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Monday, March 09, 2015
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Conversation with Natalia Greene about the Rights of Nature in Ecuador

By Guest Author, Melissa Arias, F&ES '15

As part of a major restructuring of the country’s legal framework, in 2008 Ecuador adopted a new Constitution by means of a national referendum. The 2008 Constitution – the country’s 20th – had a special component that made it different from any other constitution worldwide: it was the first Constitution to grant essential rights to Nature. Under Article 71 of the 2008 Constitution, “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Under this framework, Nature becomes a subject of rights and “any person will be able to demand the recognition of the rights of nature before public organisms.”

Seven years have passed since Ecuador adopted the 2008 Constitution and yet the actual implementation of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador continues to be widely debated. In an effort to clarify the current status of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) invited Natalia Greene to its webinar series on “Democratizing Environmental Protection”, held on February 6th 2015.

Natalia Green is an Ecuadorian environmental leader who played a monumental role in the adoption of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador’s National Constitution. Along with a group of Ecuadorian environmental activists and representatives from the civil society, Natalia voiced the plea for legally recognizing the protection of nature. Her efforts were rewarded when the Ecuadorian Government accepted the request, as part of a larger movement towards progressivism as embodied in the theoretical framework of the “citizen’s revolution.”

Natalia began her webinar presentation by describing the reasons why Ecuador was the first country to declare the Rights of Nature on its Constitution. As Natalia indicated, one of the main explanationsis the country’s outstanding biodiversity. In terms of number of species of both fauna and flora per hectare, Ecuador is considered one of the most biodiverse countries worldwide. And yet, most of this biodiversity is severely threatened by the expansion of human presence in natural areas. More specifically, one of the major threats to the country’s biodiversity is the construction of roads that give access to oil and mineral reserves located in the heart of the country’s Amazon. In particular, Natalia referred to the case of Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve, an area that became globally recognized for its biodiversity and for the debate that originated around the conflicting interests of conservation and oil extraction inside the protected area.

Later in her presentation, Natalia described what the Rights of Nature represent, as indicated by the Ecuadorian Constitution, and how they fit into the country’s “Wellbeing Development Model”. This Model, advocated by the Ecuadorian Government, includes Nature as a transversal component of its development apparatus. For example, the Model is meant to guide the country’s development away from its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and natural resources and towards an economy that flourishes on the basis of knowledge, cultural richness and biodiversity capital.

Subsequently, Natalia recognized some instances in which the Rights of Nature were respected in Ecuador, even prior to the 2008 Constitution. Examples include the Galapagos Vilcabamba road case and the shark finning prohibition in the Galapagos Islands. However, Natalia expressed a deep concern for the cases where the Rights of Nature have been violated in the country, questioning the legitimacy and abiding power of the 2008 Constitution. The lack of protection of the Tangabana highlands in the province of Chimborazo, an ecosystem of great importance for water and carbon capture, became the first case of a lost demand for the Rights of Nature.

Another case is the open-pit mining project in El Condor Mirador, an area with many endemic specie. In this instance local communities pointed to the project’s environmental impact assessment, which confirmed the project’s contamination would cause extinction of at least three endemic amphibian species and one reptile species. Despite this risk, the project proceeded. This represented a direct violation to Article 73 in the Constitution, which asserts that “the State will apply precaution and restriction measures in all activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems or the permanent alteration of natural cycles”. Moreover, Natalia included the decision to exploit Yasuní National Park as another example of the Government’s flexible interpretation of the Constitution.

Natalia’s presentation concluded with a reflection on how the Rights of Nature constitute an opportunity to change the paradigm and to rethink humanity’s development in harmony with Nature. The presentation was followed by questions from the webinar attendees, which centered around the speaker’s vision for the future of the Rights of Nature, the role that international courts can play, the results of actions by civil society groups in Yasuní and the characterization of the voluntarily isolated indigenous communities that live in the area. In answering these questions, Natalia showed her broad experience in the topic and her unique insights as someone who has committed her career to promoting environmental justice.

Ecuador’s adoption of the Rights of Nature in the National Constitution was a revolutionary move that embodies the country’s political transformation over the past decade. As shown by Natalia’s presentation, the implementation of the country’s new legal framework, including the Rights of Nature, is far from perfect and there is still much to be done to achieve a full recognition of the intrinsic value of Nature. However, as Natalia recognized, this bold move has opened up a space for a different discussion about the environment and conservation that was previously inexistent.

Moving forward, the challenge will be for Ecuador to continue on its path towards human wellbeing by truly acting in accordance to its new constitutional principles. Sincere commitment to protect Nature’s right to persist and to be maintained should not be conditional to capricious human needs and desires. Otherwise the concept of granting essential rights to Nature should be reconsidered in terms of the real capacity and willingness of the State to respect them. Ecuador has an opportunity to become a global example of development in the right direction, one that truly “loves life,”  as the country’s slogan claims. Will it take it?

You can watch a full video of the webinar here, or below:

The Politics of Rights of Nature in Ecuador: Natalia Greene from YCELP on Vimeo.

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorInnovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & Governance
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
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Cataloguing Impacts of the Shale Boom: A Foundation for Local Governance

By Guest Author, Christopher Halfnight, F&ES '15

The shale boom has stirred deep controversy across the United States.  With vast domestic deposits of natural gas and tight oil now both geologically and economically accessible, many stakeholders, from developers to landowners, are seeking to gain.  But others are sounding alarms over contaminated wells, methane flares, and toxic spills.  Federal and state authorities, with slow regulatory responses and minimal stake in local impacts, are often leaving local governments to navigate this controversy – and the many impacts of “fracking” – with constrained budgets and limited capacity.

With support from the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School, Yale Climate & Energy Institute, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a research team at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School is working to fill this governance gap through a project titled Addressing the Local Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing.  The team is building a suite of tools to empower local government decision-making on a range of shale-related local governance challenges.  The project’s stakeholder workshops and research to date have helped fashion the first significant resource in that toolkit: a comprehensive impacts framework cataloguing the potential local effects from shale oil and gas development.  The research team developed this framework of fracking impacts to help orient communities to potential risks and benefits of shale development.  The framework represents a major new resource to provide both a significant knowledge base for local government decision-making and a substantive legal foundation for regulatory and non-regulatory actions.

In the impacts framework, the research team has synthesized nearly 40 local impacts of unconventional oil and gas development across the environmental, socio-economic, and public health spectrum.  The team started with a spreadsheet of municipal fracking bans generously shared by Food & Water Watch, then scoured fracking-related local government resolutions across the country to assess the issues dominating communities’ concerns.  Building on this community-level survey, the team convened two stakeholder workshops and conducted significant research to identify and categorize key potential impacts.  Ranging from habitat fragmentation to visual blight and rising tax revenues to increased employment, the framework addresses both positive and negative impacts communities may face throughout the fracking development lifecycle.  The catalogue of impacts is inclusive but neither exhaustive nor predictive; it captures the range of challenges a community may face from a shale play depending on local context, including issues of concern to the scientific community, environmental advocates, industry, and local community members. Importantly, some of the identified impacts are quite likely to occur, while others are equally unlikely. The researchers are not making judgments about the probability or severity of these impacts. We are simply identifying issues that may arise in any given community in order to help prepare local decision-makers. 

For each impact in the framework, the research team has identified potential causes and resources linked to those causes that explain, document, contextualize, or substantiate the impact.  Wherever possible, the team has sought to provide links to authoritative, peer-reviewed journal articles with objective perspective on an impact and its cause.  Where peer-reviewed resources were not available, the framework provides either non-peer reviewed reports and studies or news reports with useful coverage of the impact.  With more than 150 resources and links that document and contextualize the potential local impacts, the framework represents a significant effort towards equipping local governments with a foundation to manage shale development. 

