Assessing the Utility of Food Certifications in Advancing Environmental Justice

Written by Shashank Anand, Hezekiah Grayer II, Anna Jacobson, and Harrison Watson

Sustainability is the notion that we should consume with caution, as the Earth is a delicately balanced ecosystem with limited natural resources. Social justice generally aims to eliminate disparities and inequities between discrete demographics. These include inequalities between persons of different socioeconomic status, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Environmental justice (EJ) intersects both of these movements: EJ is the notion that specific ecological burdens of society should be shared equitably across communities. Historical trends suggest that as we expand, consume, pollute, and produce, the benefits and costs of industrialization are inequitably distributed. This inequality comes at the cost of poor health for those living in highly polluted areas. Inequitable distribution of pollutants has recently brought EJ to the center of political discourse due to its correlation with increased Covid-19 mortality and racially skewed disease outcomes

Unfair treatment of workers at farms and manufacturing plants is a prime example of an injustice that ethical spending can aim to rectify. The misuse of pesticides, low worker wages, poor living conditions for farmers, and child labor are all sources of social and environmental injustices in food production. Socially conscious purchasing could be key in fighting these injustices. Academic institutions, which often purchase food en masse to serve thousands of individuals, have a sizable impact on humanity’s social and environmental footprint. Institutions like Princeton thus have a practical interest in reducing their footprint and a deontological obligation to mitigate their negative societal impact. 

Potential local food purchasing power of fourteen Michigan colleges and universities (Source: Michigan Good Food Work Group Report Series)

In general, it is difficult to assess the relative social and EJ impact of discrete products due to the inherently unquantifiable nature of justice. Certifications like Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance attempt to assuage buyers’ concerns by identifying and establishing environmentally just organizations. Certifications like USDA Organic and the Non-GMO Project endorse products and operations from an environmental sustainability standpoint. 

CASE STUDIES

Rainforest Alliance (RA) is an international NGO that provides certifications in sustainable agriculture, forestry, and tourism. RA seeks to “protect forests… and forest communities.” For farmers, the certification process involves site audits that check for compliance with the Rainforest Alliance Standards for Sustainable Agriculture. Standards include child labor protections and worker protection against the use of harmful pesticides listed in the Sustainable Agriculture Network Prohibited Pesticide List. RA Standards address economic and gender disparities on farms through the use of an “assess-and-address” approach. Farms are responsible for setting the goals that will mitigate the effects of “child labor, forced labor, discrimination, and workplace harassment and violence”. RA Standards also enforce implementation of a “salary matrix tool” for the collection of comprehensive wage data and identification of wage gaps. 

Support from RA has historically proven impactful, most notably on certified cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer. A 2011 survey conducted by the Committee on Sustainability Assessment analyzed the impact of RA on the economic, environmental, and social dynamics of these cocoa farms. RA certification was shown to increase school attendance (noted as the percentage of children who have completed the appropriate number of grades for their age) by 392%, thereby reducing child labor; increase crop yields by 172%; and improve farm income by 356% compared to uncertified farms (see figures 4, 6, and 10 at this link). Despite these documented successes, there has been a history of exploitation of previous Standards on certified farms. In 2019, for example, pineapple farms in Costa Rica were cited employing undocumented workers and illegal agrochemicals despite RA restrictions. 

Fair Trade USA (FTU) is a certification that focuses on social and EJ much like RA does. FTU cites ideals in democratic and fair working conditions for its workers. FTU employs an Impact Management System (IMS) towards these ends; the IMS is used to assess the social and economic impact of growers’ practices. FTU is distinct from its well-known parent company, Fairtrade International: the two split in 2012 over a dispute about certified growers’ company size. 

FTU implements a price premium, ensuring that if the market value of a product falls, FTU products have a floor price on store shelves, thus ensuring workers earn some minimum wage. FTU also requires a small additional fee, the “Fair Trade Premium”, on top of the purchase price of the product. The premium is used to improve local infrastructure for the producers. How it is used is decided democratically by workers at the farm. In a poor economy, Fair Trade products are likely to be pricier than their uncertified counterparts. In a thriving economy with high demand, this difference will be negligible (see figure 1 at this link). A 2009 case study of coffee production in Nicaragua found that many Fair Trade coffee producers still had trouble finding places to sell their coffee. In times of high coffee prices, producers found that they reaped little financial benefit from the Fair Trade label. 

