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.

Evaluating the geoengineering treatment

Written by Xin Rong Chua

Might there be a remedy for the worldwide temperature and rainfall changes caused by humanity’s emissions? If so, what would the cure cost? We watch as Mr. Human grapples with these questions with the help of Dr. Planet.

Dr. Planet was about to put an end to a long, hard day of work when the distress call came in.

“Dr. Planet! Dr. Planet! Our planet Earth needs your help!”

Dr. Planet quickly boarded his medical spaceship and sped towards the solar system. As the ship passed through Earth’s atmosphere, his instruments began to gather the planet’s climate records. The temperature indicator began to blink red. Then the indicator for circulation changes in its atmosphere and oceans. Then the sea ice indicator.

The moment Mr. Human boarded his spaceship, Dr. Planet knew why the planet was ill.

Mr. Human was holding a long, black cigar labelled ‘Fossil Fuels’. It was still smoking at the tip. In front of him, the reading on his carbon dioxide indicator soared.

“I advise you to cut down on your emissions,” said Dr. Planet. “Otherwise, your planet will experience sea level rise, ocean acidification, and stronger storms.”

“We know that,” said Mr. Human. He sounded as if he had not slept for days. “We’ve known about it for decades. I was so excited after the Paris meeting, when the world first agreed on concrete pledges to cut down emissions. Then we did our sums and realized that even if every country fulfilled its promised reductions, global mean temperatures were still set to increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius come 2100. And then the United States announced that they would pull out of the agreement, which was…”

Mr. Human’s gaze fell as he trailed off. He then straightened and looked Dr. Planet in the eye. “Dr. Planet, you are a renowned planetary climate surgeon. Do you have a geoengineering treatment that might be able to cure our Earth?”

Mr. Human took out a few geoengineering brochures and laid them on Dr. Planet’s desk. They had been produced by the hospital’s marketing department.

Dr. Planet resolved to have a chat with the marketing department about a more moderate portrayal. He was getting tired of patients either believing that geoengineering was a panacea or cursing him for attempting to play God. In fact, the carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering tools he possessed only allowed for a limited range of outcomes. More importantly, all of the choices involved tradeoffs and risks. However, experience had taught him that it was best to begin by explaining the science.

Schematic depiction of climate engineering methods (Source: Climate Central)

Carbon dioxide removal

Dr. Planet picked up the first brochure. It was about Canadian entrepreneur Russ George, who in 2012  dumped a hundred tons of iron into the ocean to trigger a massive plankton bloom. There were record hauls of salmon right after the fertilization. George also pointed out that the plankton removed carbon dioxide from the air as they grew.

“It’s easy to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” began Dr. Planet. “The problem is keeping the carbon dioxide out. If the fish is harvested and used as food, the carbon makes its way back into the air. Also, when the plankton respire, or are eaten by organisms higher up the food chain, most of that carbon is released once again. In addition, the immediate phytoplankton growth triggered by fertilization robs the iron or phosphorous that might have been used by other organisms. If you are looking for a long-term solution, don’t get tricked into looking only at the initial gains.”

“Besides, iron fertilization can’t be the only solution. In the most optimistic scenarios, the bulk of the carbon uptake would be used to form the shells of marine organisms such as diatoms. Since the shells would eventually fall to the bottom of the ocean, there would be a net removal of carbon from the surface. But based on the availability of iron-deficient waters around your planet, I estimate that iron fertilization can sequester at most 10% of human annual emissions.”

“Our clinic also has some options to store carbon underground by pumping it into porous rock,” said Dr. Planet, taking a brochure from a nearby shelf and handing it over. “However, the technology is still experimental and expensive.”

Mr. Human brightened as he saw that this technology could store about 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. If humanity continued emitting at 2014 levels, this would lock up about 45 years of carbon dioxide emissions. When he came to the section on costs, his jaw dropped. “Double the cost of our existing power plants?” He took out his bulging wallet and removed a stack of bills. Dr. Planet wondered if Mr. Human considered this so cheap that he was willing to pay upfront.

Mr. Human waved the bills. “Look at all the IOUs! There is no way we can afford that cost. I’ll bet the aerosol plan is cheaper than that.”

Solar radiation management

Mr. Human pointed to a printout explaining how particles called aerosols could be placed high in the atmosphere. Choosing aerosols that reflected solar radiation would help cool the Earth’s surface.

Dr. Planet understood why Mr. Human liked the aerosol plan. It made sense to place the aerosols far above the surface. That way, it would take many months before the aerosols settled below the clouds, where rain could flush the particles from the air. Furthermore, after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, global-mean temperatures in the Northern hemisphere fell by half a degree Celsius. With such a natural analog in mind, it was no wonder that Mr. Human thought he knew what to expect. He even was correct on the costs. Starting from 2040, dedicating 6700 flights a day to sulfate injection would keep global-mean warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This would involve a mass of sulfates roughly similar to that of the Pinatubo eruption and would cost about $US20 billion per year.

Volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 (Source: USGS )

“It would be cheaper,” agreed Dr. Planet. “But tell me, is global mean surface temperature all you care about?”

