YSE Professors Help Federal Government Account for Environment in Regulatory System
YSE Professors Eli Fenichel and Kenneth Gillingham played key roles in updating a White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guide on how federal agencies calculate their regulations’ benefits and costs to account more fully for the environment.
All major regulations must undergo benefit-cost analysis (BCA), and the U.S. executive branch is responsible for doing BCA for programs and regulations. Fenichel, Knobloch Family Professor of Natural Resource Economics, worked to update Circular No. A-4, which is the federal government’s primary document for guiding BCA and was last revised in 2003. Circulars are the highest-level guidance issued by OMB.
“This document has tremendous influence over what government agencies consider, how they consider it, when they make regulatory decisions, and also over the ability of the government to defend or be challenged in court over those decisions,” Fenichel said.
The new update references "ecosystem services" 18 times and "environmental" 74 times, including five mentions of "environmental justice." The document is supported by new Guidance for Assessment Changes to Environmental and Ecosystem Services in benefit-costs analysis.
While on leave to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which works closely with the OMB, Fenichel was central to this historic effort to modernize regulatory guidance and helped draft these updates. The documents go through extensive public comment and peer review. Gillingham, professor of environmental and energy economics, was one of the official peer reviewers on the critical document. Yale Law Professor Zach Liscow led an update of a related federal guidance for BCA for programs and operation, OMB Circular A-94 (last revised in 1992), which Fenichel also helped to revise.
In a recent White House roundtable focusing on the first-of-its-kind report "Advancing the Frontiers of Benefit Cost Analysis: Federal Priorities and Directions for Future Research," Fenichel discussed the effort to develop environmental economic accounts to track the quantity and quality of natural resources, including air, water, land, wildlife, pollinators, energy, minerals, soils, forests, wetlands, environmental activities, urban green space, and other environmental assets.
"It was great to see projects from agencies with expertise in physical and natural sciences working with agencies with expertise in social science," Fenichel said at the roundtable. "We really need this systematic viewpoint. The natural capital accounts and the environmental economic statistics will work with other national economic statistics to create baselines that will allow us think about change and ultimately let us separate the unintended consequences of regulations that can be avoided because they are no longer unanticipated."
More News in Brief
Jaye Wilson Honored with Rising Black Scientist Award
Through her research, YSE student and National Science Foundation graduate research fellow Jaye Wilson aims to improve recycling systems to increase yield for high-value products and help industries develop more sustainable business practices. She shared her scientific goals and how her family, community, and STEM experiences sparked her interest in the field in the essay “Resilient wings, tangible impact: My journey from chrysalis to change-maker in STEM,” which earned her a Rising Black Scientists Award.
“The RBSA is a deeply personal achievement that represents a collective aim for a future where diversity in thought and background is not just recognized but celebrated as the bedrock of academic and societal advancement,” Wilson said. “For me, it is a beacon of encouragement to continue being a restorative force in my field, fostering creativity and innovative thinking.”
The award, first established in 2020 and given by Cell Press, Cell Signaling Technology (CST), and the Elsevier Foundation, provides funds to support professional development for talented and motivated Black Scientists. Winners have their essays published in iScience and receive $10,000 to support their research as well as a $500 travel grant.
“Through their stories and accomplishments, this year’s winners of the Rising Black Scientists Awards are examples of excellence to us all,” said John Pham, editor-in-chief of Cell. “My colleagues and I at Cell Press are inspired by them, and we are proud to be sharing their stories.”
Wilson and her fellow honorees, Kevin Brown Jr. of California State University San Marcos; Senegal Mabry of Cornell University; and Akorfa Dagadu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were chosen from more than 350 applicants from across the life, health, physical, and earth, environmental, and data sciences.
Saving Tropical Forests
About 60% of the world’s tropical forests, which store 25% of the world’s total carbon, are degrading, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Less than half remain at high integrity. At the 30th annual International Society of Tropical Foresters conference held at YSE’s Kroon Hall February 2-3, conservationists examined the drivers of deforestation, how carbon and diversity markets can sustain them, and progress in protecting them.
At the first day of the conference, which convened academics, practitioners, policy makers and community leaders from around the world, Marthe Tollenaar, ESG director at SAIL Ventures, a boutique investment firm based in The Hauge and Sao Paulo, noted how &Green Fund is helping to create returns on biodiversity credits, which she said are as attractive as conventional investments. Currently, she said, companies fund credits through their foundations instead of integrating them into their balance sheets and anticipating a return on investment.
While deforestation has slowed in the Amazon under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency, Ane Alencar, science director for IPAM, a research based environmental NGO in Brazil, said that more than half of deforestation occurred on public lands in 2021-2022 where forest clearance went unpunished. She said that land tenure, not agriculture is the biggest driver of clearing forests. In Indonesia, which has the largest expanse of rainforests in Asia, a drop in palm oil prices may have been a larger factor in slowing deforestation than government regulation, increased land security, sustainability efforts, and corporate commitments to conservation, said Kimberley Carlson, a land systems scientist and associate professor at New York University.
The Yale chapter of ISTF was established in 1992 and is housed at The Forest School at YSE. The annual conference is the longest running student-led conference at Yale.
Plant-Animal Impact on Amazon's Degrading Forests
In the agricultural frontier between Amazonia, which covers about 40% of the South American continent, and Cerrado in the South American savannas, climate change, defaunation, and fragmentation are degrading forests. One factor in the types of forests that will survive these threats is the interaction between animals and plants. A YSE-led team of scientists was awarded a $2.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study to these critical plant-animal interactions and how they impact the resilience of tropical forests.
As part of the study, the team, which includes Paulo Brando, associate professor of ecosystem carbon capture; Liza Comita, professor of Tropical Forest Ecology and co-director of the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture; Craig Brodersen, professor of plant physiological ecology; and scientists from 13 institutions, will produce Amazon-wide modeling projections of how fragmentation and defaunation may impact the future trajectory of forests in the region.
The Amazon, home to 25% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, has already lost about 20% of its original area.
“If the animals were to disappear from tropical forests, how would that shape the future of those forests, as well as their capacity to provide key ecosystem services such as carbon storage and water cycling?” Brando said.
The findings of the study will have broader implications, including better quantification of the services that animal species provide in keeping forests healthy; the consequences of forest collapse on forest-dependent peoples; and how future development in the region may impact the biodiversity of Amazonian forests, Brando said.
Animal-plant interactions in the Amazon, which is home to 25% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity, play a significant role in the resilience of the tropical forests.