The Non-GMO Project (NGP) certifies distributors and farms whose procedures align with “standards consumers expect.” Certification is obtained after evaluation of the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in produced foods. GMO crops are often bred to be more resistant to drought or pests. This may lead them to outcompete local crops and flora. Combined with the potential unknown behavior of these nonnative crop variants and risk of gene flow, e.g. through cross-pollination, many communities want to keep excessive GMO cultivation out of their neighborhoods. NGP upholds the long-standing Non-GMO Standard, which outlines requirements for companies looking to sport the butterfly label. These standards necessitate greater coordination between cleaning and transference of products between storage facilities (termed “elevators”) as well as increased investments in process monitoring to account for the potential introduction of GMOs along the production process. NGP partners with third-party certification bodies (also known as technical administrators) that audit businesses and farms for compliance with all Non-GMO Standards. Application fees, as well as Non-GMO product premiums, contribute to the conservation of environmental health through the protection of genetic diversity in organic agriculture. 

USDA Organic was created by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which mandated the USDA to develop federal-level regulations in the US for organic food. It was actualized in 2002, after 10 years of public debate, as a compulsory certification requiring producers and handlers with annual organic sales greater than $5,000 to discontinue the use of prohibited substances. To ensure the insulation of formed policies from special interest groups, OFPA also instituted the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that includes 15 volunteers representing the consumer, organic farmer/handler, retailer, scientist, and environmental conservationist. A two-thirds majority of NOSB is required to add a material in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (NLAPS). Third-party certifying agents issue the product as organic after confirming that the producer or handler has discontinued the use of prohibited substances for three years. 

USDA Organic and a growing market for organic produce have resulted in high product premiums. Unfortunately, a booming market does not guarantee good wages, living standards, or fair treatment for farm labor. There are cases recorded where working conditions have worsened due to the heavy work and time demands of organic farming. Some new programs build on USDA Organic’s structure with additional focus on standards for animal welfare and worker fairness. Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is an example of such a program. It is too early to determine whether these certification programs will be successful or will earn the trust of the market.

DISCUSSION 

Consumer activism flourishes with effective metrics on desired qualities (e.g., EJ) to inform conscientious purchasing. Certification efficacy for social and EJ depends on two main questions: on a policy level, how relevant are the certifications’ guidelines to the social and EJ movement? In practice, how successfully are rules enforced; are audits thorough, unbiased, and based on clear criteria? These questions help us establish whether certifications actually impact procedure at the farm-level. Certifications lacking in the first quality risk being irrelevant to social and EJ, while certifications lacking in the second risk being inconsequential. 

The missions of certifications like RFA and FTU to enable sustainable livelihoods for farmworkers and promote environmental stewardship are in line with core tenets of social and EJ. However, the auditing processes of these certifications have demonstrated weaknesses, as noted by recent RFA-certified pineapple farms in Costa Rica. Furthermore, the guidelines for these certifications may be poorly communicated with farm workers as shown by a study from Vakila and Nygren on Nicaraguan Fair Trade-certified coffee farms. 

USDA Organic and NGP are more closely aligned with environmental sustainability than social or EJ, yet they have more streamlined auditing processes because sustainability can be more directly quantified (e.g., unit volume of water usage). USDA Organic, for example, strictly regulates pesticides and herbicides, thus protecting farm workers’ health. Prohibited chemicals in NLAPS include methyl bromide, sulfuryl fluoride, and phosphine (aluminum phosphide or magnesium phosphide), exposure to which can affect fetal development and can lead to irreversible damage. NGP, on the other hand, does not regulate chemical substances; on the contrary, the products it promotes forgo the health benefits associated with reduced pesticide use in farming GM crops. In general, many larger social justice themes (minimum wage, underage labor, unfair working conditions) are not addressed by these sustainability certifications. 

The cost of buy-in is one major obstacle for smaller distributors. For example, the harvest process for GMOs and Non-GMOs must be separated to prevent contamination, leading to more labor for farmworkers. Investigations check for use of USDA Organic’s prohibited substances for three years leading up to product harvest; a waiting period that may prove prohibitive to some smaller farms. These smaller farms may not be able to afford the fees of the certification process, or the costs of regulations/liability insurance as required by schools’ procurement offices. Interviews with local players in food distribution, however, alleviated these concerns: Ms. Linda Recine of Princeton Dining Services confirmed that many small farms have difficulties affording the certification label, but asserted that a network of farmers, larger distributors, and university support systems help small businesses obtain necessary certifications and build a sustainable customer base. She cited a pilot conference hosted by the Princeton University Department of Finance and Treasury and Princeton University Central Procurement. This conference focused on woman-, veteran-, and minority-owned businesses; through the conference, Princeton offered to subsidize the first year of various certifications at no cost to the vendor. For obtaining expensive liability insurance, as well, outside help proves paramount: Ms. Recine says that many small farms may be able to get their goods onto campus by partnering with larger distributors. Jim Kinsel of Honeybrook Organic Farm stated that open communication with customers about the certification waiting period usually assuages their concerns about uncertified crops. 

Image of tomatoes being grown on a farm (Source: Canva Images)

Cost of buy-in shows that many certifiable farms may lack a formal label. Additionally, if farms pursuing certification already employ environmentally just practices before they apply for the label, we may see biases which interfere with our ability to assess certification efficacy objectively. A recent meta-study confirmed that many reports investigating the efficacy of certifications did not control for possible selection bias. 