“Of course not,” said Mr. Human. “Rainfall is important too. Also, I want to make sure we keep the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and reduce…”

“Then I should let you know that using aerosols means making a choice between overcorrecting for temperature or precipitation,” said Dr. Planet. He used the same serious tone a human doctor might use to explain that chemotherapy might remove the tumor, but would also cause you to vomit and lose all your hair.

Mr. Human folded his arms. He looked most unconvinced.

As Dr. Planet cast about for a good explanation, his eyes fell on Mr. Human’s wallet. It was still on the table and still full of the IOUs. He picked up a stack of name cards from his table.

“What if I asked you to place all of the cards into your wallet?”

Mr. Human frowned at the thick wad of paper. “I would have to remove some of my old receipts, or the wallet wouldn’t close.”

“Think of the Earth’s surface as the full wallet,” Dr. Planet said. “If we put in energy from increasing sunlight, your Earth has to throw out some energy. Because we’re trying to keep the temperature unchanged, the surface can’t radiate more longwave radiation by warming. It therefore has to transport heat, which mostly happens through evaporation. In the atmosphere, what comes up must come back down eventually, so increasing evaporation increases rainfall.”

“So, increasing radiation towards the surface increases rainfall,” said Mr. Human. “Don’t sunlight and carbon dioxide both do that?”

“They do,” said Dr. Planet. “But the atmosphere is mostly transparent to solar radiation and mostly opaque to longwave radiation from carbon dioxide. Energy entering via solar radiation thus has a stronger impact on the surface and rainfall. Hence, trying to correct for the change in temperature from carbon dioxide by stratospheric aerosols is expected to lead to an overcorrection in precipitation .”

Mr. Human was silent for a while, before he perked up. “Well, a slight change in the weather we’re used to isn’t that bad, especially if it avoids a worse outcome. Besides, you’ve only talked about the global-mean. With some fine-tuning, I’m sure we could come up with an aerosol distribution that delivers a good balance.”

“We have produced hypothetical simulations that investigate a range of outcomes. As a case in point, tests on a virtual Earth show that we can control the global-mean surface temperature, as well as the temperature differences between the North and South hemispheres and from the equator to pole. This was achieved by injecting sulfate aerosols at four different locations in a computer simulation.”

“However, given the lack of rigorous clinical trials on planets like your Earth, I must warn you that it will remain a highly uncertain procedure,” said Dr. Planet. “For one, we will encounter diminishing marginal returns as we attempt to increase the sulfate load to achieve cooling. The increased amount of sulfate in the atmosphere could form bigger particles that reflect sunlight less efficiently rather than create new ones.”

“The treatment procedure of sustaining the thousands of aerosol-injection flights will require the commitment and coordination of all the peoples of your planet. A disruption due to conflicts could be catastrophic. If the aerosol concentrations are not maintained, the decades’ worth of change from greenhouse gases that they are holding back would manifest in a couple of years. The change would be so sudden that there would be little time for you to adapt.”

Mr. Human paled. Countries might well balk at paying the geoengineering bill. After all, that was money that could go to feeding the poor or to reducing a budget deficit. A rogue country might threaten to disrupt the injections unless sanctions were lifted. Or a country that might benefit from warming could sabotage the flights…

“I think you already know what I’m about to say,” said Dr. Planet as Mr. Human buried his face in his hands. “There’s no magic pill here. There never has been. I can help perform some stopgap surgery by removing carbon dioxide or provide some symptomatic relief through solar radiation management. Ultimately, though, your species has to stop lighting up in the way it has.”

Mr. Human sighed; he had to deliver the sobering news that geoengineering was riskier and more complicated than his colleagues they had expected. As he rose from his chair, he realized that he was still holding his smoking carbon cigarette. The numbers on Dr. Planet’s carbon dioxide detector were still rising. He watched the readout as it went past 400ppm, then 410ppm. With a regretful sigh, he ground the lit end of his cigar into an ashtray and stepped out to continue the long journey ahead.

Acknowledgments: This article was inspired by a group discussion with Dr. Simone Tilmes at the 2017 Princeton Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Workshop on Climate Engineering. Katja Luxem and Ben Zhang read an early draft and helped improve the clarity of the article.

Xin is a PhD candidate in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, a collaboration between the Department of Geosciences and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. She combines high-resolution models and theory to better understand the changes in tropical rainfall extremes as the atmosphere warms. She is also interested in innovative approaches to science communication.

 

Pulp Non-fiction

Written by Timothy Treuer

A story (but careful, there’s a twist):

In 1998, the Costa Rican Sala Cuarta (their highest judicial body) issued a ruling against a company that had dumped 12,000 tonnes of waste orange peels in one of the country’s flagship protected areas, Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). The ruling came at the urging of some members of the Costa Rican environmental community, and studies had found elevated levels of d-limonene–a suspected carcinogen–in local waterways as a result of the company’s actions, raising tensions with neighboring Nicaragua over the possible pollution of their downstream eponymous lake. The court ruling demanded the immediate removal of the orange peels from where they lay–a site that some had labeled ‘an open air dump.’

A keen observer at the time would have noted one immediate hiccup with the court’s order: those 12,000 tonnes of orange waste? They didn’t exist anymore.