The impacts framework makes clear that the local effects of the shale boom are many and varied.  Most of the impacts the research team has noted span the entire geography of shale development – from Texas to Pennsylvania to North Dakota – though individual community experiences vary with unique environmental, economic, and other characteristics.  Some potential impacts, such as groundwater pollution from stray gas or fracking chemicals, are subject to scientific study and documented in peer-reviewed literature.  Other impacts, such as an increase in demand for local government services and a reduction in local government workforce retention, are not as well documented but still very real worries for local communities. 

The Yale/Pace shale development impacts framework represents a substantial step in the team’s efforts to empower local government decision-making.  This significant new resource will help local government leaders identify potential risks and economic benefits of fracking specific to their communities.  The framework will also provide the underpinnings for local action based on local priorities, while fostering productive engagement with industry and state regulators.

A static version of this impact list is available online now. In the coming weeks and months the Yale/Pace team will work to update this list with a robust menu of regulatory and non-regulatory governance options that local authorities might consider if any of these impacts raise concerns within their jurisdiction. The team is likewise developing more narrative explanations of the cause of each impact, which will allow local governments to tie their responses more effectively to the underlying problems. Finally, the team will soon release an updated version of this impact list in a dynamic, searchable, online interface.

Building on this initial resource, the team is engaging stakeholders from government, industry, and communities across the country to identify strategic options and alternatives for local governments to address each of the many potential impacts of unconventional oil and gas development.  The research team is creating a series of case studies illustrating local government capacity and identifying leading practices – from comprehensive plan amendments to road use agreements to noise restrictions – that will provide guidance to communities facing shale development.  Eventually, the team hopes to bundle these resources in a comprehensive training program for municipal leaders.  

Despite the recent turbulence in international oil markets, local governments across the country are struggling to keep pace with the shale boom.  Some communities are enacting bans that may be preempted by state governments, while others are welcoming development with inadequate safeguards.  The Yale/Pace research team is striving to find ground between the two, building tools for sound, balanced, and effective local law and policy that will empower the communities where many of the impacts of shale development are felt.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Thursday, February 12, 2015
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Land Tenure and Sustainable Agriculture

By Guest Author, Elias Kohn, F&ES '16

As I described on this blog two weeks agoAgroforestry offers numerous social and environmental benefits. Unfortunately, broad implementation faces restrictions, such as the challenges of secure land tenure (as described in last weeks posting). Three current strategies to conquer this problem include constructing clearer legal definitions of agroforestry, honoring multiple land ownership models, and refocusing project funding, especially international climate mitigation financing.           

Agroforestry blurs elements of forestry and agriculture, sometimes landing in a gray zone in between. This can make agroforestry practices difficult to recognize and define. Without clear definitions, promoting land tenure policies or tax exemptions for agroforestry practitioners is also a challenge. This is motivating community groups and government agencies to establish clearer definitions. The USDA, for example, recently put a working definition of agroforestry into official guidance. As different agencies within the US develop programs, the USDA guidance can become a reference point that provides a framework for future legal development and eventual incentives and protection for agroforestry project development.

This is a stepping stone for additional policy improvements and “another piece of the policy puzzle coming together to support agroforestry” says Kate MacFarland of the USDA Agroforestry Center.

A second approach to land tenure challenges involves pooling land under a public domain and then granting community access that is secure for the long term. One example is how local agencies in Indonesia encourage community forestry, such as the Hutan Desa, “village forest,” that is regulated through customary law. In this model, water from the forest is shared, the core area of the forest cannot be harvested, and the village cooperatively protects the forest to enhance communal flood resiliency. The secured land, protected through policies and customary enforcement, provides the land tenure security that appears helpful for agroforestry practices.

Long-term land access, even without legal ownership, can combat land tenure obstacles. In 2006, Peru enacted Law 28852, which holds the potential to grant concessions for  “reforestation and agroforestry” for up to 60 years. Such a long time scale solves many of the concerns that food producers have expressed (see the previous post in this series for some interviews with producers). Law 28852 has been met with high controversy, however, due to possible unintended consequences. A key aspect of the controversy relates back to the need for functional definitions; specifically, there is not a clear enough definition of what constitutes a forest. The problems are multifaceted, just as these solutions are complex and interconnected.

A third approach to improve land tenure is to refocus funding. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is a United Nations financial incentive program to reduce carbon emissions from forests in developing countries. Some REDD+ projects are controversial in Peru, for example, where critics accuse them of threatening indigenous peoples’ use of landand potentially undermining climate change mitigation. A refocused approach would cut out plantations, biofuels, or other large-scale agriculture projects within REDD+, and shift investment towards projects that establish local land tenure rights that fit within REDD+ goals. If the hypothesis that secure land tenure can promote agroforestry and climate smart land management is correct, then incentives that promote local land tenure could be a primary focus of redirected funds. Those projects might then naturally migrate towards long-term land management strategies such as agroforestry.

Agroforestry offers multiple benefits ranging from the social, economic, and the purely environmental. Similarly, by addressing policy restrictions such as land tenure, and by addressing land tenure in a manner that promotes community level decision-making and control, that course of action creates benefits outside of the actual agroforestry implementation.

A continual thought over the last few weeks, reoccurring when I crossed the Benjamin Franklin bridge in Philadelphia, or saw Manhattan’s skyscrapers from Coney Island, is the profound skill humans have to design and build. Now, it seems imperative to employ these skills to design ecological systems that also provide human needs. To make these systems accessible and maneuverable, like elevators rising effortlessly in the tallest of those skyscrapers, the policy tools and local governance structures require similar design skills and implementation. This task is especially suited for the individuals that inform legal and policy decisions.

Posted in: Innovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & Governance
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
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A Pre-Paris Climate Timeline

By Guest Author, Joanna Dafoe, Yale F&ES '14, Yale Law School '17

This morning Christiana Figueres briefed civil society on how to successfully approach the Paris climate conference (COP 21).

Instead of listing all of the plans within the UNFCCC to prepare for Paris—of which there are many— she reminded civil society of the need for dynamic action across all sectors and UN bodies.

The momentum generated by parallel processes, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, is necessary for a successful outcome in Paris.

To this end, I have put together a timeline of select events taking place in the lead-up to Paris. The purpose of this timeline is to illustrate the dynamic political opportunity we have to raise ambition at COP 21.

These events are compiled from the calendars maintained by the International Institute for Sustainable Development Reporting Servicesand RTCC.


This post initially appeared on http://adoptanegotiator.org/

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Thursday, February 05, 2015
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How Land Tenure Standards Prevent Better Agriculture

By Guest Author, Elias Kohn, F&ES '16

If agroforestry provides so many potential environmental and social benefits, why isn’t it more common?

Conversations with agroforestry researchers and growers seem to suggest that lacking long term access to the land, what we can refer to as secure land tenure, prevents greater implementation.

Roughly 40 percent of farmland in the US is rented or leased and “it is a lot harder to implement agroforestry practices if you are leasing the land,”Kate MacFarland of the USDA National Agroforestry Center told me. Without an amendable landlord, farming with trees and perennials is a challenge. It is therefore important to understand how renting land can impact land management decisions, and whether there are any best practices for establishing successful agroforestry practices on rented land.                       

Photo: E. KohnMy own experience renting a residential unit in South Los Angeles and attempting to install a small agroforestry design helps illustrate these challenges. With two freeways visible from the driveway and neighboring a gas station, I was excited to see my coffeeberry bushelderberries, yuccas and a white oak seedling add some color to the nearly constant backdrop of concrete and asphalt. Greywater from my sinks and showers irrigated all the plants that were growing great. When I added worm composting and a small aquaponics system (pictured at left) with tilapia and minnows, my attachment to the whole system grew even more

One day I hurried home to check on everything, only to find that the landlord’s landscapers had ripped apart my work. Verbal permission from the landlord to grow a garden did not matter. Once the disappointment wore off, I was fascinated that the landscapers left all the small annual crops, but killed every native and perennial tree and shrub, the ones that provide greater environmental services and form the foundation of more resilient and longer term agriculture systems.