With certifications alone, we are left with an incomplete picture of ethical consumption. If EJ certifications rely on vague self-improvement, sustainability certifications are not as justice-relevant, and all certifications are audited by third parties whose reliability is hard to ascertain, is a certification stamp on a unit of packaging truly enough to assert that a product was ethically produced? The ethical consumer is caught between a rock and a hard place; incomplete information makes it impossible to gauge EJ using certification labels alone. We will need additional information from producers to rely more comfortably on the value of consumer certifications. 

The solution to these concerns may lie in local purchasing. Sarah Bavuso and Linda Recine of Princeton Dining Services emphasized the importance of forming relationships with producers, citing the value of allowing farmers to see the campus and of university officials taking trips to farms and production sites. This relationship allows Princeton to be more hands-on with its food and to interfere when questions of ethics arise. Indeed, a 2007 study suggests that forming relationships with local farms decreases the distance that products travel, allows for cooperative relationships with individual farmers, and introduces flexibility in verification processes. 

Decreasing food-miles through local purchasing may be a critical component of both sustainability and EJ: as food travels and the supply chain lengthens, more middlemen get involved, and there are more opportunities for injustices and unsustainable practices. Each border that food passes through serves as another regulatory vulnerability for the introduction of harmful pesticides and food contamination. At each stop on the road, food loses freshness and emits greenhouse gases (GHGs) by burning fossil fuel through transit. Additionally, laws and regulations are more easily ascertained locally: consumers are more likely to know the minimum wage and regulations on working conditions for farms near their own homes. 

Local farms may also be smaller and more sustainable than larger national chains. Mr. Kinsel claims that larger farms are more likely to cut corners in the name of profit. While Ms. Recine confirms that larger producers may be less inclined to act ethically, she states that these farms have “come a long way” towards humane and ethical behavior, largely thanks to students and universities vocally lobbying for causes that were important to them. Purchasing certified food that is also locally grown may address many of the concerns introduced by the information gap mentioned above. 

Image of vegetables displayed at an outdoor stand (Source: Canva Images)

CONCLUSION 

Rather than relying entirely on certifications like USDA Organic, a supply chain can be created where the university shares the risk of crop production under unpredictable hydroclimatic conditions with the local farming community. One realization of a more local supply chain is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where schools select membership for a season and receive fixed volumes of freshly harvested produce from local farms. Students receive fresh and nutritional food from farms that abide by local regulations. Farmers get money from subscriptions upfront, allowing them to expand and invest early. Schools build working relationships with constituent farms and their management, creating a point-person on the farm grounds who can verify safe conditions for farmers. Many local farms in the Princeton area (like the Snapping Turtle Farm and the Cherry Grove Organic Farm) already have some of the same certifications as larger factory farms. 

A CSA supply chain would fit neatly into many residential colleges for small portions of salads or boiled eggs and meats. Non-perishable products like crackers and cereals could still be purchased from larger certified producers. In this supply chain, certifications are relied upon for goods that are difficult to buy from local producers. The local economy around the university is enhanced by the CSA program employed for fruits, vegetables, and meats. There are, of course, logistic questions to be resolved: a supply chain where crop proportions are not predetermined is quite different from the institutional status quo. The feasibility of such a supply chain will likely need to be vetted through a pilot program or a case study of other institutions implementing a similar program. CSAs have been implemented on some scale at schools like the University of KentuckyRutgers University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. We suggest schools start small: by implementing a CSA supply chain in an on-campus cafe or residential college. The program can be scaled up over time, after feasibility studies and conversations with local farmers. 

The feasibility of establishing a local supply chain will depend on how universities currently source their food. Ms. Bavuso indicated that many schools fall into one of two classes: self-operated schools, whose food procurement departments are university-run and in-house, and non-self-operated schools, whose food procurement is outsourced via contracts. Many schools employ some combination of these operations, with state schools being particularly strictly regulated via contracts (Aramark, University of Delaware; Sodexo, The College of New Jersey). Self-operated schools like Princeton will likely have more flexibility in vetting and choosing vendors. Non-self-operated schools aiming for social change will likely have to do so by lobbying distributors through the schools’ purchasing power or threatening to withdraw their business if practices are not improved. Not all schools will have the means to investigate each food product on their shelves: it will likely be useful to leverage an inter-school consortium of food procurement research, see the National Association of College & University Food Services, allowing inter-institutional procurement departments to swap findings and relevant research. 

