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On the Environment
Environmental Performance Measurement

Friday, December 19, 2014
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Q&A with New Urban Research Fellow

By Susanne Stahl

The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy is pleased to introduce Alisa Zomer as its inaugural Urban Research Fellow.

Alisa is a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) where she studied urban sustainability with a particular focus on governance and climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities. Prior to Yale, she worked at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, on issues related to access to information, participation, and justice in environmental decision-making.

She joined the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) team after graduation and is working on a number of projects, including a review of urban sustainability metrics, a sub-national environmental performance index for Viet Nam, and a civic science colloquium.


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YCELP: Your work has focused primarily on environmental governance, and you've worked on a number of issues from extractive resources to rights-based environmental approaches. How did you come to focus on urban sustainability?

Alisa: Right now the environmental movement has a fetish for cities. Cities are being branded as the biggest challenges for environmental degradation and also the biggest opportunities to promote sustainable development, and even mitigate climate change. Current obsession with sustainable cities aside, my interest in cities goes back and is closely wrapped up with issues of justice (or injustice) related to driving forces of urban change and demographic shifts.

Two specific examples come to mind: 1) redlining and blockbusting in the early nineteenth century, and 2) school bussing programs that came out of the civil rights movement. The former a discriminatory practice and driver of segregation; and, the latter a band-aid approach to addressing historical inequities. I grew up outside Boston where both these practices are part of the urban fabric and history of the city. My mother recalls my grandfather taking her to Dorchester to witness the poor state of inner-city schools and demonstrate for civil rights – it was the same neighborhood in Boston where my grandfather, the son of immigrants, grew up.

It is these complex narratives of urban change and inequity linked to my family history that piqued my interest in cities. The “environmental” part came later when I learned about resource rights and governance from incredible mentors (Filipina, Jamaican, Sri Lankan) at the World Resources Institute. Applying an environmental lens to look at justice and governance in cities was a natural intersection of my past and present.   

YCELP: What are the key considerations in developing — and implementing — next generation frameworks and indicators?

Alisa: Much of the urban sustainability movement is driven by top-down processes, either through mayors or international actors. A key consideration is how to meaningfully involve urban inhabitants in decision-making. We know that how people live in cities – their consumption and travel patterns –impacts resource use well beyond city borders. One emerging approach is using civic (or citizen) science to engage and empower city dwellers in urban planning decisions. Information technology communication along with low-cost environmental sensors allow people to take a direct role in monitoring environmental quality in their cities – such as air, water, waste, and even traffic. I’m working now to see how crowd-sourced data in cities engage city inhabitants and impact environmental policy.

Developing indicators and tools to promote good urban governance, is likely the biggest challenge to long-term urban sustainability planning. This is because governance is hard to measure and harder to change. That said, people en masse are taking to city streets around the world (Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, New York to name a few) calling for change, so there is a real opportunity to develop ways to channel that energy for improving the quality of life in cities.      

YCELP: Of the places you've traveled and lived, what features stand out as essential to a sustainable city?

Alisa: Transportation makes or breaks a city, both in terms of sustainability and livability. Last spring I traveled to Medellin, Colombia, for the World Urban Forum and got to ride the metrocable, which has literally transformed the city – a single trip up to the hillside neighborhoods now takes 30 minutes instead of 2.5 hours by bus. At first the city’s transformation appears to be a well-glossed party line, but informal conversations with people on the street proved that the changes are real and deep. Making sure urban inhabitants, especially the poor, have safe, sustainable transport that is reasonably priced and timely is essential to the long-term sustainability of any city.  

YCELP: There is often a disconnect between science and policy, but your work has you navigating both. How can we improve communication between scientists and policymakers?

Alisa: Communication is important, but understanding how power dynamics and institutional structures influence decision-making is paramount. For example, even the most proactive mayor championing urban sustainability is still restricted by election cycles and term limits. This is one reason I’m excited to work with the EPI team to see how we can best bring together environmental data and political realities. Fortunately, the EPI has an amazing team of designers, programmers, researchers, and writers to make the data come to life, so these key environmental issues can reach a broader audience.  

YCELP: As a recent graduate from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), what advice would you give to students interested in environmental policy?

Alisa: The environmental community tends to cluster together like-minded thinkers, but to actually take on super wicked environmental problems, we need to think beyond the environment. Recently Gus Speth questioned us “What is an environmental issue? It should be anything that has an impact on the environment.” Which is basically everything.

At Yale, the classes I took at the law school and school of architecture helped me to think about cities and policy from different viewpoints. My advice is to go beyond the environment and redefine the boundaries of how humans impact natural systems and vice versa. Justice issues, as demonstrated by the Peoples Climate March, will be the crux of building the future “environmental” movement and the most important allies will be people that you have yet to meet.  

Contact Alisa (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) and follow her on twitter @azomer.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Friday, November 22, 2013
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Down the Drain—Water Metering in the Home

By Guest Author, Rachel Lipstein, Yale College '15

Superstorms and costal flooding may grab headlines, but water scarcity is emerging as our most immediate environmental concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent assessment highlights the increasing risk of water scarcity in this age of climate extremes and skyrocketing populations. Another recent study finds that if, by the end of the century, 500 million people are subjected to water scarcity, it will be the result of an optimistic warming scenario. Even now, the droughts plaguing many of the world’s most arid regions—including parts of western United States—are contributing to economic fragility and social unrest.

Water meters, small devices that track water usage, could play a key role in helping people understand the reality of water as a limited resource. Because they allow utilities to bill by volume, meters encourage customers to conserve—often with dramatic results. In this series, we will examine metering's effect on water consumption, its intersection with cultural norms and individual rights, and its impact on communities.The first installment highlighted water metering policy in Chile.

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In 2009, only 55 percent of the homes in California’s San Joaquin Valley had water meters installed. That low percentage was not the result of a naturally slow adoption process. It was a result of aggressive resistance to the devices, which were billed as “taxing machines.”[1] When the city of Fresno, in the heart of the arid valley, attempted to install 8,000 meters in a pilot program, a group of taxpayers fought fiercely and successfully to amend the city charter, banning residential meters.