Six months of unfathomable ecstasy on the part of four species of flies had converted the mega pile o’ peels into several inches of black, loamy soil, smothering the invasive African grass that had previously dominated the heavily degraded corner of the national park. Oh, and d-limonene? Turns out it’s more of a cancer-fighter than a cancer-causer (See Asamoto et al. 2002 Mammary carcinomas induced in human c-Ha-ras proto-oncogene transgenic rats are estrogen-independent, but responsive to d-limonene treatment. Japanese Journal of Cancer Research), and can now be purchased on Amazon for $0.16/gram (note I do NOT endorse herbal supplements as a general rule–talk to your doctor if you or your transgenic rat suffer from mammary carcinomas).

See, the orange peel dumping was actually part of a grand plan hatched by rockstar ecologist turned conservationist, Dan Janzen (best known for his hit singles like ‘Herbivores and the Number of Tree Species in Tropical Forests’ and ‘Why Mountain Passes Are Higher in the Tropics’, but I prefer his deep tracks ‘How to be a fig’ and ‘Mice, big mammals, and seeds: it matters who defecates what where’). He and his partner Winnie Hallwachs had noted the following upon observing the development of a huge new orange juice processing facility on ACG’s northern border by a company called Del Oro: (1) most people don’t like peels in their orange juice, (2) megatonnes of orange peels probably weren’t the easiest thing to deal with on the cheap, and (3) of the 170,000+ species of creature in ACG’s forests, at least one probably would nosh some citrus rind. Upon discovering that Del Oro planned to construct a multi-million dollar plant to turn their waste into low-grade cattle feed, Dan and Winnie engineered the following plan:

  1. Dump orange peels on former cattle ranches recently incorporated into ACG.
  2. Fly orgy.
  3. Profit.

Amazingly this plan nearly worked perfectly! Del Oro was all over the idea of getting a little weird with ACG. After a promising test deposition of 100 truckloads of orange peels in 1996, Del Oro and ACG signed a contract wherein the park would provide waste disposal (and interestingly, formalized water provisioning and pest management ecosystem services that Del Oro enjoyed by virtue of being neighbors with a fat block of mountainous rain-, cloud- and dry forest) in exchange for donating a huge amount of still-forested land that they owned on the ACG border. Janzen threw in some ecological consultation and help in getting eco-friendly certifications as a sweetener. A seemingly beautiful win-win deal.

But of course, we can’t have nice things.

You may have already pieced together what happens next: after executing the first year of the contract wherein Del Oro trucked in ~12,000 metric tonnes of peels and pulp into a heavily degraded corner of ACG that was seemingly caught in a state of arrested succession, a rival orange juice company caught wind of the party, and did as one does when they get spurned by a guest list omission: they sued.

And won.

What seemed to get lost in the debates that raged at the time though, was what effect all these orange peels would have on the forest itself. Dan and Winnie had the intuition that killing off the fire-prone grass and adding nutrients to a plot of land that had been continuously trampled by bovid beasties for a couple hundred years would be a positive change for an aspiring forest, but that wasn’t a certainty.

In 1998, 1000 truckloads of orange peels were deposited in a degraded section of Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). (Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs)

After the fallout from the lawsuit and the court ruling, it’s understandable that Dan, Winnie, and ACG’s staff didn’t want to draw too much attention to the site (a couple of ACG officials nearly were thrown in jail for failing to adhere to the court order). They visited a few times early on to photograph the progress, and sent a botanist in the very early years to write down what species of plants were occurring in the fertilized area and the surrounding pasture, but other than that the project was more or less consigned to the quirky annals of ACG history (alongside such fascinating historical tidbits as a starring role in the Iran-Contra Affair–read the book Green Phoenix by Bill Allen for the full fascinating history of the park).

The reason I’m relating this story is that some collaborators and I started revisiting this site a few years ago, and we were so blown away by what we saw that we had to tell the world. The area where the orange peels had been? It had become just about the lushest forest I’d ever seen. Literally, vines on vines on vines. And the surrounding pasture? Still pretty much looked the same as in old photos.

In the summer of 2014, I set up Princeton senior thesis student Jon Choi ‘15 at the site, and let me just say, he scienced the crap out of it. We set up some vegetation transects and developed a soil sampling regime, and then he went full Tasmanian Devil in a labcoat. We’re talking camera traps, audio recorders, pitfall traps, and theoretical modelling of ecological state transitions–the whole nine meters. It truly impresses me that he managed to say so much about what ultimately boils down to a very simple observation: orange peels jump-started forest recovery–where there would otherwise be a stunted savanna, there’s now forest so thick you literally have to hack your way through with a machete.

Images from early 2014 of the unfertilized, control site (left) and the site that had been fertilized with orange peels in the 1990s (right). (Photos courtesy of Timothy Treuer)

After a few years of trying to distill this work into something palatable to reviewers, journal editors, and our team of co-authors, we are proud to finally drop our LP: ‘Low-cost agricultural waste accelerates tropical forest regeneration,’ available exclusively from Restoration Ecology.