The authors of this article do not wish to claim that certifications are entirely ineffective in gauging the social and EJ of food procurement. But certifications are not a panacea for ethical supply chains. Universities relying solely on these certifications for assessing food safety and social and EJ are not doing due diligence when it comes to ethical spending. It may take additional effort to switch to a CSA-style supply chain like the one suggested above; but if institutions are serious about the values that they promote in their dining services brochures, this added effort will be well worth the improvement seen in the quality and justice of the campus food. 

Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber wrote in June of 2020: “As a University, we must examine all aspects of this institution — from our scholarly work to our daily operations—with a critical eye and a bias toward action. This will be an ongoing process, one that depends on concrete and reasoned steps[.]” The authors of this article believe that a CSA pilot program would be one such concrete step towards action, a step that would be directly in line with the larger themes of environmental and social justice that have become more pronounced in the societal collective consciousness during recent years. At the very least, it is the duty of university procurement departments to state the steps they intend to take to address inequity. Princeton’s recent Supplier Diversity Plan is one example of such an effort in that it aims to support more diverse-owned businesses. As entities with large economic impacts, universities do have the power to effect real societal change. 


Shashank Anand: I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, working with Prof. Amilcare Porporato. My research focuses on understanding the role of ecohydrological and geomorphological processes in the evolving landscape topography by analyzing process-based models and learning from the available observations.

Hezekiah Grayer II: I am a 2nd year PhD candidate in the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics, where I am fortunate to advised by Prof. Peter Constantin. My academic goals intersect fluid mechanics, plasma physics, and partial differential equations.

Anna Jacobson: I am a 3rd year PhD candidate in the department of Quantitative and Computational Biology. I am affiliated with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. For my thesis work, I study energy systems and environmental policy.

Harrison Watson: I am a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology working with Professors Lars Hedin, Rob Pringle, and Corina Tarnita. My work currently focuses on clarifying the forces that influence land carbon cycles using eastern and southern African savannas as a study system.

What can climate adaptation learn from what’s in Grandpa’s garage? A historical tale of two flood protection megastructures

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started building coastal flood protection over 60 years ago, they weren’t thinking about climate change, but a PhD student at Princeton University shows that old Army Corps projects may hold valuable insights for future climate adaptation efforts.

By D.J. Rasmussen (STEP PhD student)

Grandpa’s flooded garage

On the third day of November 2012, Joseph D’Amelio sat on his front porch looking down 14th Street. For over five decades, he and his wife had shared coffee on countless Saturday mornings in that same spot. It normally would have been unusual for D’Amelio to be out on the porch this late into the year, but this particular morning was unusual. A cacophony of construction noises rang throughout the Broad Channel neighborhood of Queens. Diesel engines idled loudly. The back-up alarms on a half dozen dump trucks rang out simultaneously. Workers were attending to two homes in the neighborhood that had collapsed into Jamaica Bay just days earlier. Joseph D’Amelio sat and thought about the families who lived in those two homes, the once-in-a-lifetime storm that caused their destruction, and something he had discovered in his garage just a few hours ago.

For those who have never visited Broad Channel, they might be surprised by what they see. This corner of New York City resembles little of what someone might think of when they imagine the Big Apple. Instead of skyscrapers, taxis, and bright lights, visitors of Broad Channel are greeted by something resembling more of a small, quiet New England fishing community.

Broad Channel is situated in the middle of Jamaica Bay, an 18,000-acre wetland estuary filled with islands, meadowlands, and a labyrinth of waterways. Jamaica Bay is also home to several Queens neighborhoods and John F. Kennedy International Airport, the busiest airport on the east coast. D’Amelio often took his fishing skiff out to troll for striped bass on the edge of the bay’s marsh banks, sometimes with his three grandchildren.

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the Broad Channel neighborhood of Queens (New York City). Photo by Richard York/The Forum Newsgroup

Broad Channel is also one of New York City’s lowest lying neighborhoods. To prevent severe flood damage, the first floor of many of the residences in Broad Channel sit atop either concrete pilings or a single car garage. Joseph D’Amelio is no stranger to floods. Over the past half century, he had personally witnessed many of the strongest nor’easters and hurricanes, including Hurricane Gloria in 1985, the December 1992 nor’easter, and Hurricane Irene in 2011. Each time his property had survived with little damage. But all that changed a few days ago. Earlier that week, the D’Amelio residence’s garage was flooded by Hurricane Sandy.

The D’Amelio’s home sat atop a garage just big enough to squeeze in a 1950’s Chevrolet. But instead of accommodating a car, the D’Amelio’s garage now served as a storage unit filled with fishing gear, dusty equipment from Joseph’s firefighting career, and boxes of old forgotten junk.

Joseph D’Amelio had spent the past few days cleaning up the aftermath of the flood in his garage. In the process, something peculiar popped out at him. It was a small booklet, nearly fifty years old. The paper of the booklet had browned over the years, giving it a distinct vintage look. In it, a proposal was described for a massive barrier across the Rockaway Inlet, the western entrance to Jamaica Bay. In 1960, Hurricane Donna had reminded New Yorkers how exposed the Jamaica Bay region was to flood waters produced by coastal storms.