Was it a coincidence? Maybe, but strikingly similar scenarios occurred in multiple locations for me. Perhaps the short-term and high input agriculture/landscaping model is somehow deeply embedded in the public consciousness. The traditional model is also promoted through policies that dictate what is appropriate to grow on rented land or in a communal garden space.

It might be a leap to compare my experience to the land tenure challenges of large-scale agroforestry systems, but the notion that land use policies undervalue long-term agriculture and agroforestry is a common story.

Travel a few miles down the road from that rental unit in Los Angeles to the site of the former South Central Farm, for example. At one time this was the largest urban garden in the US, packed full of fruit trees and edible perennials that provided food for around 350 families. After the city sold the property to a real estate developer, uninterested in promoting urban food systems, LAPD bulldozed the farm in 2006. Without a guarantee, or even a favorable chance of having the ability to make decisions for a land base beyond a few growing seasons, it is high risk developing crops that provide long term benefits but require higher initial expense, such as fruit and nut trees.

Many food growers and agroforestry proponents still take the risk, understanding the social and ecological benefits of climate smart tree farming. Ben Lawson (pictured at right), a brilliant permaculture designer and emergency/disaster preparedness instructor living in Oregon, lost projects in

 multiple locations because he did not own the land. After months of investing in a project, ownership of the land changed. New landlords held different visions for the property that did not involve food production or land rehabilitation through tree cover. Ben reflects that:

"The sad irony of being a permaculture designer is that so much use of the modernized landscape is temporary. Renters are confined to container gardening. Community gardens are a great model, yet are often at risk of redevelopment…the transient nature of the real estate industry makes long-term investment in establishing productive perennials and tree backyard food crops a marginal practice."

Logan Sander, a natural builder and Master of Forestry Candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies explored land tenure and farming practices on fifty five farms and yards in Jamaica last summer. While his data analysis is still pending, his hypothesis is that successful agroforestry practices increase with land security.

“The idea is that as tenure is more secure, farmers are going to be planting more edible forestry tree crops and timber crops. Agroforestry elements will be stronger and move away from fast crops.”

While researching in Jamaica, Logan noticed that farmers with more secure land tenure planted long term timber trees among shorter-term crops. They considered this tree growth a safety net or retirement plan for future needs. On the other hand, Logan met farmers interested in agroforestry unable to pursue the practice because, as they explained, they would “have to wait for years and this is not our land.” From his research, Logan witnessed agroforestry implementation obstructed by lack of secure rights to the land.

Ruth Metzel, a teaching assistant for an agroforestry class and former intern at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi witnessed similar issues regarding land ownership policies: "Unstable land tenure can be a huge obstacle to practicing agroforestry, because in many cases, as in Costa Rica and Panama, governments have encouraged land clearing in the past in order to demonstrate possessory rights. When farmers and landowners must “prove” that they work the land through creating a clear distinction between their land in productive use and native ecosystems, agroforestry suffers precisely because at an initial glance it blurs the line between field and forest."

Perhaps it is that blurred line between a more “natural” state of a forest and the controlled grid layout of conventional agriculture that was unappealing to the landlord in Los Angeles that removed the trees and native shrubs but left the tomatoes and lettuce greens. Aversion to blurring the distinction between domesticate and wild may explain some of the challenges agroforestry proponents face.

Many policies prevent wider promotion of agroforestry systems, but a few current policies may start to change that trend. I will briefly explore these trends and policies in next week’s post.

A warm thanks to Kate MacFarland, Ben Lawson, Logan Sander and Ruth Metzel for their interviews.

Posted in: Environmental Law & Governance
Monday, January 26, 2015
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Agroforestry: Merging Human and Environmental Needs

By Guest Author, Elias Kohn, F&ES '16

It is no surprise that forestry was a major topic of conversation at the 20th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that recently concluded in Lima, Peru. Deforestation and agricultural practices constitute a foundational climate and environmental problem. In the last century, human activity cleared roughly 350 million hectares (1.3 million square miles) of tropical forest and degraded an additional 500 million hectares of primary and secondary tropical forest. Agriculture and indirect impacts of land-use change contribute 52 percent of global anthropogenic methane, 84 percent of nitrous oxide and substantial CO2 emissions. Chemical applications, soil erosion, and altered nitrogen cycles compound the problems that current agricultural practices pose. 

Fortunately, there is an alternative to these damaging practices. In fact, in Lima, eight South and Central American countries agreed to join the 20X20 Initiative in an effort to restore a half billion acres of forest and farmland. Rather than only mitigating the negative impacts of deforestation, 20X20 endorses agroforestry, a climate smart type of agriculture that can transition problems into positive solutions for restoration. Silvopasture, for example, a type of agroforestry, combines trees or shrubs with pastures and can increase animal productivity and forest cover without the negative impacts frequently incurred by conventional grazing.

Photo by F. MontagniniSilvopastoral systems, such as this one (pictured) in Misiones, Argentina that combines hybrid beef cattle and loblolly pine, could be connected to additional agroforestry designs – windbreaks or riparian buffers – to create wildlife corridors on the ecosystem level. These multi-use corridors also sequester carbon, as agroforestry systems appear to surpass conventional agriculture sequestration and may even rival some natural forests. Additional benefits include manure as an organic fertilizer for yerba mate and a steady income between timber harvests.

Even with the Lima 20X20 announcement, agroforestry deserves more attention than it currently receives because it provides numerous environmental benefits while addressing socioeconomic concerns.

Consider the UN Millennium Development Goals. Agroforestry merges environmental sustainability (Goal 7) with human needs such as poverty and hunger alleviation (Goal 1). Reforestation through perennial fruit and nut bearing crops offers a safety net when conditions prevent a productive annual crop season and offer nutritional variety limited by certain monoculture cash crop production. Simultaneously, tree crops, such as cacao and tea production in Southeast Asia, are increasing incomes and economic growth for small landowners. The African Plum, along with a huge variety of additionally underutilized tree crops, offers similar income possibilities.  

Clean water, lower carbon emissions and reforestation should not require less food production, inequitable resource distribution, or staggered economic development.

Goal 3 of the UN Millennium Development Goals seeks gender equality and female empowerment. Interest in the African Plum is growing among women in Cameroon, as the need to pay school fees and buy uniforms overlap with the Plum marketing season. Women comprise sixty to eighty percent of developing world farmers and account for 75% of household food production, yet receive less than 10% of agricultural extension delivery. Long-term tree crops that coincide with growing market demand for new fruits and nuts may offer a way to shift this imbalance to a more equitable distribution.

Photo credit: F. Montagnini



This picture shows an agroforestry system of organic cacao, bannana, and Inga trees in Costa Rica. (Photo credit for this photo and above: F Montagnini).



Unfortunately, all of these potential benefits remain severely restrained. Agroforestry designs have proven their effectiveness, but current laws and policies obstruct greater implementation.

Of the major policy restrictions, land tenure stands out as one of the most daunting. Agroforestry is a long-term investment where property rights dictate decisions and management. Policy leaders could promote this design system that addresses environmental challenges and human needs by changing land tenure policies and allowing this practice to thrive.

Initiative 20X20 may bring attention, technical, and financial support to this issue, but will it bring the needed policy changes?

Next week, the second post in this series will address land tenure as a barrier to more widespread agroforestry practices. 

Posted in: Innovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
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.


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 (alisa.zomer@yale.edu) and follow her on twitter @azomer.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement
Tuesday, December 02, 2014
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Nature’s Rights in Practice: Envisioning Sustainable Communities and Economies

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

In her October 20 webinar,Nature’s Rights in Practice,’ Linda Sheehan made it painfully clear that environmental laws in the US are founded on outmoded principles: Most of them still embody the concept that nature is separate from – and exists in order to serve – human needs. Appalling cases of recent environmental degradation indicate how unequipped our legal tools have been in addressing persistent and systemic social and ecological injustices. Laws that emerged in the 1970s in response to egregious cases of environmental disasters still assume that infinite growth is possible and desirable.