The United States isn’t the only developed country with popular opposition to metering. In southern England a renewed compulsory metering drive has been met with indignation. Some customers claim that volumetric pricing is a tax on children, as larger families might now pay more.[2] Financial concerns are colored by a popular distrust of England’s private utility companies. In the past decade, water prices have increased 84 percent, while the utilities profits have jumped up to 200 percent.[3]

With correct regulation, however, residential metering encourages individual conservation. When coupled with grace period and gradual price increases, metering can be rolled out fairly. In Denmark, the transition to residential metering and volumetric billing were correlated with a 12.6-percent decrease in consumption between 1996 and 2007.[4]

Metering also improves equity. When customers pay by volume, the implicit subsidy that high-volume users receive at the expense of low-volume users is eliminated. Although most residences in the United States are metered, regulations differ by state and even by district. Water is not always billed volumetrically. Many meters are never even read.

In the past, Fresno utilities charged a flat rate regardless of usage. For a city that averaged just under 290 gallons per person per day—almost triple the national average of 100 gallons—this was a problem.[5] In light of diminishing aquifer levels and excessive usage, the California legislature mandated that any city drawing from federal dams install water meters by 2013.[6]

Today, Fresno is almost completely metered, and the results have been positive. Patrick Weimiller, Fresno’s director of Public Works, told local news affiliate KFSN that he has already seen a reduction in usage. “Our actual numbers are showing we're about 17 percent below where we were with the fixed rate, with some room to grow.”[7]

This post is the second in a series on water metering. The next installment will look at agricultural metering in the United States.


[7] http://abclocal.go.com/kfsn/story?section=news/local&id=8934000

Rachel Lipstein is a junior at Yale College majoring in English major with a concentration in Writing. She is interested in sustainable agriculture and enjoys spending time on farms. Previously, she worked on the 108-foot sloop, Clearwater, which is dedicated to protecting the Hudson River through education, advocacy, and celebration.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
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Introduction to Metering: Spotlight on Chile

By Guest Author, Rachel Lipstein, Yale College '15

Superstorms and costal flooding may grab headlines, but water scarcity is emerging as our most immediate environmental concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent assessment highlights the increasing risk of water scarcity in this age of climate extremes and skyrocketing populations. Another recent study finds that if, by the end of the century, 500 million people are subjected to water scarcity, it will be the result of an optimistic warming scenario. Even now, the droughts plaguing many of the world’s most arid regions—including parts of western United States—are contributing to economic fragility and social unrest.

Water meters, small devices that track water usage, could play a key role in helping people understand the reality of water as a limited resource. Because they allow utilities to bill by volume, meters encourage customers to conserve—often with dramatic results. In the upcoming series, we will examine metering's effect on water consumption, its intersection with cultural norms and individual rights, and its impact on communities. 

***

In urban areas of Chile, people know exactly how much water they use. The country’s regulatory agency pegged average usage in 2009 at 44.9 gallons per capita per day, nearly half the United States’ average consumption. They know with such a high degree of certainty because 96 percent of households across the country—100 percent in urban areas—have water meters, small devices that track consumption. Meters allow for volumetric billing, charging consumers for the water they actually use, which encourages them to pay attention to how long they run the tap.

Outside of Chile, where meters are sparse or nonexistent, households pay for water at a flat rate, which encourages users to ignore how long they run the tap. With flat rates, lower-volume users subsidize higher-volume users, and neither has an incentive to curb consumption.

Urban Chileans pay for water by the cubic meter. The more they use, the more they pay. Poor Chileans are protected by a direct subsidy that has money going directly into citizens’ pockets to help pay the bills. To maintain fairness and equity, and to ensure that utilities charge a fair rate, tariffs are set by an independent regulatory body.

Despite success stories like the one in Chile, many countries have been slow to accept meters. Chile has a remarkable degree of meter coverage, particularly for Latin America (according to the World Bank). For the sake of comparison, Ireland hovers just above 0 percent. For most countries without a history of utility centralization and regulation, such as the United States, metering policy may vary widely from region to region. It seems high levels of development or GDP are no indicator of coverage.

Chile’s exceptional performance is a result of a series of transitions that began with a 1974 military coup headed by Augusto Pinochet. As a component of sweeping centralization, Pinochet implemented a national public water and sanitation company, extending coverage dramatically through the 1970s and 1980s. Meters were installed in most new connections, paving the way for a mandatory metering policy.

After the 1988 transition to democracy, Chile adopted a spate of laws that divided the national company into several public and private corporations. Mandatory metering was implemented, and a powerful state regulatory agency was established to oversee it all. New progressive policies ensured that no household spent more than 5 percent of its average monthly income on water and sanitation. While customers have an incentive to conserve water, no one is denied access due to price. Utilities are incentivized to maintain good quality water and reliable systems.

Chile, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported, has created the perfect public-private model. Privatization has increased in recent years, accompanied by a private service provision that maximizes efficiency and quality. Meanwhile, an autonomous public regulator ensures fair prices and equitable service. [1][2]

Bolivia is a counterpoint to Chile’s success. In 1997 and 1999, the government awarded two major contracts to foreign private utilities, granting them the right to provide water in La Paz and Cochabamba. These contracts resulted in skyrocketing prices and water cut-offs, along with mandatory meters. Multi-city riots ensued in a conflict known as the Cochabamba water wars. Thousands took to the streets, erected roadblocks, and defied police. Within the span of three days in April 2000, several protesters were killed, including a 17-year-old boy. Then-president Hugo Banzer declared martial law. The government finally agreed to grant water control to the grassroots coalition of protesters with the promise of dissolving the private contract.

The memory of that conflict remains in the hearts of many Bolivians. “In a lot of Latin America, there is a hesitancy to talk about metering due to its association with the water wars,” said Kim Lemme, of the international non-profit, Water for People. The mention of metering, she said, often elicits murmurs of “Bechtel,” one of the despised private water companies. “Being able to get people used to the idea of metering,” she concluded, “is powerful.”