The report D’Amelio had found was written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the primary government agency tasked with managing flood risks. The intention of the Army Corps proposal was to keep storm water out of the Bay. The plan had been distributed in the mid 1960s, just after the D’Amelios had first moved into their 14th Street home. At the time, Joseph and his wife hadn’t paid much attention to the plan; they were too busy taking care of their three young children. After years of planning and deliberation, the barrier was never built. The exact reason why remains a mystery.

Clasping his coffee close to his chest, Joseph D’Amelio sat quietly on his front porch, staring at nothing in particular, and wondered how the past few days would have been different had the Jamaica Bay flood barrier been built.

A pamphlet from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers describing a proposal for a flood barrier across the Rockaway Inlet, the western entrance to Jamaica Bay, the same pamphlet that Joseph D’Amelio found in his garage. Photo by the author.

The status of coastal flood adaptation today: multiple plans, but little action

Just like Joseph D’Amelio, many Americans on the coasts are increasingly finding themselves cleaning up garages, basements, and living rooms that have been flooded by coastal storms. Studies using observational data have shown that coastal cities around the U.S. are experiencing an increasing frequency of high-water events. These events can lead to costly and deadly floods when water over tops natural and engineered defenses, such as sand dunes or seawalls. The increase in the frequency of high-water events is largely a result of rising mean sea levels due to global warming. The problem is only going to get worse. Through our research, colleagues and I have found that local sea levels in New York City are expected to rise by almost a foot by the middle of this century.

Over the past decade, several U.S. cities around the country have begun devising plans for flood protection. Following Hurricane Sandy, New York City began to investigate several proposals in earnest, including a flood structure across the Rockaway Inlet, much like the one Joseph D’Amelio found in his garage. However, after roughly eight years of deliberation, many of these plans again failed to progress beyond the drawing board, including the second attempt at the Jamaica Bay Barrier.

An artist’s rendering of the most recent proposal for a storm surge barrier at the Rockaway Inlet/Jamaica Bay (2019). Source: New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (New York, New York).

New York City’s experience highlights a disturbing trend for coastal climate adaption efforts nationwide. Projects have continually struggled to gain political traction. Years of detailed planning go wasted, as does valuable time (project construction can take multiple decades). As the cliché goes, the can gets kicked down the road. Nothing gets done, and the risk of a major flood disaster remains.

Detectives on the case: enter two curious Princetonians

Over the course of a few meetings in my advisor’s office, he and I started to contemplate the reasons why technically feasible Army Corps projects rarely progressed beyond the drawing board. Specifically, we wondered what non-technical factors might explain the variation in whether projects got built or not. Was it simply a question of having the money at the right time and place? Or is it more complicated than that? For example, were politics and social conflict the reason? If so, what specific factors were contributing? We wanted to know the answers.

It slowly became apparent that these questions had not been studied before. A multi-month literature search turned up little information on the subject. I called experts around the country and wrote letters to the Army Corps, but no one seemed to know the reasons. Freedom of Information Act requests turned up nothing, sometimes after waiting an entire year for a response. Frustrated with the little success I had, I contemplated more drastic measures, including visiting archives (cue the ominous music).

One could describe archives as repositories for all types of media (letters, memos, newspaper articles, photographs, microfilm, etc.) that provide information about the function of an individual person, a group of people, or an organization. I figured that archives might have more information about past projects, such as the failed Jamaica Bay Barrier pamphlet that Joseph D’Amelio had found in his garage.

The answers are in the archives

I began contacting archives across the country to see if they had any information on historical coastal flood protection projects. After calling and visiting roughly a half-dozen locations, I finally got some promising news. An archivist called to tell me that there was a handful of archives in Massachusetts and Rhode Island that had several boxes of documents relating to two coastal flood protection megaprojects. These two megaprojects had emerged simultaneously in Rhode Island following Hurricane Carol in 1954, which at the time was the third major hurricane to hit the region in 16 years.

One of the two projects was the Fox Point hurricane barrier, a closeable flood gate intended to protect downtown Providence, Rhode Island from major floods. It was completed in 1966 and has been deployed several times over the years. The other project was a series of storm surge barriers across the mouth of Narragansett Bay. The Bay barriers ultimately failed to progress beyond the planning stage, after more than ten years of study and deliberation. I thought that if I was able to understand the political and social reasons for these project outcomes, it might offer hope for understanding why some contemporary climate adaptation efforts break ground and why others do not.

The completed Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in March 1966 (Providence, Rhode Island). Photo taken by the New England Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Waltham, Massachusetts).
A map showing the Army Corps’ proposal for storm surge barriers at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Source: New England Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Waltham, Massachusetts).