But academics and civic institutions are raising questions about both of these once-inviolable concepts. Their work shows how environmental and social problems are interlinked and outlining howand why we must alter our legal and economic paradigms. Progressive legal causes such as the Rights of Nature and the Pluralist Commonwealth model contribute to a wider conversation about how legal and economic frameworks could re-imagine their relationship to social and environmental challenges.

The Rights of Nature is unique in its endeavor to grant Earth’s living communities legal standing conventionally reserved for humans. Documents such as the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, and The Future We Want (that emerged from the UN+20 Earth Summit), use language that positions nature as deserving of common protection under the law. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth describes “the peoples and nations of Earth [as] an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny.” The preamble avers that “it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth.”

At the local level in the US, a few towns and counties include the Rights of Nature in their ordinances. Linda Sheehan highlighted Santa Monica, California, for its Sustainability Rights Ordinance. Passed in April, 2013, the ordinance calls attention to the inadequacy of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the California Environmental Quality Act. The document asserts that “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish in the City Of Santa Monica.” This language, unlike any other legal premise at the local, state, or federal level, contends that natural communities ought to thrive alongside human communities, not at the latter’s expense.

In 2013, Mora County, New Mexico, passed a Community Rights Ordinance that uses the rights of nature concept to protect the community from oil and natural gas industries. In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also passed an ordinance that both banned natural gas drilling in the city and recognized the “legally binding rights of nature” in its stand against the natural gas industry.

The Rights of Nature movement reflects a wide-spread scholarly attempt to draw attention to the interconnected nature of our environmental and social problems. Responses that fall within this call for integrated—and sometimes radical—change range from altering how businesses are structured to transforming our economic model. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate Change, Naomi Klein describes that she “started to see signs—new coalitions and fresh arguments—hinting at how, if these various connections were more widely understood, the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave all these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.”

Linda Sheehan reminded listeners that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, known for his belief in rational self-interest and competition, also described an economic system that emphasized relationships and community. He theorized that well-being is achieved, in part, by exercising responsibility toward the community. This idea seems entirely out of synch with modern economic rationale. Sheehan argues that it’s precisely this engrained, conventional logic that has been so troublesome. But, she says, alternate forms of legal, economic, and social relationships are possible.

Community-level ideas like public banking and employee-owned companies are beginning to gain legitimacy far beyond any initial novelty factor. New Belgium Brewing, for example, is now 100 percent employee owned as well as a certified benefit corporation. As a “B Corporation,” New Belgium bases many of its decisions on social and environmental factors rather than just profit. The result is not only an independent company but also a high-quality work environment driven by an unprecedented level of investment from its employees.

Gar Alperovits, founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is particularly outspoken in this realm. He’s developed a systemic model, the Pluralist Commonwealth that endeavors to “resolve theoretical and practical problems associated with both traditional corporate capitalism and traditional state socialism.” The main argument behind his work is that democratizing the way wealth is owned and managed is crucial in addressing chronically unstable socio-economic institutions. Alperovits claims that even employee-owned companies may “develop narrow interests that are not necessarily the same as those of society as a whole.” In response to competition on the free market, for instance, the company may still be pushed to pollute local streams and air. The Pluralist Commonwealth model is based on altering “larger patterns of distribution and power,” nurturing a broad culture that embodies inclusive rather than profit-minded goals, and redefining what constitutes a community.

Perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge—at the heart of our warming climate and exhausted ecosystems—is this: creating an inclusive “culture of community accountability” out of which just and equitable legal and policy responses can flow.

A recording of the webinar is available at https://vimeo.com/113417655.

Avana Andrade is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

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Monday, December 01, 2014
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Climate Change Vet Cameron Explains How He’s Learned from Failure

By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15

In 1988, I was two years old in rural Alaska. I didn’t know what was happening in the world, let alone what was occurring in its atmosphere. Twice in the prior decade, in 1973 and 1979, the world experienced an energy crisis that saw fuel prices skyrocket. In his famous 1979 speech President Jimmy Carter said the country was experiencing a “Crisis of Confidence” and urged Americans to adopt energy conservation strategies. At the time, a few Middle Eastern nations, rich in fossil fuels, dictated the supply and price of the important commodity. President Carter, and later President Reagan, vowed to make greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels more affordable for everyone.

And so cheaper fuel ballooned.

In the midst of this, in 1988 when James Cameron – now director of Climate Change Capital – was a law student. Greenpeace asked for his help on a research project. Could the US be sued in an international court of law for not acting on a newfound environmental problem largely caused by fossil fuels: climate change?

Cameron delved into the research and, after a few months, came to believe that since every country was contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, every country would do what it could to protect the one earth we call home. Once science fell in line, the world’s leaders would unite to protect future generations.

Speaking at Yale nearly three decades later, he begged to differ with his younger self.

At his lecture at FES on Wednesday, November 12, he recalled working on the Kyoto Protocol, an international top-down treaty that many nations adopted. He was excited when US President Bill Clinton signed it, but the US Senate defeated any effort to make it the law of the land. Thus, the most powerful, influential, and highest carbon-emitting state in the world did not legally promise to take the steps necessary to reduce its impacts of climate change. Years later, Kyoto’s efforts were deemed null, and many nations either pulled out altogether or failed to meet their obligations. The ideal international path forward, for which Cameron and his colleagues had worked, was dead in its tracks.

In 2009, leaders had high expectations for the same top-down approach in Copenhagen, but the world again failed to agree on a comprehensive solution, disappointing any hopes for progress. While many in the environmental community still hold out hope for progress at the annual convention in Paris in 2015, Cameron said he has largely “moved on” from the top-down approach.

Today, he argues for something much different: a bottom-up, grassroots-style climate solution. If not entire nations, then perhaps entire regions, states, territories, cities, industries, corporations or individual businesses will step up to the plate and make a difference collectively.

This bottom-up strategy may be complimentary to new international efforts at top-down actions.  In Brisbane, Australia, during the annual November 2014 G20 Summit, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a joint-effort to reduce carbon emissions. President Obama promised US carbon reductions through efforts such as the recent proposed EPA regulations of power plants. China has promised to increase its renewable energy usage and to decrease its carbon emissions beginning in 2030.

But after the midterm elections, President Obama’s initiatives face a hostile Congress, arguably worse than in 1992 when the Clinton Administration tried to implement the Kyoto Protocol.  Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who will be the new Chair of the US Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, has laughed off climate change and even called the science a hoax. House Republicans have repeatedly passed bills to defund EPA in an effort to combat regulations to fight climate change.  Further, the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is doing all he can to “get the EPA reigned in.”  That has caused China to question if the US is serious on climate negotiations. And it means that bottom-up action from cities, states/provinces, civil society, and companies are still critically important.

Whatever happens, it will affect me personally. My family’s fish camp warehouse eroded to the point where we had to take it down or watch it literally fall into the sea. Cities and villages throughout Alaska are facing not just coastal erosion from warmer temperatures, but also invasive species that threaten our subsistence food resources. Melting permafrost has damaged our pipeline and infrastructure. While many people may think warmer temperatures are good for Alaska, in many cases it’s not.  That’s why I have hope in my elders like James Cameron, who dedicated their lives to solve our climate crisis and are still thinking of fresh and encouraging ways forward.

Perhaps learning from failure is the most effective way to learn after all.

Verner Wilson, III, is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014
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Yale Law students ask California Governor Brown to halt fracking

By Guest Author, Hillary Aidun, YLS '17

Last month I delivered a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown when he visited Yale Law School. Signed by twenty-two members of the Yale Environmental Law Association, the letter asks Governor Brown to place an indefinite moratorium on the use of unconventional oil extraction techniques such as fracking.

Governor Brown has made climate change a policy priority, but development of shale oil threatens to undermine his state’s progress. According to the California Air Resources Board, much of the state’s oil is more carbon intensive than the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the most climate-threatening reserves on the planet. Depending on whom you ask, we need to leave either two-thirds or 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to restrict global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. We should at least stop extraction of the most climate-disrupting energy sources, such as California oil.