In all seriousness, I really do believe there’s an incredibly exciting idea at the core of this project: it wasn’t just a win-win initiative. It was win-win-WIN. Carbon was sucked out of the atmosphere, biodiversity was increased, and soil quality improved. All FOR A PROFIT! Despite this, we couldn’t find a single other example of ag waste being used to speed forest recovery. We hope that changes. The world really shouldn’t contain both nutrient-starved degraded lands and nutrient-rich waste streams.

Tim is a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology studying large-scale tropical forest restoration. More broadly, he is interested in the effective communication of and policy solutions to complex environmental challenges in an era of global change. He’s on Twitter (@treuer) and tumblr (treuer.tumblr.com).

Carbon Capture and Sequestration: A key player in the climate fight

Written by Kasparas Spokas and Ryan Edwards

The world faces an urgent need to drastically reduce climate-warming CO2 emissions. At the same time, however, reliance on the fossil fuels that produce CO2 emissions appears inevitable for the foreseeable future. One existing technology enables fossil fuel use without emissions: Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). Instead of allowing CO2 emissions to freely enter the atmosphere, CCS captures emissions at the source and disposes of them at a long-term storage site. CCS is what makes “clean coal” – the only low-carbon technology promoted in President Donald Trump’s new Energy Plan – possible. The debate around the role of CCS in our energy future often includes questions such as: why do we need CCS? Can’t we simply replace fossil fuels with renewables? Where can we store CO2? Is storage safe? Is the technology affordable and available?

Source: https://saferenvironment.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/coal-fired-power-plants-and-pollution/

The global climate-energy problem

The Paris Agreement called the globe to action: limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. To reach this goal, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by at least 50% in the next 40 years and reach zero later this century (see Figure 1). This is a challenging task, especially since global emissions continue to increase, and existing operating fossil fuel wells and mines contain more than enough carbon to exceed the emissions budget set by the 2°C target.

Fossil fuels are abundant, cheap, and flexible. They currently fuel around 80% of the global energy supply and create 65% of greenhouse gas emissions. While renewable energy production from wind and solar has grown rapidly in recent years, these sources still account for less than 2.1% of global energy supply. Wind and solar also face challenges in replacing fossil fuels, such as cost and intermittency, and cannot replace all fossil fuel-dependent processes. The other major low-carbon energy sources, nuclear and hydropower, face physical, economic, and political constraints that make major expansion unlikely. Thus, we find ourselves in a dilemma: fossil fuels will likely remain integral to our energy supply for the foreseeable future.

Figure 1: Global CO2 emissions (billion tonnes of CO2 per year): historical emissions, the emission pathway implied by the current Paris Agreement pledges, and a 2°C emissions pathway (RCP2.6) (Sources: IIASA & CDIAC; MIT & UNFCCC; IIASA)

CO2 storage and its role in the energy transition

CCS captures CO2 emissions from industrial sources (e.g. electric power plants) and transports them, usually by pipeline, to long-term storage sites. The ideal places for CO2 sequestration are porous rock formations more than half a mile below the surface. (Target rocks are filled with water, but don’t worry, it’s saltwater, not freshwater!) Chosen formations are overlain, or “capped,” by impermeable caprocks that do not allow fluid to flow through them. The caprocks effectively trap buoyant CO2 in the target rocks (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Diagram of a typical geological CO2 storage site (Source: Global CCS Institute)

Scientists estimate that suitable rock formations have the potential to store more than 1,600 billion tonnes of CO2. This amounts to 70 years of storage for current global emissions from capturable sources (which are 50% of all emissions). Large-scale CCS could serve as a “bridge,” buying time for carbon-free energy technologies to develop to the stage where they are economically and technically ready to replace fossil fuels. CCS could even help us increase the amount of intermittent renewable energy by providing a flexible and secure “back-up” with low emissions. Bioenergy combined with CCS (BECCS) can also deliver “negative emissions” that may be needed to stabilize the climate. Furthermore, industrial processes such as steel, cement, and fertilizer production have significant CO2 emissions and few options besides CCS to reduce them.

In short, CCS is a crucial tool for mitigating the worst effects of global warming while minimizing disruption to our existing energy infrastructure and buying time for renewables to improve. Most proposed global pathways to achieve our targets include large-scale CCS, and the United States’ recently released 2050 decarbonization strategy includes CCS as a key component.

While our summary makes CCS seem like an obvious technology to implement, important questions about safety, affordability, and availability remain.

 

Is CCS Safe?

For CCS to contribute substantially to global emissions reduction, huge amounts of emissions must be stored underground for hundreds to thousands of years. That’s a long time, which means the storage must be very secure. Some worry that CO2 might leak upward through caprock formations and infiltrate aquifers or escape to the atmosphere.

But evidence shows that CO2 can be safely and securely stored underground. For example, the Sleipner project has injected almost 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year under the North Sea for the past 20 years. (For scale, that’s roughly a quarter of the emissions from a large coal power plant.) The oil industry injects even larger amounts of CO2 approximately 20 million tonnes per year – into various geological formations in the United States without issue in enhanced oil recovery operations to increase oil production. Indeed, the oil and gas deposits we currently exploit demonstrate how buoyant fluids (like CO2) can be securely stored in the subsurface for a very long time.