While archives may contain treasure troves of information about a subject, it is often not in a coherent format than can be easily interpreted. There are no published books or summaries. Each document is like a random puzzle piece but not necessarily a part of a puzzle that you’re trying to put together. To make matters more complicated, you may not even know what puzzle it is you’re trying to put together! Information is chaotically scattered. One must sift through thousands of documents in order to produce a coherent story. Ultimately, you never really know what you will find in an archive. While it is time consuming, in some ways the uncertainty creates an air of suspense that makes digging through boxes all day a bit more bearable.

A photo showing a sampling of a few letters from local residents in opposition to the Narragansett Bay Barriers. Hundreds of letters were sent to elected officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, nearly all in opposition to the project. Photo by the author.

What can modern climate adaptation efforts learn from the two Rhode Island projects?

After months of collecting and analyzing materials from the archives, I was able to piece together the first ever historical account of the two Rhode Island projects, from the point of their inception all the way through their ultimate fates (completion and cancellation). Informing the historical account were hundreds of newspaper articles, memos between the Army Corps and elected officials, and letters from businesses and residents from around Rhode Island.

I learned that the Fox Point barrier progressed beyond the planning stage as a result of minimal environmental concerns and strong, sustained support from both the public and Rhode Island’s elected officials. At the time, the waterways around Providence were so polluted that there wasn’t much natural life in the water to protect. I also concluded that the Narragansett Bay barrier project failed to break ground due to strong public opposition. The public opposition was related, in part, to projected increases in channel currents that had the potential to complicate maritime navigation and cause uncertain impacts on marine life. Unlike the waterways around Providence, Narragansett Bay was a rich ecological system on which many communities depended. Further hampering the Bay barrier’s chances was an almost decade long planning period during which the public’s flooding concerns declined.

While these findings had historical significance, by themselves they were not obviously relevant to modern-day projects. Much has changed since the 1960s. Most notably, the emergence of environmental laws has made it much easier to legally challenge government projects that have the potential to impact the natural environment. After assessing a handful of coastal climate adaptation projects that have recently been considered by the Army Corps, some common political and social factors emerged. Most notably, these factors included 1) environmental protection concerns (including modern environmental laws that elevate oppositional viewpoints), 2) a lack of leadership and support from elected officials to help carry projects forward, 3) the allure of alternative options that are more aesthetically pleasing to residents and also cheaper and faster to implement (think beach nourishment and buried levees with promenades on top for biking and walking), and 4) lengthy and complex decision-making procedures that coincide with fading memories of floods.

Looking backwards to go forward

As sea levels continue to rise in coastal cities around the country, the urgency grows for protecting populations and both the built and natural environment. Since the mid-20th century, several years of planning have gone into a number of proposed coastal flood protection projects around the country. While some of these projects have gotten built, many have failed to advance beyond the drawing board. My work has shown that archival research is a viable option to better understanding the political complexity faced by contemporary climate adaptation projects. The more we learn about this complexity, the more we can improve the efficiency with which coastal risk reduction strategies are deployed. For example, instead of investing years of planning into massive, environmentally harmful, and financially risky megaprojects, scarce planning resources could be allocated towards projects that are deemed more palatable by the public, elected officials, and organized interests.

Thanks to the archives, we now have some answers. But the question remains whether the Army Corps and governments will learn from the past and change their behavior. Hopefully Joseph D’Amelio’s grandchildren will one day live in a better prepared version of New York City, one in which Army Corps projects don’t end up as forgotten relics in flooded garages.

D.J. Rasmussen is an engineer, climate scientist, and policy scholar. He studies coastal floods, sea-level rise, and public works strategies for managing their economic and social costs. His research has informed the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has been published in Science Magazine as well as other academic journals. He is completing his PhD in the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) Program at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. A portfolio of his research can be viewed at https://www.djrasmussen.co. He can be reached at dmr2@princeton.edu

Offsetting your greenhouse gas emissions can impact more than just your carbon footprint

By Tim Treuer

This Giving Tuesday, I decided to offset my 2020 carbon footprint. And help protect endangered biodiversity. And help eliminate poverty. And improve air, water, and soil quality. And support gender equality. And empower historically marginalized communities. And maybe even decrease the risk of killer diseases like COVID-19 and malaria.

But I only made one donation. And its price tag was the equivalent of about a dollar a day.

How? I’m donating to an organization that will use the funds to restore tropical rainforests. I may be biased as a restoration ecologist, but in my mind there are few ways to offset your emissions that carry as many co-benefits to nature and society as regrowing rainforests. More on that below, but first I want to address the elephant in the room when it comes to carbon offsetting: most don’t offset anything.