Climate change threatens California in a number of ways, including by exacerbating drought. But unconventional extraction also contributes to drought in the immediate term by wasting at least two million gallons of water every day. Governor Brown has vowed to place water “front and center” as his state suffers from a drought so severe that cities are restricting residents’ water usage. He could save Californians enormous amounts of water by halting fracking and similar methods. These water-intensive drilling techniques are especially harmful because they permanently remove precious water from California’s supply; the chemicals employed and produced during fracking are so toxic that wastewater cannot be reused for other purposes.

Because fracking involves carcinogenic pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde it poses enormous threats to human health and the environment through both air and water pollution. According to nationwide industry data, five percent of wells leak immediately, and more than half leak after 30 years. An investigation by the Associated Press has confirmed cases of water contamination in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. In Los Angeles and Orange Counties, oil companies used 45 million pounds of air toxic materials for fracking and similar techniques between June 2013 and July 2014 alone. These toxins included crystalline silica, a known carcinogen, and hydrofluoric acid, which can cause severe damage to the eyes, skin and lungs. Californians have reported other health impacts in areas where fracking has been taking place for years.

Because fracking wastewater cannot be reused, operators dispose of it through underground injection. Federal seismologists have linked this practice to earthquakes. In the last five years Oklahoma has endured 2500 earthquakes, which scientistsblame on wastewater injection. More than half of California’s wastewater injection wells are within ten miles of a recently active fault line. Needless to say, California does not need to amplify its seismic risk.

Our letter—like fracking in California—focuses on oil, but it is important to note that most fracking in the United States takes place in pursuit of natural gas. Many consider natural gas a relatively harmless fossil fuel because it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But natural gas’s primary ingredient, methane, is up to 105 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Studies have found that methane leakage rates can be as high as 10% — meaning that in many cases natural gas is even worse for the climate than coal. 

Pick your poison—fracking is extraordinarily dangerous for a number of reasons. That is why nearly 70% of Californians want a halt to all fracking, and communities around the state are moving forward to prohibit the practice or calling on the Governor to do the same. I hope that Governor Brown will take note of fracking’s threats, and lead the nation on this pivotal environmental and human health issue.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
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A Post-Communist Landscape: Mother Latvia and her Sustainable Countryside

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

Mother Latvia stands in the center of Latvia’s capital Riga and immediately evokes the people’s struggle for freedom from Russia, and alternating German and Soviet occupations. Liberty, a woman cast in copper, lifts up three stars representing different Latvian regions and her posture, head slightly bowed and both arms raised high, conveys a sense of sacrifice that Latvians still recall from a  not-so-distant past. Having gained independence in 1991, the country now pursues its own desired and expected development.

The Latvian government has committed itself to sustainable development. In the words of former Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Latvia, His Excellency Edmunds Sprudzs, Latvia is dedicated to “environmentally sound, sustainable policy and growth.” However, the definition of what “sustainability” means to the Latvian national identity, and in the face of increasing Western European influence, is up for debate.

After decades of invasion and occupation, rural landscapes are dotted by derelict farms, some of which may appear to be more wild than agricultural after decades of abandonment. The country is marked by large and eerily untouched sanctuaries of land and coastline, which, thanks to historic Soviet dictates that prohibited any access (fishing, farming etc.), now harbor multiple endangered species. As a result, ideas about wild and rural landscapes and how each evokes Latvian national heritage are sources of contention among government officials, rural communities, and international and domestic non-governmental conservation organizations. At the center of these debates is what “Latvianness” is and how landscapes might be managed in that image.

During the 1990s, for example, the fight over sustainable forestry within Latvia was largely driven by the politics of conservation and national identity, namely the tension between two opposing views, “liberal internationalism” and “agrarian nationalism.” Conservative forestry officials defended the sustainability of their forestry practices against the reformists’ arguments (including those of timber companies) that government practices were ecologically harmful and far from “sustainable.” The reform coalition argued for decreased state intervention, and endeavored to facilitate private and foreign owned commercial forestry, thereby revealing a distinct vision for Latvian development. That is, the reformists foresaw a future defined by involvement in international markets, private enterprise, and civil society. Just as the government foresters envisioned their traditional role as protectors of the forest for the Latvian people, so too did the reformists’ liberal sustainable development agenda rely on the idea of a peasant’s deep respect for nature. Both reflected a national consciousness of the Latvian people derived from a relationship with the land. In several ways, therefore, contention over national identity as embedded in the landscape shaped the debate over how to manage natural resources.

Having studied the emergence of national parks in the United States, I wonder, in creating reserves and attracting Western European tourists to experience its wild and “untouched” nature, will the ecological integrity of Latvia’s sanctuaries be jeopardized? And to what extent will Latvian culture (given the multiple definitions of what this is) be commodified by government administrators or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for international consumption?

To help guide development, NGOs often come to play key roles in coordinating community-based conservation projects.  The role of the environmental NGO is complex, and one that I came to think critically on during my internship this summer at the Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF) in Hamburg Germany. The organization recently kicked off its multi-year VivaGrass project that will restore and maintain grasslands in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

The grasslands themselves are a quickly vanishing, an extremely rich ecosystem that has co-evolved with human activity along the Baltic coast over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Ancient and modern grazing and farming practices have kept shrub and tree growth in check and allowed a staggering diversity of plant and animal species to flourish. In recent decades, however, the local farming communities that once maintained these grasslands were destroyed by Soviet farm collectivization and have remained debilitated under the infusion of food and goods from Western Europe.

Since the VivaGrass project kickoff meeting in May, I came to appreciate how intertwined the environmental conservation goal of the project is with rural development and how, even though BEF’s primary issue is grasslands, it is inevitably acting within a much larger context of history, national identity, and national politics. Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian professionals within BEF, in close coordination with rural farmers and local government administrators, are the leaders of the VivaGrass project. Regardless of the heritage of BEF’s team, though, VivaGrass will deal with more than monitoring grassland health.

As BEF’s VivaGrass project begins to create socially and ecologically “sustainable” grassland management models for its Baltic project sites, it is inevitably involved in political and cultural discourses of rural landscape conservation and development. In its early stages, the project will involve rural stakeholder engagement and grassland rehabilitation (shrub and tree removal). Over time, and in coordination with farmers and municipal leaders, the project will establish long-term maintenance schemes. Such maintenance in other grassland conservation projects around Europe has typically entailed purchasing sheep or cows and a fencing or transporting system. These project often hire shepherds to tend to the animals or enlist local farmers to perform the work. Local farmers ideally would be able to sell meat or milk products for profit to local markets or tourists. In some cases, the products from the animals are coupled with the sale of other locally produced goods.

In remaking select Baltic grasslands, VivaGrass also will be re-fashioning the rural landscape, which is both a cultural and agricultural act. Although local stakeholders may not explicitly state the narratives embedded in the landscape, “liberal internationalist” and “agrarian nationalist” stances may nevertheless shape collective impressions about what is an appropriate appearance and form of grassland rehabilitation. BEF, therefore, is poised to advance a cultural and/or political vision of rural development. Even if it does not officially endorse a particular viewpoint, BEF’s awareness of the implications of either narrative is key in anticipating outcomes of the project as it proceeds and balances local and national developmental needs and desires. Furthermore, a sensitivity to the power dynamics associated with rural development and continually assessing to what degree local populations have control over their own development is a critical question that will impact the long-term viability of VivaGrass.

While Mother Latvia has been a central symbol for the country’s embattled path to independence, the history behind her image does not offer a clear path forward now that the Latvian people have rural landscapes and wild spaces of their own. Competing ideas about national identity and responsible socio-economic development create a backdrop against which any non-profit environmental organization’s efforts are organized. The protection of grasslands within the Baltic region are a particularly poignant case in conservation simply because these ecosystems actually rely on human activity. They are, in other words, biological expressions of an ancient human-nature relationship. As such, BEF’s efforts to protect endangered grassland ecosystems is as much cultural as it is ecological. After decades of war and foreign occupation, Latvian government officials, rural community members, and farmers face the socio-biological consequences of land abandonment and farming community collapse. Non-governmental organizations like BEF may be uniquely positioned to help bring about environmentally and socially sound paths of conservation and development.

Avana Andrade is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
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Plodding Toward Paris: UN Climate Negotiations Summer 2014

By Guest Author, Dena Adler, Yale Law & Yale F&ES '2016

As if somehow aware of the arrival of over ten thousand diplomats, researchers, and observers focused on climate change, the weather in Bonn, Germany turned a humid and hot 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the June 2014 international climate negotiations. While participants cleared security and swiped badges to enter the air-conditioned halls of the Hotel Maritime, the contrast stood out starkly between the “weirding” climate outside, and climate-controlled world of international policy inside.

For some climate policy wonks, winter weather is the hallmark of international negotiations, as the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets at the beginning of December each year. However, these annual COP’s form only one piece of the negotiating puzzle, as evidenced by huge turnout for the recent—and distinctly summery—meeting in Bonn. Other crucial meetings occur throughout the year leading up to the December COP. These meetings may not capture major media attention like the COPs, but they play a critical role in developing timelines, focusing issue topics, and preparing negotiating text. Meetings must also flesh out agreements from previous COPs and build tangible action from ink and paper. The June 2014 Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany brought these process issues into play.

While much of the talk about climate negotiations focuses on the big policy questions, the nuances of diplomacy in the international process factor into many of the answers. As a new follower of the negotiations, what I found most striking was how observing the process actually provided context for understanding the policy issues at play. Much of the coverage of international negotiations consists of general news synopses for the mass public and technical policy analyses so laden with acronyms as to be unapproachable for the uninitiated. This post seeks to draw a middle path, drawing on my experience at the June 2014 negotiations to explain how some of the larger technical issues are currently moving through the negotiation process.  Admittedly the jargon and acronyms can prove a little difficult to digest, but I will introduce them with relevant explanation since they are crucial to understanding the process.

Ad-Hoc Working Group to Advance the Durban Platform (ADP)

During the second week of the Bonn June 2014 negotiations, I followed the daily meetings of the ADP (Ad-Hoc Working Group to Advance the Durban Platform.) This group works to fulfill a two-pronged responsibility. Under Workstream 1, the ADP aims to create a protocol, legal instrument, or other agreed outcome with legal force that will bind parties to achieve certain greenhouse gas emission reductions beginning in the year 2020.  Previous international agreement mandates that Parties complete a Workstream 1 agreement no later than 2015 so that they can adopt the agreement at the 2015 COP in Paris.  The Paris Agreement would then go into effect in 2020. 

However, in order for the Parties to maintain a chance of limiting global warming to 2°C, (the target agreed on by Parties at the Cancun COP in 2010), Parties must significantly scale up actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before 2020. Hence, Workstream 2 advances action to close the “ambition gap”—which describes the gap between the emissions reductions countries’ have pledged to make before 2020 and the more extensive reductions that they must make before 2020 if they hope to avoid more than 2°C of warming. Hopefully, Workstream 2 will help Parties stay on track cutting greenhouse gas emissions at home so that they can agree to more ambitious targets for the 2015 agreement.

Milestones for Milestones

Several facets of the negotiating process stuck out to me as a first-time observer. First, I had not fully appreciated that parties need to hammer out not only a substantive text, but the process and timing of creating that text as well as how it fits with complementary, preceding, and follow-up processes. Everything needs to be fleshed out and there is skin in the game of determining what process the parties will follow.

For example, staying on track to achieve a 2015 agreement requires not only hitting certain milestones, but also determining those milestones and when they must be reached (milestones for the milestones). During the most recent COP in Warsaw, the parties had agreed to an accelerated timeline to advance the 2015 agreement, which would require producing a draft negotiating text in time for the 2014 COP in Lima, Peru. The June 2014 negotiations presented a crucial opportunity to progress toward a Lima draft text by developing expectations and timetables including producing INDCs (initial nationally determined contributions), relaying the commitments Parties will undertake post-2020.

Ideally, Parties should propose their commitments early in 2015 to allow the requisite months to consider proposals, the fairness of their relative ambition levels, and how they collectively stack toward limiting warming to 2°C.  However, to prepare their INDCS for early 2015, Parties need to take immediate steps to agree on what information these commitments must contain. Arriving at agreement speedily can require trade-offs in the ambition, complexity, or specificity of commitments. For example, adaptation and climate finance commitments may require different models or metrics that take additional negotiating time to develop.

Negotiating to a Negotiating Text

Another active area of process negotiations revolves around whether the draft text will be formed as a large compilation of submissions from countries or whether the co-chairs will introduce a draft text based on parties’ submissions. On the one hand, a compiled document from Parties ensures that the initial document captures every country’s complete wish list and compromises from that baseline. However, such a compiled document would be hundreds of pages long and extremely difficult to narrow to an acceptable negotiating text on the current timeline. Alternatively, the co-chairs can produce a shorter document based on party submissions, which can more realistically be narrowed in the allotted timeframe, but as an abridged document its baseline will not include all desired items. Some observers considered the Parties pushing the huge, compiled document to be “obstructionist.” Others considered it a reasonable reaction from parties concerned about transparency in the wake of a Copenhagen 2009 COP that had splintered between a mainstream process and a closed-door side process.

The character of the negotiation meetings themselves also surprised me. I had expected a back and forth debate, but the first few meetings followed a pattern that consisted of the co-chairs presenting bullet points to frame discussion topics and then hours of parties taking turns to state their countries positions for the record. Obviously, negotiations require ample time to air all positions before Parties can reach common ground. Further, if co-chairs will later draft a text, parties have incentives to publicly voice their requests. However, until seeing the meetings in person, I had not appreciated how much of the scantily available face time it takes for countries to accomplish this preliminary objective before back and forth negotiations can begin. More detailed coverage of individual Parties stances is available here.

Plodding Along

As the second week of negotiations continued the discussions haltingly made progress despite these tensions. Nicaragua on behalf of the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) submitted text, bringing to the forefront the tension between party submissions and co-chair developed text. While this caused a stir among Parties, the co-chairs agreed to fold in the positions of the LMDC text into their proposed text. Even as the session neared its close, many questions continued to swirl through the conversations: Would developing countries need to make commitments? What corresponding financial and technological commitments of support would developed countries need to make? What role would adaptation play in the upcoming agreement? If adaptation required different terms was it worth potentially delaying the agreement to include them? How would verification and compliance be undertaken? Would INDCs be locked in as part of the Paris Agreement itself or a corresponding decision that could be more easily updated and adapted if countries had to tweak their commitments?

By the end of the session, though hammering out specifics continued to be difficult, a number of larger players had stepped forward with outlines.  Still, some Parties voiced disappointment over the lack of a set timeline to complete concrete steps before the December 2014 meeting in Lima. However, as one clear step in the right direction, the co-chairs promised to release documents to further draft negotiating text based on the parties stances in the wake of the June meeting. On July 7th, they put forward a “non-paper” summarizing “Parties’ views and proposals on the elements for a draft negotiating text” including points of conflict.

Parties are now moving to prepare for a World Leader’s Climate Summit scheduled by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to occur in September. With President Obama and other world leaders expected to attend, this meeting can highlight positive progress and build further momentum or bring insufficient progress under close scrutiny. Before reaching Lima, parties have their work cut out for them to cross the many points of conflict to create draft negotiating text and expectations for INDCs. Further, the interested public has its work cut out when it comes to understanding the important components of this process and pressuring their leaders to achieve timely action.  Slowly but surely, everyone is plodding a path forward.  

Posted in:
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
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Moving Forward on Offshore Wind in New Bedford: If You Build It, Clean Energy Will Come

By Guest Author, Chris Halfnight, MEM Candidate '15

The following blog was written for the Natural Resources Defense Council Switchboard blog and is available here as originally posted.

