than half a mile below the surface. (Target rocks are filled with water, but don’t worry, it’s saltwater, not freshwater!) Chosen formations are overlain, or “capped,” by impermeable caprocks that do not allow fluid to flow through them. The caprocks effectively trap buoyant CO2 in the target rocks (see Figure 2).
Scientists estimate that suitable rock formations have the potential to store more than 1,600 billion tonnes of CO2. This amounts to 70 years of storage for current global emissions from capturable sources (which are 50% of all emissions). Large-scale CCS could serve as a “bridge,” buying time for carbon-free energy technologies to develop to the stage where they are economically and technically ready to replace fossil fuels. CCS could even help us increase the amount of intermittent renewable energy by providing a flexible and secure “back-up” with low emissions. Bioenergy combined with CCS (BECCS) can also deliver “negative emissions” that may be needed to stabilize the climate. Furthermore, industrial processes such as steel, cement, and fertilizer production have significant CO2 emissions and few options besides CCS to reduce them.
While our summary makes CCS seem like an obvious technology to implement, important questions about safety, affordability, and availability remain.
Is CCS Safe?
For CCS to contribute substantially to global emissions reduction, huge amounts of emissions must be stored underground for hundreds to thousands of years. That’s a long time, which means the storage must be very secure. Some worry that CO2 might leak upward through caprock formations and infiltrate aquifers or escape to the atmosphere.
But evidence shows that CO2 can be safely and securely stored underground. For example, the Sleipner project has injected almost 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year under the North Sea for the past 20 years. (For scale, that’s roughly a quarter of the emissions from a large coal power plant.) The oil industry injects even larger amounts of CO2 – approximately 20 million tonnes per year – into various geological formations in the United States without issue in enhanced oil recovery operations to increase oil production. Indeed, the oil and gas deposits we currently exploit demonstrate how buoyant fluids (like CO2) can be securely stored in the subsurface for a very long time.
Still, there are risks and uncertainties. Trial CO2 injections operate at much lower rates than will be needed to meet our climate targets. Higher injection rates require pressure management to prevent the caprock from fracturing and, consequently, the CO2 from leaking. The CO2 injection wells and any nearby oil and gas wells also present possible leakage pathways from the subsurface to the atmosphere (although studies suggest this is likely to be negligible). Leading practices in design and maintenance can minimize well leakage risks.
Subsurface CO2 storage has risks, but experience suggests the risks can be mitigated. So, if CCS has such promise for addressing our climate-energy problem, why has it not been widely implemented?
The current state of CCS
CCS development has lagged, and deployment remains far from the scale required to meet our climate targets. Only a handful of projects have been built over the past decade. Why? High costs and a lack of economic incentives.
Adding CCS to coal and gas-fired electricity generation plants has large costs (approximately doubling the upfront cost of a new plant using current technology). Greenhouse gases are free (or cheap) to emit in most of the world, which means emitters have no reason to make large investments to capture and store their emissions. In order to incentivize industry to invest in CCS, we would need to implement a strong carbon price, which is politically unpopular in many countries. (There are exceptions – Norway’s carbon tax incentivized the Sleipner project.) In the United States, the main existing economic incentive for capturing CO2 is for enhanced oil recovery operations. However, the demand for CO2 from these operations is relatively small, geographically localized, and fluctuates with the oil price.
Inconsistent and insufficient government policies have thwarted significant development of CCS (the prime example being the UK government’s last-minute cancellation of CCS funding). Another challenge will be ownership and liability of injected CO2. Storage must be guaranteed for long timeframes. Government regulations clarifying liability, long-term responsibility for stored CO2, and monitoring and verification measures will be required to satisfy investors.
The future of CCS
The ambitious target of the Paris Agreement will require huge cuts in CO2 emissions in the coming decades. The targets are achievable, but probably not without CCS. Thus, incentives must increase, and costs must decrease, for CCS to be employed on a large scale.
Despite its current troubles, CCS is an important part of solving our energy and climate problem. The recent United States election has created much uncertainty about future climate policy, but CCS is one technology that could gain support from the new administration. In July 2016, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to support CCS development. If passed, this bill would satisfy Republican goals to support the future of fossil fuel industries while helping the United States achieve its climate goals. Strong and stable supporting policies must be enacted by Congress – and governments around the world – to help CCS play its key role in the climate fight.
Kasparas Spokas is a Ph.D. candidate in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at Princeton University studying carbon storage and enhanced oil recovery environments. More broadly, he is interested in studying the challenges of developing low-carbon energy systems from a techno-economic perspective. Follow him on Twitter @KSpokas
Ryan Edwards is a 5th year PhD candidate in Princeton’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. His research focuses on questions related to geological carbon storage, hydraulic fracturing, and shale gas. He is interested in finding technical and policy solutions to the energy-climate problem. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwjedwards.