State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Sustainability Management Students Present Research Results

Students in the “Navigating Environmental, Social and Governance Data for Foundations” group.

Each semester, M.S. in Sustainability Management students must draw on both the practical skills and the analytical knowledge they have gained in order to address crucial sustainability management issues as consultants for a real-world client as part of the Integrative Capstone Workshop. Last week, students made presentations about projects that they are conducting on renewable energy, climate resilience, sustainable investment, urban agriculture and environmental management systems. The clients range from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation to the Federal Transit Administration.

“We worked with two partners in Mexico whose complimentary technologies for rain water harvesting and small-scale biodigesters have great potential for joint ventures in periurban agriculture,” said Lynnette Widder, faculty advisor to the “Living on the Edge: Understanding the Sustainability of Small-Scale Agriculture in Urban and Periurban Mexico City and Puebla” group. “The students demonstrated how impressive the benefits can be for both sustainability and social equity agendas: carbon capture, reduced embodied energy in the food chain, greater resiliency, new economic opportunities.”

The Capstone Workshop is one of two required courses in the Sustainability Management program, serving as the culminating educational experience for students by enabling them to apply the practical skills and analytical knowledge learned through the Sustainability Management curriculum into an applied project. Students work in teams and undertake special analytic projects as consultants for public and nonprofit agencies, increasing their understanding of the real-world constraints under which sustainability managers operate.

“Working with the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation was a terrific experience for us, as they’re a leader in sustainable investing,” said Julian Seelan, the presenter for the “Navigating Environmental, Social and Governance Data for Foundations” Capstone team. “The project forced us to think critically and use all our sustainability knowledge to come up with a tailored solution which was a true value-add.”

Since the program’s inception in 2011, students have completed more than 30 such projects for clients throughout the world. You can read more about the spring 2014 workshop projects below.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.   

Project: Creating Effective Environmental Management Systems

Client: Federal Transit Administration 

Faculty advisor: Thomas Abdallah

An environmental management system can be a valuable tool in improving the environmental performance of organizations. Such systems create standard ways of working, and create mechanisms for evaluating and continuously improving work processes and practices. In the last decade, the Federal Transportation Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that provides financial and technical assistance to local public transit organizations, has funded a program to help transit agencies develop and implement environmental management systems, using the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14001 EMS standard. According to the organization, ISO 14001 is part of a set of standards that “provides practical tools for companies and organizations looking to identify and control their environmental impact and constantly improve their environmental performance.”

The workshop team will gather relevant data, conduct interviews and utilize available information to measure, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the effectiveness of environmental management systems. The findings of the workshop team will inform a broader program evaluation that the Federal Transportation Administration plans to conduct on its own program and the use of such environmental management systems by transit agencies.

Project: Design a Self-Sustaining Business Model for Innovation Africa

Client: Innovation Africa 

Faculty advisor: Kizzy Charles-Guzman

Innovation Africa is a U.S.-based 501c3 nonprofit organization that offers Israeli technology and expertise to communities that are in need. From renewable energy to agriculture, to information technology and more, Israel is a leader in the global innovation sector. In Africa, these innovations have the power to save lives. Because Israel and many African countries have similar climates, Israeli solar, water and agricultural technologies can work well in African villages. The organization has deployed and implemented solar photo-voltaic systems to power schools, orphanages, medical clinics and water pumping systems in Africa. With each solar PV installation that Innovation Africa completes, an additional solar-powered cell phone charging sub-station is also implemented. This model helps generate additional revenue for regular maintenance and operation of the solar PV infrastructure. The cell phone charging sub-stations service has been a tremendous success in providing high up-time and electricity availability.

The primary objective for the capstone project is to develop a working program and create a set of deliverables while applying the principles and theories of sustainability management as a framework for strategic planning, management of people, finances and operations toward sustainability goals for all the current and future solar PV installations.

Project:  Bringing Newark’s Water and Sewer Systems into the 21st Century

Client:  Newark Water Group

Faculty advisor: Susanne DesRoches

The past decade has seen several large controversies in Newark about the management of the water and sewer systems, including the dissolution of a major agency amid charges of corruption and an ongoing investigation by the state comptroller. But it has seen little progress in updating these systems and preparing them to face the challenges of the 21st century, especially climate change.

The Newark Water Group has been a major protagonist in these controversies. As an organization of citizens, on at least three occasions it has led successful opposition to mayoral and gubernatorial proposals that would have hurt the systems severely. The Newark Water Group was also the first organization to expose mismanagement and excessive spending at the agency, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation, that was de facto managing the water and sewer systems.

The Water Group seeks a set of recommendations for improving the management of stormwater (i.e. alleviating flooding in the short and the long term; eliminating combined sewer overflows); and the identification of options for funding these improvements.

Project:  Navigating Environmental, Social and Governance Data for Foundations

Client:  Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation

Faculty advisor: Jessica Prata

The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation is a non-profit organization that supports grassroots organizations and movements in the United States working to change environmental, social, economic and political conditions to bring about a more just, equitable and sustainable world. The foundation’s finance committee invests the foundation’s endowment in a socially responsible manner, and in accordance with the values of the foundation. As an institutional investor, the foundation believes that its investment decisions can influence the operation of private firms and can contribute to the creation of a sustainable economy.

The process of screening prospective investments according to so-called, environmental, social and governance criteria is complex and involves a lot of data. Asset owners and investment managers purchase data from multiple providers and often struggle with how to use the information in the investment evaluation process.

The foundation asked the students to evaluate the offerings of environmental, social and governance data vendors—both data and company ratings—in order to understand how to better use the information, while reducing the costs associated with purchasing this information. The data providers that the capstone workshop team will evaluate include Bloomberg, ThomsonReuters, Factset, Sustainalytics, TruCost, Carbon Disclosure Project, ISS ProxyExchange, RepRisk, GMI Ratings and MSCI.

Project: Living on the Edge: Understanding the Sustainability of Small-Scale Agriculture in Urban and Periurban Mexico City and Puebla

Clients: Instituto Internacional de Recursos Renovables (IRRI), Sistema Biobolsa (SB) and Isla Urbana (IU), Mexico

Faculty advisor: Lynnette Widder

Students will collaborate with IRRI Mexico’s Alexander Eaton (Sistema Biobolsa) and Enrique Lomnitz (Isla Urbana), two social entrepreneurs who use both NGO (IRRI) and for-profit models (SB and IU) to achieve the goal of sustainable local water and food resource provision for populations on the urban periphery. A SUMA/IRRI capstone workshop project in spring 2013 developed techniques for the broader uptake of SB’s small-scale biodigestors and IU’s rainwater catchment systems using spatialization, communication and quantification strategies. These tools and the research behind them offer a basis for this capstone’s more specific, deeper focus on sustainable food supply.

The capstone team will consider closely one representative pilot project in which rainwater catchment and biodigestor systems are being used together with community education to support low-carbon, regionally appropriate food supply that turns waste—stormwater, animal manure, food remains—into assets, while decreasing reliance on resource-intensive processed, non-local foodstuffs. The communities at stake are self-built, and city infrastructure is limited. Food supply is difficult to track, since formal market halls or supermarkets are not typical in this cityscape.

We will conceive the framework for, collect, analyze and communicate the kinds of data that can argue for the synergetic application of SB and IU’s technologies for small-scale food production. Local food production offsets resource and energy flows used in centralized food yield enhancement, growing, processing and transportation. Part of our work will be to quantify these conventional flows and their environmental impact to argue in favor of urban agriculture.


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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