Bolivians are still adjusting to the idea of meters. However because of innovative funding plans and the example set by model projects, several communities have already made the switch. According to Kate Fogelberg at Water for People, over 120 rural communities in Bolivia now have metering systems. While Chileans enjoy 96 percent metering, they still face challenges in their water sector, particularly in the over-allocation of rural water rights that leaves remote, arid, downstream households dry.

A progressive metering policy, accompanied by careful regulation, has made Chilean cities standout sites of clean, affordable water in Latin America. Because of its broad implications, water metering can act as an indicator of both water conservation policy and practice. However, spotty data coverage may hamper the development of a metric to assess how much water consumption is metered in countries, mainly because information is self-reported by the utilities themselves and only in selected countries. Representing the status of water resources, describing systems, and guiding policy meaningfully is an Augean task, one in which metering will play a part.


[2] http://www2.udec.cl/~mquirog/OECD%20Water%201.pdf

This post is the first in a series on water metering. The next installment will look at residential metering in the United States and other developed countries.

Rachel Lipstein is a junior at Yale College majoring in English major with a concentration in Writing. She is interested in sustainable agriculture and enjoys spending time on farms. Previously, she worked on the 108-foot sloop, Clearwater, which is dedicated to protecting the Hudson River through education, advocacy, and celebration.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Friday, July 12, 2013
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Does the Environment Need Big Data?

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Project Director, Environmental Performance Index

This blog post was co-written with Jason Daniel Schwartz, a journalist and writer. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. It was originally published July 9, 2013, on the Huffington Post.

Big Data has emerged as a game-changing presence in commerce and politics. What used to be the vast and unknown cosmos of individual behavior and preferences can now be parsed for patterns and trends to aid in decision-making. Where policies used to be based on gut-checks and intuition, Big Data is now being translated into decisions that result in great profit, political gain, or, according its more sanguine proponents, to save the world.

But forests don't tweet, and whales don't shop on Amazon. So what does Big Data mean for the environment and sustainability?

As creators of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), we have yet to see the Big Data revolution enter the environmental domain. We sift through a plethora of globally available, national datasets that measure a suite of environmental issues, ranging from climate change to air quality and forests. Despite the data available, we are still woefully plagued with gaps in knowledge, imperfect data, and uncertainty. We lack, for example, global datasets for national recycling rates, waste management, and toxic chemicals.

That leaves us frequently creating indicators based on incomplete or imperfect data. These indicators are meant to provoke policymakers to act on an environmental issue.  One danger in creating these proxy measures is that issues with data gaps are often ignored because the underlying problems are masked.

So how can we bring Big Data to environmental decision-making? What is needed to invigorate the same kind of massive data collection that tech companies and the private sector are harnessing to their advantage?

We pondered this question at The Economist's Big Data Information Forum in San Francisco last month. Panelists ranged from tech-world luminaries like Google and Intel, to representatives of from Silicon Valley startups, to local government representatives, including Michael Flowers, the Director of Mayor Bloomberg's Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. Flowers, who oversees Bloomberg's "Geek Squad," highlighted Big Data's role in catching illegal oil dumpers, cleaning up trees after storms like Hurricane Sandy, and determining potential building code violations in New York City. The key to Big Data Collection, he said, is government regulation.

This strikes as counterintuitive, particularly given the urgency of many environmental issues. If we waited on the US Congress to pass climate legislation, would we know that we recently surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations -- a threshold that some experts warn will lead to catastrophic global warming?  Simply put, regulation and legislation are often reactionary and slow in a way that tech companies and the private sector are not. Private sector companies are pushing the limits of Big Data for targeted solutions and predictive power -- why can't the same be done for the environment?

Another challenge is that we don't yet know what environmental Big Data will look like or where it will come from. There are however, some are a few emerging suggestions. Crowd-sourcing and citizen science like Dangermap -- a crowd-sourced environmental pollution map making ripples in China -- are increasingly popular tools for creating information where there previously was none. Open hardware and the Arduino platform offer exciting prospects for widely distributed, inexpensive tools  to enable crowd-sourced data collection. The World Resources Institute has teamed with the Center for Global Development to aggregate vast amounts of satellite data on forest cover, developing algorithms that will detect when deforestation might be happening in any part of the world.  If those algorithms and data are wrong, the Global Forest Watch 2.0 platform allows users to contribute their own observations. The National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, is aggregating and designing communicative platforms for the information we already have about climate change, land use change, and invasive species impacts. They are doing it in such a way that makes their resources open and plastic to new information as it comes in.

Still, we have a long way to go. Unlike stock market data that is updated faster than real time, there is no analogous platform or indicators for the environment. That's a serious problem. Though many environmental phenomena manifest slowly over time, often it is already too late by the time we are able to perceive them.

In this 400 ppm time, we need to start thinking about how we can enlist Big Data for the environment.

Dr. Angel Hsu graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2013 and is now a postdoctoral associate and project director of the Environmental Performance Index.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
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Process and progress at the UNFCCC: A report from SB 38 in Bonn

By Guest Author, Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

I was just in Bonn for the mid-year meeting of the advisory bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The purpose of these meetings is to work out the details of the agreements that came out of last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP), and to prepare for the next COP in Warsaw in November. The three groups meeting are the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI), the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA), and the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP). Ultimately, the goal of these talks is to help transition from the Kyoto Protocol to a new international agreement on climate change that is supposed to be signed in 2015.

For those who follow climate change talks, many familiar themes emerged from this conference. For instance, the talks were an especially iterative process: meetings are started in a large plenary hall and then move to more focused and smaller contact groups. After that, they move to closed-door meetings, and then—where some argue the real substance of negotiations happens—the delegates go into bilateral discussions before returning to plenary meetings. It’s a cycle of refinement. Another major theme was the UNFCCC process itself. A point of debate that came up at one of last week’s meetings, for instance, was an accusation that Secretariat was speeding the talks along too quickly and perhaps single-handedly steering the process. This is an issue because sovereignty and consensus are both major parts of the negotiations. So while it is in the Secretariat’s interest to move things forward, there’s a catch-22 insofar as the UNFCCC Secretariat can lose credibility by trying too hard to get things done.

This brings up a question: Is progress measured by the process or the product?