Still, there are risks and uncertainties. Trial CO2 injections operate at much lower rates than will be needed to meet our climate targets. Higher injection rates require pressure management to prevent the caprock from fracturing and, consequently, the CO2 from leaking. The CO2 injection wells and any nearby oil and gas wells also present possible leakage pathways from the subsurface to the atmosphere (although studies suggest this is likely to be negligible). Leading practices in design and maintenance can minimize well leakage risks.

Subsurface CO2 storage has risks, but experience suggests the risks can be mitigated. So, if CCS has such promise for addressing our climate-energy problem, why has it not been widely implemented?

 

The current state of CCS

CCS development has lagged, and deployment remains far from the scale required to meet our climate targets. Only a handful of projects have been built over the past decade. Why? High costs and a lack of economic incentives.

Adding CCS to coal and gas-fired electricity generation plants has large costs (approximately doubling the upfront cost of a new plant using current technology). Greenhouse gases are free (or cheap) to emit in most of the world, which means emitters have no reason to make large investments to capture and store their emissions. In order to incentivize industry to invest in CCS, we would need to implement a strong carbon price, which is politically unpopular in many countries. (There are exceptions – Norway’s carbon tax incentivized the Sleipner project.) In the United States, the main existing economic incentive for capturing CO2 is for enhanced oil recovery operations. However, the demand for CO2 from these operations is relatively small, geographically localized, and fluctuates with the oil price.

Inconsistent and insufficient government policies have thwarted significant development of CCS (the prime example being the UK government’s last-minute cancellation of CCS funding). Another challenge will be ownership and liability of injected CO2. Storage must be guaranteed for long timeframes. Government regulations clarifying liability, long-term responsibility for stored CO2, and monitoring and verification measures will be required to satisfy investors.

 

The future of CCS

The ambitious target of the Paris Agreement will require huge cuts in CO2 emissions in the coming decades. The targets are achievable, but probably not without CCS. Thus, incentives must increase, and costs must decrease, for CCS to be employed on a large scale.

As with most new technologies, CCS costs will decrease as more projects are built. For example, the Petra Nova coal plant retrofit near Houston, a commercial CCS project for enhanced oil recovery that was recently completed on time and on budget, is promising for future success. New technologies also have great potential: a pilot natural gas electricity generation technology promises to capture CO2 emissions at no additional cost. A technology that could capture CO2 from power plant emissions while also generating additional electricity is also in the works.

Despite its current troubles, CCS is an important part of solving our energy and climate problem. The recent United States election has created much uncertainty about future climate policy, but CCS is one technology that could gain support from the new administration. In July 2016, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to support CCS development. If passed, this bill would satisfy Republican goals to support the future of fossil fuel industries while helping the United States achieve its climate goals. Strong and stable supporting policies must be enacted by Congress – and governments around the world – to help CCS play its key role in the climate fight.

 

Kasparas Spokas is a Ph.D. candidate in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at Princeton University studying carbon storage and enhanced oil recovery environments. More broadly, he is interested in studying the challenges of developing low-carbon energy systems from a techno-economic perspective. Follow him on Twitter @KSpokas

 

Ryan Edwards is a 5th year PhD candidate in Princeton’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. His research focuses on questions related to geological carbon storage, hydraulic fracturing, and shale gas. He is interested in finding technical and policy solutions to the energy-climate problem. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwjedwards.

The Case for Historic Buildings: Lessons on balancing human development and sustainability

Written by Isabel Morris

We need quality buildings to safely house our schools, hospitals, offices, and our homes. We also live in a world with limited resources for constructing and operating new buildings, which means we need buildings that are sustainable and resilient in addition to being safe and functional.

Most cities facing this challenge are full of underutilized historic buildings and sites with cultural, social, economic, and technological value. These historic places are precisely the solution required in growing cities, and they have surprising economic and environmental benefits.

Newly opened 20 Washington Rd on Princeton University’s campus: adaptive reuse of existing buildings in the Social Sciences neighborhood. (Source: Author)

Since the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s Report, “Our Common Future,” sustainability has been defined as the ability to meet the world’s current needs without compromising our ability to meet them in the future. This sustainable development, in construction and civil engineering, manifests itself in the environments we build and inhabit: cities. Here, perhaps especially, it is important to balance a building’s quality of life improvements with its environmental and social consequences. From “mega tall” skyscrapers, to slums, to the infrastructure that connects them, cities can be catalysts for economic opportunity, industry, and innovative constructions. Historic buildings are a tangible recording of a city’s story and can teach us not only about our history and culture, but also about sustainability.

Some historic buildings: 7th St and Indiana Ave, NW in Washington DC, Rome’s Colosseum, the Roman Via Appia, and Romania’s Sarmizegetusa Regia. (Source: Author)

As catalyzing drivers of development, cities seem to be in direct opposition with historic structures. Cities need buildings that are safe, resilient, efficient, and accessible…but how? What happens to old buildings that stand in the way of new projects? How do we measure and balance the value of historic buildings with the value of progress and modern sustainable building practices? The momentum of development and emerging green technologies drive cities to build for the future. At first glance, run down historic buildings without some modern features (like adequate steel reinforcement or airtight window frames) seem to stand in the way of city and human development, where it is much easier to opt for cheaper, faster, and larger buildings than investing in an existing building.