Seedling nursery

Per a 2016 European Commission report, 85% of carbon offsets fail to offset carbon. A big problem is scam organizations that simply do less than they promise. But even well-intentioned, reputable groups can fall short. The two main problems are failures to account for ‘additionality’ and ‘leakage’. Additionality means that the carbon that is pulled out of the atmosphere wouldn’t have been pulled out anyway. Some organizations offer to do things like establish tree plantations in areas that would otherwise be recovering forest–forest that would, in many cases, store more carbon than the tree plantation!

Leakage becomes an issue when a group’s actions to draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere lead to increased emissions elsewhere. This is a pernicious problem with many efforts, even ones that have huge positive local benefits. Protecting stands of old-growth forest or using farms to produce biofuels can be really great in theory, but if you don’t address the demand side of the equation, economics dictates that you’ll end up with compensatory logging or farming elsewhere. (Side note: one pet peeve of mine is that biofuel studies sometimes come up with rosy predictions because they simply assume we will produce less food and eat fewer calories in the future.)

If you pick carefully enough, however, tropical forest restoration projects often evade these two pitfalls. Many (if not most) involve jumpstarting the recovery of land that would not heal on its own because of challenges like invasive vegetation that chokes out seedlings, absent seed sources because of widespread forest clearing, or heavily degraded soils from overgrazing or nutrient depletion. So you can go ahead and tick that box for additionality. And so long as the restoration activities take place in protected settings like national parks or community forest, you shouldn’t see compensatory carbon emissions elsewhere. Ergo, no more leakage.

But carbon offsetting is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tropical forest restoration. Pound for pound there are more species in tropical forests than any other ecosystem on Earth. In places like Madagascar or lowland Borneo, many of those species are in serious danger of disappearing forever because of past habitat loss. We are talking millions of species hanging on by a thread. Most don’t even have scientific names yet. Their only lifeline is the resurrection of lost habitat. The biodiversity benefits of forest restoration alone can and do justify restoration projects across the tropics.

Caterpillar at reforestation site

Forest restoration through planting seedlings and controlling weeds is a super labor-intensive activity. 22-23 year old me can definitely attest to that fact after spending two seasons co-managing a reforestation project in Gunung Palung National Park on the Indonesian side of Borneo. But the required blood, sweat, and tears is a feature, not a bug. Labor means employment opportunities, and in impoverished tropical communities, that means poverty alleviation. One of the top requests from the villages where I worked was for more opportunities to be paid to reforest. And it’s equitable work too. It was common at our site to see planting teams led by women from an indigenous ethnic group– women who would be less likely to get jobs with the commercial oil palm plantations, the main local employers.

Reforestation site

There’s another reason those communities love reforestation work. They know healthy forests mean less smoke and haze from invasive grass fires, less flooding, and more consistent and cleaner water in the streams running out of the forest. The water perks span the wet and dry seasons. Forests decrease rainy season flooding via increased and root-mediated groundwater infiltration into the water table, which then feeds streams during drier periods.

At this point I’m starting to feel like Billy Mays: “But wait! There’s more!” I think it’s safe to say that most people would relish the opportunity to kick an anthropomorphized version of this global pandemic right in the nu… uhh, somewhere really painful. Tropical forest restoration is actually the next best thing. One of the big insights of the scientists in the emerging discipline of eco-epidemiology is that unhealthy ecosystems tend to yield greater risk of wildlife diseases crossing into human populations. There’s a whole slew of mechanisms for this–from stressed animals like bats shedding more virus to many malaria-spreading mosquitoes preferring open habitat to closed canopy forest– but the punchline is that when scientists looked at how to prevent the next pandemic, halving deforestation made the list of cost-effective preventative measures. My current research looks at how reforestation could protect against malaria in Madagascar, and past work I’ve been a part of showed that deforestation upstream of impoverished rural communities leads to more cases of diarrhea in kids and infants.

There are many organizations that need your support for their tropical forest restoration work, and many online tools for calculating your annual carbon footprint. I’m choosing to donate to the organization I worked with in Borneo. Not only do I know from firsthand experience that they are doing truly additional and leakage-free offsetting, but they also are super transparent about how they calculate and track their offsets.

There are tons of great organizations out there, though. You could even pick one in a country you plan on visiting once the pandemic is over– maybe they’d even show you the forest you helped replant. Just make sure you are asking three questions: will the trees you help plant cause forest clearing elsewhere? Would the replanted forest recover on its own anyway? And finally, how are they calculating their emissions reductions?

If you’re happy with your answers, congratulations! You’ve found a way to give that really does keep on giving.

Tim completed his PhD at Princeton in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (*18), where he studied large-scale tropical forest restoration. He was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow and currently a Gund Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Vermont, where he studies whether and how reforestation can be used as a tool for combatting malaria in Madagascar. You can find him on Twitter (@treuer) and at www.timothytreuer.com.  

Sustainability: That Ain’t Country?

Written by Ashford King

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.

It’s Past Time for Princeton to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Written by Ryan Warsing of Divest Princeton

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 seasonglaciers 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.