To this end, indices are used to gauge various forms of progress in climate change policymaking. One slightly tongue-in-cheek example, above, is contained in the infographic shared by the Climate Action Network (CAN) at the Bonn conference, which shows the correlation between daylight in the conference’s host city and the “level of productivity” achieved. While leaving the future open to success, it implies that the negotiators who attend the conferences are simply subject to the rhythm of the solar-system.

Another—more serious--assessment by CAN along with Germanwatch, a climate change institute, is the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI). The CCPI rates countries on their relative performance on a number of climate change indicators, including sector-specific carbon dioxide emissions levels, energy efficiency, renewables, and national as well as international policies. It’s interesting to note that part of the international policy score comes from surveys done at international conferences such as the SB 38 of the UNFCCC.

On a final note, please check out the accompanying photos of the conference below. During the conference eastern and southern Germany experienced major flooding. This is a reminder that the true measure of climate progress is preventing dangerous on-the-ground impacts, as extreme weather events are one of the underlying drivers for stopping climate change in the first place. 

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & Governance
Friday, April 19, 2013
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Air Quality and Human Health: An Interview with Roger Peng

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Project Director, Environmental Performance Index

Roger Peng, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently spoke at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies about his research estimating the health benefits of reducing particulate matter air pollution. He discussed common study designs for understanding environmental pollution health impacts as well as the ways reducing air pollution may improve human health.

I sat down for a brief chat with Dr. Peng on air quality indicators for human health and their policy relevance. Our interview is available here. On another note – Dr. Peng co-authors the Simply Statistics blog – a really excellent resource for those interested in data and statistics!

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Monday, March 18, 2013
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Introducing “On the Environment”

By Susanne Stahl

The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy is a joint initiative between Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and we see a lot of interesting and inspiring people come through the doors of both schools throughout the course of a year.

These visionaries will stay a few days, give a lecture or two, and then be on their way again—sometimes with very little record of their visit, the insights they’ve shared, or the passion they’ve breathed into the community inspiring action, change, and possibility.

We launched On the Environment, a podcast series hosted by Center staff and students, to better document these visits and, most importantly, to invite the larger community into the conversation we’re having here about key issues in environmental science, law and policymaking.

The first six podcasts are linked below, but please keep your eye on the On The Environment iTunes or SoundCloud sites, because we will update frequently.

We hope you enjoy the podcasts and the speakers as much as we’ve enjoyed producing the series.

Episode 1: Marissa Knodel, a research assistant at the Center, visits with Andrew Guzman about his new book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, which explores the real-world consequences of climate change.

Episode 2: (part 1 and part 2): Marissa Knodel talks with Julian Aguon, a writer, activist and attorney, about his work on human and indigenous rights under international law.

Episode 3: (part 1, part 2, and part 3): Aaron Reuben, a Center research assistant, talks with Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Jeff Goodell about his work, the future of environmental journalism, and geoengineering.

If you have comments or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact us at ycelp@yale.edu.

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorInnovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, March 11, 2013
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Interview with Dr. Garvin Heath on Shale Gas and Climate Change

By Bruce Ho

On Tuesday, March 5, I caught up with Dr. Garvin Heath, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), to discuss research that he recently completed on the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas produced from Texas’ Barnett Shale. 

Dr. Heath’s research is part of the same Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA) report on “Natural Gas and the Transformation of the U.S. Energy Sector: Electricity” that his NREL colleague Jeffrey Logan discussed as part of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s Policy Workshop Webinar Series on Emerging Issues in Shale Gas Development last month. Dr. Heath’s work also provides additional perspective and data on the shale gas-climate change links that Environmental Defense Fund scientist Dr. Ramon Alvarez discussed with our Center in his webinar last fall.

You can listen to my interview with Dr. Heath and view some slides that he prepared on his research below. You can also download his slides separately from the interview here.

Garvin Heath Interview from YCELP on Vimeo.

As Dr. Heath notes in the interview, some key findings from his research include:
  • Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generated using gas produced from Texas’ Barnett Shale in 2009 were comparable to the lifecycle emissions estimated for electricity generated using conventionally produced natural gas (i.e., shale gas from the Barnett appeared to be no worse for the climate than conventionally produced gas).
  • 10-20 percent of shale gas’ lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions occurred prior to gas combustion at power plants, and these pre-power plant, upstream emissions were evenly split (in global warming-normalized “carbon-dioxide equivalent” terms) between methane leakage and upstream carbon dioxide emissions from gas “beneficially used” in the supply chain to run compressors and other equipment.
  • Many of these upstream emissions could potentially be eliminated, such as by reducing or preventing methane leakage or improving equipment efficiencies to reduce the amount of gas that must be combusted to run upstream equipment.
  • There are still significant uncertainties in shale gas’ lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions due to data gaps and uncertainties in areas such as the actual gas-use efficiencies of upstream equipment, which are based on relatively limited data sets.
  • Additionally, there remain problems in matching the results from “bottom-up” lifecycle analyses, such as the one performed by Dr. Heath for the JISEA report, with those from “top-down” atmospheric measurements, which find methane concentrations that are significantly higher than the bottom-up analyses would suggest. These atmospheric measurements, which tell us the true levels of methane present, suggest that methane leakage from shale gas (and conventional gas) may be higher than we know, though researchers have not yet been able attribute this atmospheric methane to specific, on-the-ground sources (i.e., individual gas wells or other sources).

To learn more about this research and that of Dr. Heath's colleagues, you can download the full JISEA report here. In addition to Dr. Heath’s lifecycle emissions assessment (Chapter 1 of the report), the JISEA report also includes information on shale gas development’s legal and regulatory frameworks (Chapter 2; see also Professor Hannah Wiseman’s webinar from last December), water-related practices (Chapter 3), and electric power futures (Chapter 4; see also Jeffrey Logan’s webinar on this chapter from last month).