Why consider historic structures? Historic buildings can be buildings of any style, construction method, period, or function; important historical sites in the US range from the sites of the 1969 Stonewall uprising to 12th century Acoma Pueblo. Most of the world’s historic buildings and sites are protected by legislation and active conservation organizations, which recognize the invaluable artistic, historical, social, and scientific importance of these places. In addition to these less tangible values, heritage structures have a proven record of longevity and resilience in the face of two millennia (or more) of natural and anthropogenic hazards. Historic buildings are fascinating because they function as both sociocultural bulwarks and priceless repositories of technological advancements. Many of the world’s historic sites are “good” buildings that can teach us important lessons about sustainability and building construction.

By “good” buildings, we can mean a variety of things. In the most basic sense, a good building is one that physically serves its purpose (i.e., to physically encompass and support a hospital). From different perspectives, “good” collects more qualifications: the building’s function must be fulfilled attractively, efficiently, reliably, safely, and/or inclusively. Good buildings become even better when they serve their purpose and carry additional features, like full ADA accessibility, cultural significance, or LEED green building credits. Ideally, sustainable buildings and good buildings are the same. In reality, though, issues like short-term (rather than long-term) economic thinking can deepen the divide between “good” functional buildings and holistically good (and sustainable) buildings.

I argue that sustainable development can embrace the lessons and presence of historic buildings with positive environmental, social, and economic implications of historic buildings. In other words, why the best development solution is not destroying and replacing a historic building with a new and perhaps exemplary green building.

The UN’s 11th Sustainable Development Goal deals directly with the challenges facing cities (see also SDG 11 and SD: Cities). In recognizing the combination of exploding of urban populations (according to the Population Reference Bureau, 70% of the world population will be urban by 2050), and the humanistic value of heritage buildings and sites, the goal reads:

Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, including “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

These four hallmarks (inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable) can be used to understand the various arguments in support of conservation and reuse of historic buildings.

There is a large body of work establishing the connections between heritage sites and humanity’s collective memory, or shared identity (see, for instance, a search of “collective memory” in the ICOMOS publications, or on Google Scholar). By definition, collective memory is an inclusive phenomenon. Historical sites are physical witnesses to shared heritage in the history and places that bind us together as humans. Our own stories can be shared and understood through physical places and spaces. Less abstractly, the acts of preservation, from documentation to regular maintenance, necessarily employ and involve entire communities (as in proven asset-based community development initiatives). ICOMOS guidelines exist for a project’s community engagement: for example, the Getty Conservation Institute recently completed a project on the participatory conservation of the Kasbah of Taourirt that relied on developing and utilizing local capacity in repair, technology, and documentation. Since heritage sites are rarely privately owned, we are all stakeholders of these resources and involved in decision making and use of these sites.

Safe

Vacant buildings are unsafe, and in many cities those vacant building are also historic. The correlation between increased crime and number of vacant properties has been established in the US. In fact, by using buildings that already exist within cities and reducing rates of vacancy in a city, historic buildings can both make cities safer and counteract urban sprawl (for example, see this excellent post on Sense and Sustainability). Safe cities, therefore, can be cities that embrace the potential and intrinsic value of their heritage buildings.

Resilient

In an age of urgent demand for resilient cities that can respond to increasing natural and man-made hazards (for example, rising earthquake, flooding, and fire risks in Seattle), we can learn invaluable lessons from heritage buildings that remain standing after 200, 300, 1500, 2000, or even 3200 years. The fact that these buildings have withstood assault on every front and remain stable speaks not only to the ingenuity of ancient builders but also to the resilience of these structures. Some ancient constructions intentionally dissipate earthquake loadings better than some modern buildings: compare the stacked drum columns of seismically active Greece to the monolithic columns of less-seismically active Rome. Because of their inherent resiliency, historic buildings do not necessarily require retrofitting and structural modification; like all buildings, historic buildings depend on regular maintenance for their longevity. Structurally safe and resilient historic buildings, with regular maintenance, can be more sustainable than new construction by eliminating the energy and waste involved in construction, use, and demolition of an entirely new building.

Sustainable

“Historic buildings are inherently sustainable.” So begins the Whole Building Design Guide, a knowledge portal for practitioners published by the National Institute of Building Sciences. The greatest advantage for historical buildings in the service of balancing sustainability and human development is, in fact, their inherent sustainability. These buildings can be adapted to a variety of new uses, whether the project is commercial, residential, or for public use. Not only does adaptive reuse of an existing historic building eliminate construction of a new building, it also eliminates accompanying construction and demolition waste. It is certainly important to consider the holistic energy use of buildings, from extraction, manufacturing, transport, and assembly of the materials in a building; to energy used by a building over its lifetime; to the demolition and disposal of its rubble. Recent life-cycle analysis (LCA) studies by the Preservation Green Lab compare similarly sized and used historic buildings to new construction options, concluding that most historic buildings can be reused with fewer environmental impacts than new “green” construction. Because they were constructed before interior climate control technology was developed, they are often equipped with efficient features instead. These include thick walls with optimal overhangs that trap winter heat during the day and release it at night and whose thermal mass helps the interior stay cool during summer months. Adaptive reuse of these structures can result in creative solutions, like Queen’s Quay and other projects in Toronto, that improve the sustainability and overall experience of a city. In looking at the “total energy” of buildings, in many cases the greenest building is one that is already built; embracing and using heritage buildings can be one of the best ways to make them sustainable.