(Sources: Nik Gaffney / Flickr; Pixabay; Don Becker, USGS / Flickr; CraneStation / Flickr – Creative Commons)

Meanwhile, in balmy Princeton, New Jersey, the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) and Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment have signed splashy agreements with BP and Exxon (respectively) to fund research into renewable fuels, carbon capture and storage, and other climate innovations.  Since 2000, these companies have pumped over $30 million into CMI and the Andlinger Center, with the latter recently extending its Exxon contract for another five years.  

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 UniversityBrown, 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.

Video showing a progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies from 1951-2019. The average temperatures over 1951-1980 are the baseline shown in white. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue. The final frame represents the 5 year global temperature anomalies from 2015-2019. Scale in degrees Celsius. (Source: Lori Perkins / NASA and NOAA)

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 last ten 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 Trustees put 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.

Inside a Solar Energy Company

Written by Molly Chaney

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 pclark@momentumsolar.com.

Sources: energy.gov

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 mchaney@princeton.edu.

Liberia’s “Integrity Idol:” Pursuing Goal 16 Through Public Awareness

Written by James Kiawoin and Sakari Ishetiar

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16: “To promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” (Source: UN SDG Icons)

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.

Case

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.

Ruins of the Ducour hotel, one of the most promising developments in Monrovia, which was destroyed due its strategic location during the civil war. (Source: Sakari Ishetiar, July 2018)

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.

Streets flood during rainy season in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, making it harder for citizens to hail a cab and get to work. (Source: Sakari Ishetiar, July 2018)

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.

Liberian citizens gather for a game of pickup football in a northern coastal village. (Source: Sakari Ishetiar, July 2018)

Moving forward

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).

Integrating Renewable Energy Part 2: Electricity Market & Policy Challenges

Written by Kasparas Spokas

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.

Wholesale energy market ISO/RTO locations (colored areas) and vertically-integrated utilities (tanned area). Source: https://isorto.org/

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.

Figure 2. Schematics of electricity supply stacks (a) before low natural gas prices, (b) after natural gas prices declined, (c) after renewable deployment.

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.

As traditional fossil-fuel power plants struggle to remain in operation, the development of new renewable energy continues to thrive. This development has been aided by both capital cost reductions and federal- and state-level policies that provide out-of-market economic benefits. To better achieve climate goals, some have argued that states need to write policies that align with wholesale market structures. Proposed mechanisms include in-market carbon pricing, such as a carbon tax or stronger cap-and-trade programs, and additional clean-energy markets. Until now however, political economy constraints have limited policies to weak cap-and-trade programs, investment and production tax credits, and renewable portfolio standards.

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.

Integrating Renewable Energy Part 1: Physical Challenges

Written by Kasparas Spokas

Meeting climate change mitigation targets will require rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, which is responsible for a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The prospect of electrifying other sectors, such as transportation, further underscores the necessity to reduce electricity emissions to meet climate goals. To address this, much attention and political capital have been spent on developing renewable energy technologies, such as wind or solar power. This is partly because recent reductions of the capital costs of these technologies and government incentives have made this strategy cost-effective. Another reason is simply that renewable energy technologies are popular. Today, news articles about falling renewable energy costs and increasing renewable mandates are not uncommon.

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.

Figure 1. Schematic of the physical elements of electricity systems. Source: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_delivery

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.

Figure 2. Left: North American Electric Reliability Corporation Interconnections. Right: Wholesale market areas (colored area) and vertically-integrated utilities areas (tanned area). Source: https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/NERC_Interconnection_1A.pdf & https://isorto.org/

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.

Figure 3. Maps of wind speed (left) and solar energy potential (right) in the U.S. Source: https://www.nrel.gov/

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.

Figure 4. Electricity demand and wind generation in Texas. The wind generation is scaled up to 100% of demand to emphasize possible supply-demand mismatches. Source: http://www.ercot.com/gridinfo/generation

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.

 

Figure 5. The original duck-curve presented by the California Independent System Operator. Source: http://www.caiso.com/

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.

Figure 6. Renewable curtailment (MWh) and cumulative solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power capacity in California from 2014 to 2018. Source: CAISO

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.

Sowing the Seeds of Environmental Justice in Trenton

Written by Laurel Mei-Singh

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

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.

Residential “security map” of Trenton, NJ with A-D “area descriptions” from the 1937 records of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. (Source: Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond)

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?

Depiction of Trenton, NJ drawn circa 1882. (Source: Industries of New Jersey by Richard Edwards)

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.

Mayor Carmen Armenti talking to Trenton residents after the riots of April 1968. (Source: Times of Trenton file photo)

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.

This year’s Trenton People’s Bookfair will focus on environmental justice and will be held on October 6, 2018.

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

 

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 meisingh@hawaii.edu.