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Friday, March 01, 2013
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What’s in a name? That which we call ‘PM2.5,’ China doesn’t

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, Project Director, Environmental Performance Index & William Miao, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies '14

The official Chinese media reported this week, China’s National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technology has been meeting to standardize a Chinese name for “PM2.5,” a harmful air pollutant that has negative human health effects. While PM2.5 is the scientific nomenclature for fine particulate matter that has a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, there was no consistency with which it was referred to in the Chinese media and academic reports. Instead, mixed references to PM2.5 as “particulate matter in the lungs” (keru feikeliwu), “fine particulate matter” (xi keliwu), “fine particles” (xi lizi), and “ultrafine particles” (chaoxi keliwu) have created enough confusion for the government to look into the (fine) matter.

Chinese netizens have chimed in as well, with suggestions on what the Chinese term for PM2.5 might be, ranging from the scientific to the sarcastic to the downright skeptical. On Sina Weibo and pointed out by a blogger on China Offbeat, netizens have sarcastically suggested “China good particles” (zhongguo hao keli), “Breathing Pain,” “Life 25% Shorter Index,” “Standing Right in Front of You But You Cannot See Me Index.” Some of the more creative names with political undertones include “harmony particle” (a pointed jab at China’s censorship of sensitive issues), “pimin 2.5” (PiMin, the same initials as ‘PM’ refers to citizens who have been treated poorly by their government), and “peiming 2.5” (payment of life 2.5). 

As PM2.5 has already become a household name in China (see this advertisement for a PM2.5-themed rock concert in Beijingand this argument by a Chinese newspaper that PM2.5 is actually better known), it may not be necessary for the government to come up with its own moniker to fit Chinese-specific conditions.  We’ve seen how politically-controversial naming can be. Until the term ‘PM2.5’broke into mainstream Chinese media and consciousness, poor air quality days and haze were often referred to as “fog” (wu) or “haze” (wumai) in Chinese, which had the effect of downplaying the role of anthropogenic contribution and instead connotes weather and climactic-related factors instead. Though the latter do undoubtedly play a part in Beijing’s poor air quality, calling pollution “fog” has underplayed the reality of air pollution’s role in causing the “haze” shrouding the city.

For now, at least, it seems that the government has decided on “fine particles” (xi keliwu) for the Chinese name of PM2.5.

***

Angel Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and project manager of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.

William Miao is a first-year Master of Environmental Management (MEM' 14) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research focus is on the application of integrated environmental tools and frameworks at corporate, industrial, and national levels. Originally a chemical engineer from Auckland, New Zealand, his previous work involved risk management for oil and gas production, waste to energy research, and life-cycle assessment for the steel industry.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Friday, February 15, 2013
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The Environmental Performance Index Responds to Critics

By Guest Author, Ainsley Lloyd, Research Associate, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

 

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) featured prominently in the recent debate between Peter Foster and David Boyd in Financial Post (The nature debate part 1 and The nature debate part 2, January 25, 2013).

Over the past ten years the EPI has used measureable environmental information to rank countries based on their environmental performance.  The EPI team from Yale and Columbia universities pores over data on the environment, comparing it with wealth, governance, and trade, among many other aspects of well being. First and foremost, we have learned that these relationships are complex, and that a few lines of text often lose the larger message in the data. The debate between Messrs. Foster and Boyd is no exception, and in this case, losing the message of the EPI means losing perspective on the nature of Canada’s environment and economy.

Wealth and the environment

Both Foster and Boyd reference theories on the relationship between wealth and the environment, with Foster arguing the two variables are correlated and Boyd questioning the strength of that relationship. The EPI provides some real-world insight.

EPI data show that although there is a relationship, a nation’s wealth only marginally explains its final EPI ranking. This means that there are other important factors influencing environmental performance. Put differently, economic development matters, but other factors are more important. Although we have not identified every variable, we are confident that environmental performance is not an accident of history and factors such as pragmatic and enforceable environmental safeguards are key.

On climate

Foster notes that Canada scores poorly in the overall EPI and blames our devotion “to official climate alarmism,” arguing that we weigh the Climate Change and Energy category of the EPI too heavily. While Canada does rank 102 out of 132 countries in the Climate Change and Energy analysis, Brunei Darussalam, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, and Taiwan all manage a better overall EPI rank with a lower Climate score. Furthermore, the Climate Change and Energy category actually receives less weight in the 2012 EPI than it did in 2010—a decrease from 25 percent of the overall EPI score to just 17.5 percent.

In addition, we have anticipated much of Foster’s climate-related concern by choosing CO2 emissions measures that account for his critiques— specifically, differences in wealth and in country size. The EPI indicators that address these concerns are CO2 per GDP (to account for differences in wealth between nations) and CO2 per capita (to account for differences in population size between nations). In the future, perhaps we can cut countries like Canada slack on account of higher latitudes and greater needs for heating—though energy needs for cooling in lower latitudes might balance the equation.

Unequal weights

Foster is also concerned that our Environmental Health objective is not weighted as heavily in the final EPI score as its counterpart objective of Ecosystem Vitality. His concern is valid. Throughout the development of each edition of the EPI we consult with science and policy experts to fine-tune our methodology, and a departure from equal weights within the EPI framework is a signal that we have picked up on something important. It turns out that equal weights do not necessarily mean equal influence (something we discuss briefly in the blog post “the Science and Art of Quantification” and in our upcoming manual “How to Build Green Indices: Learning from the Experience of the Environmental Performance Index”).

For the 2012 EPI, a 50-50 weighting for Environmental Health and Ecosystem Vitality meant that the overall EPI scores were too heavily influenced by performance in the Environmental Health objective alone because of its wider distribution. Countries that perform high in the Environmental Health objective were likely to perform better in the overall EPI, regardless of their scores in Ecosystem Vitality. Both Health and Ecosystems are important and we adjusted the EPI weightings to correct for this imbalance.

An Invitation

Finally, Mr. Foster brushes off the significance of the Environmental Performance Index because of its “murky metrics.” The response here does not require any complicated analysis. Our entire process, from data to methods to the final ranking, is entirely available online and is free and open to the public. Nothing could be less murky. Any journalist, researcher, or policymaker who wishes to dive in is more than welcome, and we are here to help.