Sustainable development for urban people and places naturally includes and necessitates preservation of our heritage sites. Furthermore, environmental steps toward sustainability simultaneously preserve both human and environmental health. This has a positive effect on our built heritage, reducing degradation mechanisms and threats to these sites, while improving environmental and social factors affecting our health.

Human development and sustainability, especially in an urban context, are balanced in the conservation and reuse of heritage sites. Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for 40% of the energy and 60% of the electricity used globally. Measures to increase building’s sustainability are in both the interest of human development and sustainable use of the world’s resources. In using a historic building, its lessons and embodied values can be preserved for future generations. The conservation of a city’s heritage sites is the conservation of humanity.


Isabel Morris is a 2nd year Civil Engineering PhD student in the Historic Structures Program. Her research is focused on using non-destructive methods, especially ground penetrating radar, to characterize materials for better conservation efforts around the world.

An Apple a Day: Easier said than done

Written by Prof. Fernanda Márquez-Padilla

A few months ago, I pulled a muscle doing yoga and started going to physical therapy on a weekly basis soon after. I was supposed to do a 5-minute routine every day, and my discipline at doing so was mediocre at best. It wasn’t particularly hard, or painful, but still: it was so much easier to not do it.

At the same time, I was starting a research project on hypertensive patients’ behavior with respect to taking their medications as prescribed by their doctors (known in the medical literature as medication adherence), and had been reading about how people tend to be bad at doing so (with non-adherence considered “a worldwide problem of striking magnitude” by the WHO). “It doesn’t make much sense”, I remember thinking. Proper adherence to heart medication has been found to increase life expectancy, and significantly reduce the probability of negative health outcomes such as heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular hospitalizations. And it’s “just” taking pills. Why don’t patients adhere? Then it hit me. I’m one of them: I’m terrible at adhering.

An important issue for health economics focuses on how to modify patients’ behavior. How can we motivate patients to engage in healthy conducts? Patient behavior has been found to be key for keeping individuals healthy. Improving patients’ medication adherence has great potential to reduce the costs of healthcare—especially for chronic patients who must often take specific medications for extended periods in order to manage their condition. However, modifying individuals’ behavior has been proven to be a challenging task, despite its positive implications for health outcomes and cost reductions.

A recent policy in Mexico undertaken by its largest public health provider, the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS), created an interesting setup that unintentionally incentivized patients to improve their health behaviors—in this case, their medication adherence. The Receta Resurtible policy decreased the frequency with which hypertensive patients (i.e., high blood pressure) needed to see their physician and renew prescriptions, as long as their blood pressure remained stable and they were not late for renewing their prescriptions. In the new regime, patients could see their doctor every 90 days (as opposed to every 30). The policy’s main goal was to increase efficiency by eliminating arguably unnecessary check-ups from relatively stable chronic patients in order to free up clinic space and physicians’ time.

Waiting room at an IMSS Hospital. Source: paginabierta.mx

Now, why would this be an incentive for people to improve their health behavior? The key insight is that while consuming healthcare is a benefit for patients, it can also be time consuming and costly. Therefore, allowing chronic patients—who must be checked-up constantly—to go less often to see their doctor could actually be a type of “reward” that may be used to improve patient behavior. We may think of this as children being incentivized to study harder in order to avoid summer school.

In my research, I find that patients on the 90-day regime improved their medication taking behavior considerably. The number of days that they are out of medication between prescription fillings fell by 2.6 days in response to the policy (from a baseline of around 7.5 days). This is an improvement of 35%, comparable to the effects of other interventions for improving medication adherence, such as educational interventions or sending reminders to patients. My estimates suggest that patients improve their adherence as the total cost of getting their medication, which includes the non-monetary cost of actually renewing a prescription, falls. More interestingly, they further improve their behavior to be allowed to remain on the 90-day regime since they value its convenience. I was able to empirically test this thanks to great data from IMSS administrative records and a unique policy design.

Additionally, I find that patients’ health remained stable in spite of meeting with their physician less frequently. This point is particularly interesting for health policy, where the allocation of scarce medical resources should be done as efficiently as possible. Much debate has revolved around some prominent policies that seek to reallocate inputs for the production of health, such as reducing the frequency of certain procedures (i.e., consider the ongoing debate about the recommended frequency of mammograms) or allowing nurse practitioners to prescribe controlled medications. The value of these policies lies in the extent to which they can reduce the costs of providing healthcare, while not generating additional costs in terms of patients’ health or general wellbeing. In this sense, the Receta Resurtible policy appears to have increased efficiency by reducing how often patients should attend doctor’s appointments without harming their health.