A short walk from the famous Whalemen’s Chapel of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, offshore wind power is getting a major push.  With construction of a new, $100-million marine commerce terminal well underway in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the city is on track to become a central hub for the emerging offshore wind industry in the United States – good news for the local economy, wind developers, and clean energy advocates alike.  Recently, I had a chance to tour the site for this new marine commerce terminal and learn more about its goals and prospects.  I’m grateful to Apex Companies’ Project Manager Dario Quintana for showing me around, and to Bill White and Matt Kakley at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center for arranging the visit. 

Called the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, the new port is the first of its kind in North America, specifically designed with the size and heavy capacity necessary to be a major staging ground for assembling and deploying large offshore wind turbines along the Atlantic coast.  Developed by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center – a key force behind the state’s nation-leading support for clean energy policies – the 28-acre terminal sits just north of New Bedford harbor’s hurricane barrier.  In addition to handling offshore wind, the terminal is also designed to manage other forms of bulk, container, and large specialty marine cargo.

Governor Deval Patrick broke ground on the project in the spring of 2013.  On my recent visit, the future terminal was beginning to take shape: over the past year, the project team has filled and built much of the dock’s foundation and remediated contaminated soils in the harbor, which is a Superfund site.  Construction is set to finish this coming December, with completion of a newly dredged, 30-foot-deep shipping lane to accommodate the large-scale vessels used in assembling and installing offshore wind turbines.

This impressive new terminal is helping revitalize New Bedford, a city with 350 years of maritime history and once the world’s preeminent whaling port.  It’s also heralding the imminent rise of a new and robust American industry: offshore wind power, which theDepartment of Energy estimates could create by 2030 more than 43,000 permanent jobs, along with 1.1 million job-years in manufacturing and installation.

Indeed, the terminal is already bringing significant benefits to the local economy: about40% of the project’s 120 jobs have gone to South Coast residents, the terminal’s general contractor is New Bedford-based Cashman-Weeks NB, and construction has relied on supplies and services from at least ten local businesses – a huge boon for a city that has suffered high unemployment in recent years. 

New Bedford is well positioned to help Massachusetts capture substantial first-mover benefits from the emerging offshore wind industry, including a wealth of local jobs and economic development – a head start on building a skilled workforce that may soon be in high demand along the east coast.  The potential windfall for first-movers is enormous, with the federal government having already designated more than 1.5 million acres off the Atlantic coast for wind energy development – a total area that could feasibly provide over 16,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity capacity and could power more than 5 million homes.  The New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal is located and engineered to be able to handle the staging, assembly, and deployment for many of these potential projects.   One of these developments – the nearby Cape Wind offshore wind project – has cleared all of its regulatory hurdles and is set to begin construction in the next year.

New projects in the area are also on the way: last September, Deepwater Wind secured the nation’s first competitive lease in federal waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  The company plans to develop approximately 1000 megawatts of generating capacity in the site, which it estimates would power 350,000 homes and displace more than 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually – equivalent to removing four million cars from our roads.  And, on the same day as my visit, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hosted a public meeting in New Bedford to advance the leasing process for another wind energy area 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Offshore wind power – with huge potential capacity, no fuel costs, and no air pollution – is set to become a central pillar in our clean energy future.  Europe leads the way on offshore wind, with 73 offshore wind projects already producing carbon-free electricity.  But momentum is building here in the United States, and continued policy and infrastructure investment will finally bring this enormous clean energy source online.  Properly designed and well-sited offshore wind power makes good sense for local and national economies and the environment alike.   Massachusetts and New Bedford are smart to invest now in the clean energy future.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
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Passive houses and living buildings provide fresh direction in mitigating climate change

By Guest Author, Pamela Jao, MEM/MBA candidate '17 and Daphne Yin, MEM candidate' 16

By 2100 it may be impossible for humans to work outside. If the world continues on its business-as-usual growth trajectory, global temperatures could rise beyond 95 degrees Fahrenheit – the highest tolerable “wet bulb temperature” – as the new norm in many parts of the world. Particularly in urban areas, where heat island effects can add up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures would be especially unbearable.

How do we avoid such a bleak future? On June 19, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz – coordinating lead author of the buildings chapter of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report on Climate Change Mitigation – shared her thoughts here at Yale on the potential to counter climate change through building efficiency.

The map in the top right-hand corner shows the BAU greenhouse gas emissions scenario, also known as RCP 8.5 in the scientific community.

Passive House Standard

Ürge-Vorsatz made the case, based on emissions data, that the most cost-effective way to mitigate climate change is through building efficiency improvements, compared to emissions reductions in other sectors. In particular, she highlighted one building concept – the passive house – that not only can guide reductions in our carbon footprint but also help us “weather the weather.”












The Passive House Standard, launched in Germany, specifically targets energy efficiency (in contrast to holistic standards like LEED). Employing high-quality insulation and ventilation, passive houses require incredibly little energy for space heating and cooling. Case studies show that passive houses reduce energy consumption by much as 80 to 90 percent compared to typical buildings in central Europe. The buildings themselves can be residential or nonresidential, new or retrofits, and are relatively low-cost over their lifetime, although they do require additional upfront costs for the design and higher-quality building components. Ürge-Vorsatz’s research conservatively estimates that if all current building stock were to achieve passive-house levels of energy reduction, world energy consumption would fall by 30 percent. These energy reductions could help us avoid the 2100 BAU scenario, though they would obviously need to happen sooner than later.

While it’s been proven that passive houses require very little energy to regulate temperature, can this technology be scaled? How well do passive houses perform outside of Central Europe, their temperate birthplace, particularly in more extreme climates? The airtight insulation of passive houses apparently excels in retaining warmth in cold climates, most prominently in Iceland where rough forms of the passive house date back to the Middle Ages. However, it was argued during the talk’s Q&A that while the concept is less adept at providing cooling in hot, humid climates. If this is true, how would passive houses fare in a country like India, which suffered its worst heat wave in over 60 years this summer?

Austrian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo credit: Timothy/Austrian Embassy JakartaIntrigued, we researched what work has been done to pilot passive houses in hot climates. A 2013 study by the Passive House Institute says passive house design can thrive in tropical climates (Jakarta, anyone?) if adjusted to include features such as interior insulation, solar control glazing, fixed window shades, and ventilation with heat and energy recovery.

Of course, it would help to know how much warm-climate adjustments would cost – particularly in developing countries where upfront costs may already be higher due to the relatively limited number of manufacturers that are versed in passive building components. To the extent that the passive house concept is flexible, countries can adapt it using their own design techniques.

Another area for exploration concerns air quality. Although passive houses should have good air quality by design and be made of non-toxic materials, any cutting of corners (e.g., substituting cheap toxic materials) could prove troublesome given the extreme insulation.

A global map of where passive houses are currently located is available here.

Living Building Challenge

Another green building concept, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) was presented on last week by the Connecticut Collaborative. LBC is the most stringent and holistic of green building certifications, surpassing both LEED and Passive House Standard in their approaches to efficiency.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) incorporates criteria that are non-traditional metrics of green buildings, including considerations of equity, human health and happiness, and beauty. While LEED-certified buildings can still have negative environmental impacts, living buildings must provide real environmental benefits. For example, they must be net energy and water positive, and cannot use combustion-based energy sources.

While the LBC philosophy and movement are inspirational, it is hard not to recognize the uphill battle living buildings face in achieving commercial adoption. Currently, there are only five certified living buildings in the whole world. Building them can be cost-prohibitive, especially when current financial models for buildings don’t account for healthcare cost reductions, and increased productivity.

Getting retro right

Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York. Photo credit: Farsid Assassi/BNIM ArchitectsIndependently, the Passive House Standard and Living Building Challenge present two promising solutions to avoid the “lock-in” scenario Ürge-Vorsatz described. She stressed that shallow retrofits – anything resulting in less than 80 percent in energy reduction – are harmful, as they risk locking buildings into a path-dependent scenario of sub-optimal performance. Since both standards have stringent energy reduction requirements, they represent potential standards that could be scaled up and prevent the future nightmare BAU scenario of 2100.