On that note, to Messrs. Foster and Boyd: we would like to invite you both to serve on our expert panel for the 2014 EPI. You’ll find that it’s a dynamic group of scientists and practitioners, ready for debate, eager to prepare the best set of tools possible for policymakers.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
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Beyond ‘Crazy Bad’: Explaining Beijing’s Extreme Air Pollution

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu and William Miao, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

Beijing’s air quality once again is making international headlines for off-the-chart measurements of air pollution. Images of Beijing show China’s capital city completely shrouded in gloomy shades of grey. According to Jan. 12 readings of the city’s official real-time air quality monitoring platform, air pollution levels exceeded the upper limit of 500 on the Air Quality Index (click here to read an explanation of China’s newly adopted AQI) in many of Beijing’s districts, meaning that air pollution was beyond “hazardous” levels.  The US Embassy in Beijing, which has been independently monitoring air pollution since the 2008 Olympics,  independently measured and reported AQI values topping 755 .

Infographic created by Monte Kawahara

The most significant contributing pollutant by far, as reported by both the Chinese and US measuring capacities, is fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5. Readings that topped 500 in November 2010 prompted a US Embassy official to tweet that the air was “crazy bad,” although this outtake was quickly recinded.

PM 2.5 – Small Particle, Big Threat

PM 2.5 represents fine particles suspended in the air with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns (about one thirtieth of the width of human hair). Particles of this size are capable of passing through the respiratory track and remaining in the human lungs, causing a range of short-term and chronic conditions such as asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

So how PM 2.5 being measured and reflected in air quality indices, communicated by both the U.S. Embassy and Chinese government? Last March the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) released new national air quality standards and an index, the AQI, for communicating air quality that was more consistent with U.S. standards.  The main difference between the Chinese and U.S. AQIs for PM 2.5 is the pollutant concentration thresholds used. While the U.S has adopted a PM 2.5 concentration threshold close to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended levels of 10 μg/m3, China has opted for thresholds similar to the interim guidelines the WHO has set for developing countries.[JG1]

In Table 1, above, we see US and China AQI breakpoints for PM10 and PM 2.5. Note that the descriptions in column 2 are based on the Chinese AQI standards, not US standards.

Because the official AQI measurements are capped at 500, the real extent of PM 2.5 concentrations citizens faced this past weekend in Beijing are understated. In fact, the PM 2.5 readings of all regions across the city in the evening of Jan. 12 were above 700 μg/m3, peaking at 993 μg/m3)  When the US Embassy reported AQI values above 500 some asked whether their monitors were broken. 

When the US Embassy air monitor started reporting values above 500, some thought these were measurement errors, as the upper-end of the AQI only reaches 500. How were AQI values beyond 500 determined? Vance Wagner, a long-time Beijing air quality analyst, wrote a post explaining the linear estimation of the AQI beyond 500, demonstrating that the US monitor uses the relationship for concentration levels at 400 μg/mto 500  μg/m3.

Figure 2. The relationship between PM 2.5 concentrations and AQI. The red line is based on the China AQI, while the blue is interpolated values used by the US Embassy monitor AQI.  Note that the official PM 2.5 concentration to IAQI conversion isn’t linear, an online calculator is available to perform the conversion.In figure 2, above, we see the relationship between PM 2.5 concentrations and AQI. The red line is based on the China AQI, while the blue is interpolated values used by the US Embassy monitor AQI. Note that the official PM 2.5 concentration to IAQI conversion isn’t linear, an online calculator is available to perform the conversion.

Therefore, the equivalent-AQI of 755 reported by the US Embassy’s monitor, would have corresponded to a PM 2.5 concentration of 668 μg/m3. As a comparison, UN WHO recommends a safe level of PM 2.5 of 15 μg/m3, with an interim goal of 75 μg/m3.

These highly hazardous levels of PM 2.5 have prompted Chinese authorities to urge all residents to remain indoors and to order schools to cancel outdoor activities for children.

What’s Causing the Scale-tipping Smog?

Beijing’s air quality is the result of a complex interaction of many climactic, geographic, and anthropogenic factors. Here are some of the explanations set forth to explain why air quality is so hazardous:

·       Winter weather conditions and “haze”: According the official Chinese news channel, China Daily, the main reason for such record-setting pollution is lingering fog and haze. The article states, “Experts and residents in the worst-hit areas such as Shijiazhuang are becoming increasingly worried about the air pollution brought by frequent winter haze.” In the same article, Ma Xuekuan from the National Meteorological Center attributed the formation of fog and haze to the wet air, little wind, and stable atmosphere conditions common in winter. Hazy, humid and stagnant air are perfect for trapping pollutants such as fine particles, which lead to the smog.  While there is logic to this explanation, as Beijing lacks precipitation during the winter months and a few days without wind prevents pollutants from being blown away, the weather and natural causes can’t be entirely to blame for off-the-charts pollution. Even long-term residents are shocked by the recent smog levels.

·       Heating from coal-fired power plants. Around 80 percent of China’s power comes from coal-fired power plants, although Beijing does have plans to eliminate the capitol’s coal plants by 2020. 

·       Increasing car ownership. Beijing now has 5 million vehicles, and the number is increasing. Authorities are now owning upto these staggering statistics and are beginning to think of more aggressive measures to curb emissiosn from vehicles.

·       Industrial activities in neighboring provinces. Beijing is bordered by Shandong and Hebei provinces, which are some of the most industrially intensive provinces in China. In 2011, according to official Chinese Statistics, Shandong had the third-highest industrial output GDP, while Hebei came in sixth.

·       Agricultural biomass burning. While it is unlikely that the severe pollution in Beijing this month is due to agricultural burning because January is not a harvest month, extreme air pollution last May in Wuhan was due to multiple fires of burning biomass, which puts a significant amount of dust, soot, and particulate matter in the atmosphere.

What can be done?

While China’s recent move to release PM 2.5 data for 74 major cities in China, with more plans to release data for all 113 key environmental protection cities by the end of this year, the beyond 500 AQI readings have called into question whether China should revise its AQI to account for pollution levels beyond the index. The meaningfulness of an index that reads “beyond Index”  in determining the severity of air pollution is questionable. Our observations of the MEP’s official PM 2.5 data in previous months show that air pollution is not as severe on a daily basis for all of China. However, considerations for increasing the scale beyond 500 would be helpful for situations like we’re seeing now. 