I draw several general lessons on how to affect patients’ behavior from studying IMSS’s change in the frequency of prescription renewals. First, it is important to acknowledge that patients have a hard time adhering, and that sticking to a treatment is generally costly. Second, that in order to design the correct interventions to improve medication adherence, it is important to understand all the costs and benefits that patients face for engaging in any type of health behavior, and that these costs and benefits can be both monetary and non-monetary (such as the time and effort required to renew a prescription). Third, that incentives can come in the form of “getting out of something”—in this case, getting out of 8 check-ups per year. In a way, the policy created an additional benefit for improving medication adherence: the possibility of staying on the 90-day regime. This type of policy instrument may be useful to modify individuals’ behavior in other settings, and its design is particularly interesting as this type of incentive can be cost efficient and welfare improving: in this case, providing less healthcare is not only more efficient but it makes patients behave better as well, while keeping their health stable.

Perhaps next time I’ll be better at following my doctor’s suggested treatment!

 

Fernanda Márquez-Padilla holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University and is Assistant Professor at CIDE in Mexico City. Her research interests lie in the intersection of health and development economics, and is particularly interested in understanding patient behavior. She has worked as a consultant for the World Bank and RAND Corporation, worked for the Mexican Ministry of Finance, and has conducted research at Banco de México.

 

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: Towards universal healthcare

Written By Arvind Ravikumar

The third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG3), as adopted in the 2015 UN General Assembly meeting, strives to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” by 2030. There are nine targets specified under this goal that can be broadly classified into four categories: (1) decreasing maternal and child mortality, (2) reducing the incidence of diseases, (3) reducing human-caused mortality including substance abuse and road-traffic incidents, and (4) expanding access to affordable health care. Compared to prior efforts, SDG3 provides renewed focus on issues like substance abuse, mental health and affordable health-care for all – issues that affect the developed world as much as the developing world. The SDG3 builds on and expands the health-focused millennium development goals that were adopted in 2000. Indeed, the world community has made significant progress in reducing child mortality, maternal mortality, access to reproductive health, and reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. However, many of these reductions are far from the targets established in the MDGs – for example, maternal mortality has reduced from 386 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to about 216 in 2015, significant but far short of the target of 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. More importantly, progress has been uneven, especially across the poorest and the most disadvantages populations in the world.

mmr

Worldwide maternal mortality rate: Number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births (Source: Wikipedia)

Progress toward any of these goals is only as good as the monitoring mechanisms in place. In this context, the SDGs differ markedly from the last decade’s MDGs because of the development of sustainable development goal indicators – these ‘indicators’ refer to various statistical health data that track progress and keep various countries accountable. A thorough global database on these specific indicators and other metrics is already available. And that highlights one of the major problems in all global development goals – the lack of institutional support and robust data collection from many regions (especially in parts of Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa) hinders any attempt to track progress. Lessons from other global governing bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) could help – one way would be to develop regional expertise within the UN to help developing countries better monitor their efforts.

This goal to improve health outcomes through specific and measurable targets might make the issue seem tractable. However there are important challenges in the years ahead that are exacerbated by globalization and improved mobility. For example, road-accident related fatalities have been increasing in the developing world because of economic development. Record numbers in global mobility will simultaneously increase the risk of spawning epidemics like Ebola or Zika, which would demand a robust and rapid global response to contain its spread. The rapid urbanization in developing countries like China and India will further strain urban infrastructure – without massive investments, urban pockets are in danger of becoming hot beds for water-borne and other communicable diseases. And finally, the recent uptick in global conflicts has resulted in over 60 million people being displaced – a number not last seen since World War II. Any global effort to improve health-care will need to be coordinated with other goals that directly affect health outcomes.

While there are many targeted policies that will directly influence healthcare and wellbeing, it would be naïve to assume that improving global health standards is not dependent on progress across many of the other SDGs. For example, access to clean water and improved sanitation (SDG #6), especially in rapidly developing urban areas in Asia and Africa, can significantly reduce the incidence of many communicable diseases. A growing body of research also show that the physical and social environment (SDG #11) can influence the life expectancy at birth – such stark differences can even be seen in the developed world. Recent experiences in reducing the prevalence of AIDS or improving access to reproductive health-care have shown how unequal progress has been – big gaps exist between the poorest and the richest households, between men and women, and between rural and urban regions. Progress even in regional health outcomes would be strongly tied to success in reducing inequalities (SDG #5, #10) and increasing girls’ educational attainment (SDG #4).

Ultimately, the biggest test for the success of any of these programs comes in the form of investments required – capital to the tune of trillions of dollars will have to be mobilized over the next 15 years, largely through public finance and aid. Recent rounds of talks have ended without any concrete commitments in the part of the developed nations. It is not yet clear if equitable mechanisms to fund massive improvements in infrastructure and health-care initiatives across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia will be available.

 


Profile

Arvind graduated with a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University in 2015 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University. His professional interests currently lie at the intersection of energy, climate change and policy. Arvind is an Associate Editor at Highwire Earth. Follow him on Twitter @arvindpawan1.