If you want to get more involved with the Living Building Challenge, like “Living Building Challenge Connecticut Collaborative” on Facebook and check out the International Living Future Institute website where you can sign up to be an ambassador.



Photo Credits:

Austrian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Credit: Timothy/Austrian Embassy Jakarta.

Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York. Credit: Farsid Assassi/BNIM Architects.

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorInnovation & EnvironmentEnergy & Climate
Thursday, June 19, 2014
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Homegrown Energy and Homeland Security

By Guest Author, Sara Kuebbing, Gaylord Donnelley Environmental Postdoctoral Associate, Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies

In a quest to reduce dependence on foreign oil, the United States government is increasing its mandatory minimum levels of renewable biofuel production each year. Because the US’s first large-scale foray into biofuels—corn for ethanol—was heavily criticized, many non-food plant species are now under consideration for biofuel production. However, this search for non-food biofuels has another, currently underappreciated, impact: The introduction and spread of invasive plant species across the US.

The problem with using nonnative plants for biofuel is that successful biofuel crop traits —short generation time, pest resistance, high growth rates, high water-use efficiency—are the same traits of many invasive plants.

Nonnative plants are those humans introduce into an area from far-off geographic regions. If these plants spread far beyond the place where they were originally planted, they are considered invasive. Not all nonnative plants turn invasive, but recent research indicates that the species the US government is considering for biofuels are three times more likely to be invasive than a random sampling of nonnative species. For more on the plants currently under consideration, see the sidebar Potential Invasives Awiting Approval below.

To address this, the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species brought invasive plant experts from around the nation to the Washington, DC last week to meet with members of Congress, congressional staff, and federal agencies The goal of the meetings was to dissuade policymakers from providing federal support for the use of nonnative, invasive plants as biofuel feedstock.

The Environmental Protection Agency gave the green-light nearly a year ago to businesses wishing to grow two well-known invasive grasses: giant reed (Arundo donax) and napiergrass (Pennisetum purpureum). Ironically, the EPA is not the only governmental agency thinking about these species. Giant reed, an aptly named grass that can easily grow stalks over 30 feet in height, is growing unabated along the US-Mexico border. This weed presents such a problem for border patrol agents with the Department of Homeland Security that DHS has commissioned the US Department of Agriculture’s help in coming up with a method to reduce the giant reed populations in Texas.

So why would the EPA approve the wide-spread planting of invasive species? It comes down to strict and literal adherence to laws passed by Congress a few years back. Currently, the EPA reviews potential biofuel feedstocks as part of the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) Program, created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and revised in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. These laws, in short, demand that the transportation fuel must be a blend of traditional carbon-intensive oil as well as renewable fuels with lower carbon emissions.

EPA conducts a greenhouse gas (GHG) lifecycle analysis on potential biofuel feedstocks to determine if they have lower carbon emissions than traditional fuels. Biofuel producers and purchasers can (and must) petition the EPA to consider their specific biofuel “pathway” to see if it is eligible for renewable fuel standard credits. Because the only explicit requirement in the Energy Independence and Security Act is for EPA to perform GHG analysis, the EPA is sticking to this bare minimum in its environmental review, and has chosen to ignore other existing mandates, such as a presidential Executive Order requiring federal agencies to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species.

Although EPA doesn’t explicitly consider the potential invasiveness of a plant species under the RFS program, the agency did respond to the unanimous outcry from scientists in 2012 when it first approved giant reed and napiergrass as RFS compliant. However, EPA’s concession did not signal a commitment to consider the ecological impacts of potential feedstocks. Instead, EPA determined that if these invasive plants spread beyond the original planting, necessary control and management efforts would increase their “carbon-costs.” In other words, EPA determined that in some cases, invasion may have climate implications.

EPA ended up withdrawing the original 2012 ruling, and replacing it in 2013 with a supplemental ruling that required producers to submit a “Risk Mitigation Plan” that lays out a plan for keeping these species from spreading beyond the biofuel plantations. So far, no company has submitted a plan. And the scientific community is skeptical about the effectiveness of any self-enforced plan.

For those of us who think using invasive plants for biofuels is a bad idea, the ultimate frustration is that many other plants could make excellent feedstock. There does not have to be a “business vs. environment” trade-off when choosing renewable biofuel plants. Although the traits of biofuels and invasive plants strongly overlap, scientists have a resoundingly solid track record of predicting what species are at “high risk” of becoming invasive, and they’ve developed many practical and useful Weed Risk Assessment tools that allow users to evaluate the potential invasiveness of a species. These tools are so accurate that some governments, including Australia and New Zealand, require that all plant species pass an assessment before introduction into the country.

The scientific recommendation is that Weed Risk Assessments are made a fundamental component of any federal decision on biofuel production. Plants that are considered “low-risk” should be prioritized and incentivized over those that are “high-risk” for invasive potential.  Last week, there was some indication that this could be a possibility. Scientists with the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species had positive reception from some agency staff, namely the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office that provided R&D funding for many potential biofuel feedstocks. These staffers were already aware of the invasive potential of some biofuel feedstocks, and seemed receptive to using more formalized assessment tools in their own internal decisions on what species should receive federal funding.

However, it appears that under the current status quo, ecological invasions are likely to increase. The passing of the Energy Independence and Security Act increased EPA’s workload without increasing staffing to complete the task. This has, in part, probably led to EPA’s decision to stick with only the limited consideration of lifecycle GHG emission. And, in another round of agency irony, the Department of Agriculture is touting the transformation of field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) from “nuisance weed to biofuel” as if the new use will change its ecological properties or limit its invasion.

USDA has a long history of importing invasive plants into the United States. Through the Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation program, many nonnative species were promoted for preventing soil erosion and improving wildlife habitat. The most infamous of these species is kudzu (Pueria lobelata) “the vine that ate the south,” but also includes the highly invasive bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia).

Would it really be too much to ask for our federal agencies to learn from their past mistakes and avoid promoting kudzu’s successor?

Want to know more about invasive species and US biofuel policies? Check out these good reads:

Lewis KC and RD Porter (2014.) Global approaches to addressing biofuel-related invasive species risks and incorporation into U.S. laws and policies. Ecological Monographs 171. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/13-1625.1

Quinn LD, Gordon D, Glaser A, Lieurance D, and SL Flory. (accepted, in press) Bioenergy feedstocks at low risk for invasion in the US:  A white-list approach. Bioenergy Research.


Potential Invasives Awiting Approval

While it seems highly unlikely that the EPA will revise its final ruling on giant reed and napiergrass, more potential invasive plants are sitting in the EPA’s docket. Most of these petition listings are so vague that it is impossible to evaluate the invasiveness potential without further clarification of the exact species under consideration. Currently, the EPA has four different petitions for “grain sorghum,” one for “biomass sorghum,” one for “jatropha,” and one for “pennycresss.” Although scientists and taxonomists purposely use a consistent and widespread convention for naming plants and animals so that they can avoid confusion between different languages or even different regional slang, these petitions are most likely intentionally vague to protect proprietary information about the exact variety of the plant under consideration. 

For example—and using the proper conventional nomenclature—the plant genera Sorghum contains a few highly invasive plants species: Sorghum bicolor (which has a slew of common names including shattergrass, Sudangrass, and, sometimes, grain sorghum) is listed as a noxious weed in six states, and its close relative Sorghum halepense (Johnsongrass) is listed in a 19 states. Likewise, the genera Jatropha contains two members of the IUCN’s infamous “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.” Some proactive researchers have already red-flagged these species because of Weed Risk Assessment results: Jatropha curcas was resoundingly rejected by three different assessments, Sorghum halepense and Thlaspi arvense (field pennycress) by one, and Sorghum bicolor was recommended for further evaluation three times.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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