The good news is that the Chinese government is being more responsive and transparent than they have in the past. The government has been more open to official media reports covering the severity of air pollution and to citizens publicly airing grievances in media outlets. However, the more challenging task will be how the government can take this momentum and translate it quickly into enforcable policies addressing the root causes of the pollution, instead of shifting blame to uncontrollable, natural factors like wind or climate.  

 

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnergy & Climate
Monday, November 19, 2012
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Troubling Trends for South Africa

By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale F&ES '12, with Omar Malik, Yale F&ES '13

Last year the citizens of the Republic of South Africa were preparing their hotels and conference centers for another wave of foreigners to descend upon their shores. This year the revelers of 2010’s World Cup competitions were replaced by the more stoic diplomats of a world climate negotiation (specifically the 17th Congress of the Parties to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change). Despite the change in dress (business suits over track suits) the results of the proceedings were similar:  much fanfare, some victory, a good deal of disappointment.

For South Africa both events signaled a general desire to take to the world stage and bask in adoration for Africa’s most developed economy - and the newest member of the BRICS emerging economies consortium.  These events, the climate conference in particular, also showed a willingness on the part of South Africa to accept a new, greater role in leading the governance of our planet.

Which is why the latest trends in the environment of South Africa are so troubling.

In the 2012 Environmental Performance Index, published in January by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, where we are researchers, South Africa ranked 128 out of 132 rated countries, just above Iraq and just below Yemen.  Our index ranks the countries of the world on aggregated measures of environmental performance, in sectors like air and water quality, forest and fisheries protection, regulation of pesticides, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Across the general board (though there are exceptions), South Africa is one of the world’s worst performers and the worst in Africa (which is no small feat, as Oluseyi Fanyanju’s article on Nigeria’s poor performance reveals).

What accounts for this trend?

Analysis of our index points to two key places where South Africa is lagging and, generally, getting worse:  air quality and water quantity.

It should be no surprise that Africa’s greatest greenhouse gas emitter is experiencing worsening air quality. According to the International Energy Association, over 90% of the South African electricity supply is coal-generation based. Compare that to 42% in the United States (no world leader in this regard).[1]  Emissions from this antique power sector, combined with rapid industrialization around urban areas, has created air pollution “hot spots” across the country, where respirable particulate matter concentrations have reached historic unhealthy levels. Though the air situation is improving for some damaging pollutants (notably sulphur dioxides, which contribute to acid rain) air quality in South Africa hovers around the lowest in the world, at least when ecosystem effects are taken into account, and that is not likely to change soon.

Related to its unhealthy energy mix, South Africa - a naturally arid and water-stressed state, with annual rainfall six times lower than the global average – is seeing its small water supply spent on extracting the coal it burns (mining processes demand huge amounts of water) and fueling an expanding mining industry (gold mining in particular). A 2010 report by the Africa Earth Observatory Network found 16 of South Africa's 19 Water Resource Management Areas to be in a marginal or stressed state (meaning current clean water resources do not meet demand). “It seems clear,” the authors reported, “that water shortages are going to occur on a large scale in South Africa, even if the country follows a no-to-very-slow economic growth path.” They estimated that R360 billion, (15% of South Africa’s GDP in 2010) will need to be spent to provide adequate water infrastructure for human populations and stressed ecosystems, unless less water-intensive energy resources are invested in.

Reversing the trend

The social problems facing South Africa as it seeks to spur economic growth are immense, as is the chasm that exists between its haves and have-nots. South Africa has the highest income inequality of any African nation.  And with an unemployment rate just over 24%, this fact isn’t likely to change anytime soon. (An OECD report predicted that the SA economy would have to grow by 7% for over 20 years to achieve a significant reduction in unemployment – current growth rates hover around 3%). As NPR reported earlier this year, a staggering 73% of those unemployed are under the age of 35.

But current environmental trends and an abysmal EPI ranking suggest that South Africa may be heading towards an ecological tipping point.  If economic progress isn’t tied to improving environmental health and justice, South Africa may find it hard to fulfill its ultimate commitment to its citizens – to provide quality lives and real, sustainable livelihoods; recent protests and the spread of violence around unsafe working conditions and low pay at South African mines attest to a failure of current policies to deliver these basic rights.

Though its rivers go dry to fuel coal extraction, and its airways grow dark with smog, it isn’t too late for South Africa to reverse the trend. Real potential exists for renewable energy production across the country. And if South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, were to make good on their early commitment to invest in renewable energy, new solar and wind power projects could create desperately needed jobs and drive real human and environmental health benefits.

In his opening address at the world’s last climate conference, held in Durban, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, called on the leaders of the world to work together to “to save tomorrow today.”[2] We agree. Now might be time for South Africa to lead the way.



[1]
http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/

[2]http://www.cop17-cmp7durban.com/downloads/news/speeches/en/111206_cop17_hls_jacob_zuma.pdf

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Friday, October 12, 2012
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Pesky particles: Should we include natural sources of small particulate matter in enviro indicators?

By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, '12

In our cities the byproducts of combustion (in our engines and power plants) meet with the byproducts of life - plant resin off-gases, air-born dusts and sands, ocean sprays and sea salt mists - to create a complex mixture of chemicals that can be harmful to human health.  As Gabriel Isaacman and I reported in the Atlantic last month, even so-called pristine landscapes are not free from this effect.

And that begs the question: what are we to make of natural sources of air pollutants? This was a question posed during the first day of the International Workshop for a Better EPI: Towards a Next Generation of Air Quality Monitoring, held last week at Seoul National University in Korea.

Small diameter particulate matter, so-called PM 10 (less than 10 microns in diameter) and PM 2.5 (less than 2.5 microns), are air pollutants of particular concern. These particles, which can be anything small, from grains of desert dust to particles of coal ash, are small enough to bypass the lung’s natural filters (hairs in your nose, mucus in your throat). They burrow deep into the vulnerable tissues of the lung, where whatever radioactive particles or heavy metals they brought with them can wreck havoc on easily damaged soft tissue. 

All particulate matter, generally, is harmful to human health. At least according to Michael Krzyanowski of the World Health Organization, who presented on global PM monitoring efforts at the conference.

“Epidemiological studies have tried to separate the specific effects of the different components of PM,” he said, referring to efforts to clarify human health outcomes related to PM derived from cars from those related to PM derived from plants. “Either we aren’t there with research,” he said, “Or PM is just too complicated to separate.”

Because we can control the PM that is human-produced, either by limiting power plant emissions or driving fewer car miles, some participants at the conference argued that we should only consider these sources of PM in national inventories and performance metrics.  Countries cannot, generally, limit the PM produced by an ocean breeze or a desert storm - they should not be penalized, or criticized, the argument goes, for having high PM levels from these sources. 

These are fair criticisms. PM levels are currently a leading indicator in our Environmental Performance Index, which ranks the countries of the world on measures of environmental quality. And it is also a pollutant required for control under most rigorous air pollution programs around the world.

But there is evidence that natural PM sources are as harmful to human health as non-natural.  In other words, “we don’t have evidence that non-anthropogenic PM is not-health relevant,” Krzyanowski said.  As such, it is problematic to simply remove this source from environmental metrics.

“Health warnings should include Sahara dust in an index,” Krzyanowski argued, just as much as dust from construction or car emissions. “Yes that is hard to address in management. But it is still important for human health.”

There is no easy answer to this question – what pollutant sources to include in measurements and indices – but later versions of our own EPI may well seek to differentiate among these measures to create a more sophisticated measure of country-by-country  managements obligations and public health risks.

 

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Thursday, October 11, 2012
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What happens in China doesn’t stay in China: lessons from an international air quality workshop

By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, '12

Pollution does not respect borders.

This old adage is one of the first messages to arise from last week’s International Workshop for a Better Environmental Performance Index (EPI): Towards a Next Generation of Air Quality Monitoring – a workshop jointly hosted by Yale and Columbia Universities and the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at the Seoul National University in Korea.

During a technical session on monitoring and modeling of heavy metals, Dr. Seung-Muk Yi of Seoul National University presented his research findings on the sources and movement of mercury in the Korean environment.  His findings were stark.

Mercury is typically released into the air when fossil fuels containing mercury are burned for power generation. Though South Korean emissions of mercury are about one-tenth that of US emissions (18.5 tons a year compared to 143 tons a year), average blood mercury concentrations in Korean citizens are five times greater than average US concentrations. 

As Dr. Yi presented, one-third of Koreans have blood mercury levels above those deemed safe by US health guidelines – putting them at risk for neurological health effects and neurodegenerative disorders.

What accounts for this looming public health threat? 

Two phenomena combine in Korea to create this potential health disaster: 

1. Koreans consume a lot of seafood (74-95 grams a day, about five times the US average); and

2. Korea is near China.

According to Dr. Yi, China’s annual emissions of mercury are nearly four times greater than the US’s and nearly 30 times greater than Korea’s. 

By tracing mercury concentration changes over time across monitoring sites within Korea, scientists in Seoul were able to implicate Chinese emissions in Korea’s pollutant problems. 

“As our local emissions went down [following new regulations],” he said, “mercury concentrations in our rural and remote stations remained constant.” 

China contributed the most to our high mercury events, he said, noting that more than 60 percent of high mercury events in Seoul, when government air monitors detected unusually acute mercury levels in the air, were the result of air masses carried from China.

Coal combustion in Hunan, metal smelting in Guizhou, and dust storms in the Gobi Desert were all implicated in Korea’s pollution problem.  Meaning what happens in China doesn’t stay in China. 

Lessons like this – an old lesson made new - underscore the importance of international workshops like this one where atmospheric scientists, chemical engineers, and policy experts from around the world wrestled with the very modern problem of global pollution.  Hopefully, the knowledge generated here in Seoul won’t stay here.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnergy & Climate
Monday, September 17, 2012
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Announcing the Indicators in Practice Project

By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, '12

At the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy we are concerned with the state of our planet. We consider ways that national and international governance of our world can be improved to better humanity’s lot - and the lot of the species that coexist (somewhat shakily) with us on this tottering orb. 

One of the more longstanding ways we seek to improve global governance is by creating and publishing, in collaboration with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, our biannual ranking of the environmental performance of the world’s nations, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). In this Index we consider the movement of each nation towards fulfilling their own environmental goals (reduce pollution; create more nature reserves). Those at the top of our list have set ambitious goals for improving environmental health and quality and, largely, they have achieved them. Those at the bottom struggle to set or achieve environmental targets, though many, like Azerbaijan, are quickly improving (earning them a high ranking on our “Trend EPI,” which considers rates of change in performance across years).

Now that the EPI has been around for nearly a decade, we are often asked what the true impact of this effort has been, or could be. 

Is the EPI having an impact on the governance of the world’s resources? 

Do decision makers, stakeholders, and activist agitators look to the scores of their country on the EPI and change the course of their actions? Are new policies implemented? Old ones abandoned?  

This is an ambitious question to answer. As a first step, we have developed the Indicators in Practice Project, a new endeavor to examine the question of the impact of environmental indices, our own EPI and other similar efforts, from a variety of perspectives. 

Through our case studies of government efforts to create and use environmental indicators we have already begun this process. But we are now expanding considerations of environmental performance metrics to include other sectors – businesses and civil society groups in particular.  We will publish an academic review of the literature on indicator impacts, and we will reach out to scholars, practitioners, and policy makers around to world to find and present success stories where strong measurement of environmental quality (matched against goals of environmental protection) have led to good results. 

Another key goal of this effort will be to contextualize the rankings presented in our EPI. Where possible we hope to dig deeper into our best and worst environmental performers -  and ask the question, from a policy and management perspective: what’s driving these scores?

We will revamp the EPI website to include a new Indicators in Practice section, coming soon. And check back often for case studies and discussions of how environmental performance metrics are being used across the world to drive real, measureable changes in the governance of our planet.

Aaron Reuben is a research assistant at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, where he studies the policy impacts of environmental health indicators. He holds a Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Yale environmental journal, SAGE Magazine.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement

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