State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Putting Knowledge to Work in the Real World: The Capstone Projects

Bo Ra Kim presents her team's project on marine debris.
Bo Ra Kim presents her team’s project on marine debris.

The study of sustainability management and environmental policy is put to the test when applied to solving real world problems. Students in Columbia University’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management and Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy programs were challenged to use what they had learned when they consulted in teams with real clients for their final capstone projects.

On April 28, Sustainability Management students representing five capstone projects presented their analyses and findings. To realize these projects, they had to draw on lessons from courses about management, public policy, science and economics.


Last Chance Gas!

In 2014, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Multi-State Zero-Emission Vehicles Action Plan with seven other states to increase the number of clean vehicles on the road. To help the state meet this goal, presenter Julia Byrd and her team, were tasked by their client, the New York State Department of Transportation, to identify the pros and cons of various alternative fuel vehicles, their infrastructure requirements and their potential for widespread adoption. The team studied different types of vehicles, analyzed how polluting they are, and examined what infrastructure is available to support them. In addition, the team considered how to encourage public adoption of these vehicles and identified obstacles to adoption.

After analyzing the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of various vehicles, the team determined that electric vehicles produce the least emissions, particularly in New York State where most electricity comes from natural gas. Ultimately, lifetime costs for alternative vehicles, particularly electric vehicles, are cheaper than conventional vehicles. So, the team asked, why isn’t everyone buying them? The students learned that concerns about how far the vehicles could be driven (range anxiety) due to lack of enough fueling stations is the main barrier to adoption; high initial costs and lack of awareness are also obstacles. The team looked at various incentives available around the country, and suggested ways the Department of Transportation can increase consumer awareness and adoption of alternative fuel vehicles and identify gaps in infrastructure.

Julia Byrd
Julia Byrd

Byrd expressed surprise at how well her team worked together and how varied their skills were. “I think we just had a really unique set of skills that truly reflects the diversity of the Sustainability Management program,” she said via email. “For example, we had a team that was familiar with the GIS software, an analytics team capable of putting together Excel models and adapting existing models, a few designers to make our PowerPoint and final paper visually appealing, and finally a few excellent writers (including a lawyer by training) to pull together all the research we have done into cohesive deliverables.”


Integrated Redesign of Municipal Shop and Roadwork Facilities in Butte, Montana

Scarred by its copper mining history, Butte, Mont., is the largest Superfund site in the United States; paradoxically, it is also the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark. Butte’s municipal asphalt plant and county shops need to be moved from a contaminated area so that mine tailings can be cleaned up. The Butte-Silverbow County Department of Planning charged presenter Dana McManamon and her team with figuring out how to operate the facilities in the most sustainable way and where to relocate them.

Dana McManamon
Dana McManamon

The team presented ways to operate the facilities more sustainably, recommending the use of geothermal heating and wind energy, natural lighting, onsite water recycling, and the use of natural de-icers. The students had to take into consideration the needs of diverse stakeholders. “Government officials, both local and state, designers, urban planners, university students, residents, industry, and tourists all have an idea of what Butte should and could be,” said McManamon in an email. “It’s a matter of identifying a synergistic combination of these stakeholder visions and realizing environmental responsibility at the same time.”

To determine where to relocate the facilities, the team created site selection rubrics that considered the environmental, social, technical feasibility, cost and ecological impacts of each potential site. Every one has tradeoffs; the rubrics allow the client to clearly identify the hot spots of each site to facilitate a decision.

Julia Crain, special projects planner for the City and County of Butte-Silver Bow, was impressed with the team’s approach to the problem. “The students’ curiosity about the history of Butte, the city’s role in American industrialization, and its environmental legacy has demonstrated how innovatively thinking about these subjects in a new context can enable us to leverage them for economic growth, enhancing livability, and allow Butte to set an example for communities throughout the country grappling with similar issues,” she said. “The Earth Institute and its students have helped Butte to begin seeing itself as a 21st century city as well as a leader in environmental stewardship.”

The project gave McManamon a valuable insight. “Throughout the project I couldn’t help but think, ‘What if resources had been managed responsibly to begin with?’” she said. “A lot of damage could have been avoided if mine tailings had been managed properly…It’s a great lesson learned. Instead of cleaning it up, avoid it to begin with. This is something that is relevant not only to Butte, but around the world where the exploitation of natural resources is causing damage that future generations will have to pay for.”


Expanding Sustainability Beyond NRDC’s Operations

The goals of this project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s largest environmental organizations, were to evaluate its existing sustainability operations plan and help expand it. The project, presented by Sebastian Hanna, studied which strategies have been successful, identified missed opportunities and offered recommendations for the future.


Battle of the Buildings: Evaluating the Sustainability of Buildings in Yonkers, N.Y.

The team was tasked by the city of Yonkers to design a program based on competition to promote the environmentally efficient operation and maintenance of privately and publicly owned buildings in Yonkers. Because changing behavior is cheaper and faster than making actual building improvements, the project, presented by Sisi Zhu, focused on finding out what green behaviors occupants were willing to adopt and suggested ways to encourage them.


An Environmental and Social Performance Benchmarking Process for Non-Governmental Organizations

Non-governmental organizations often lack the resources to collect all the data on their own sustainability. For its clients, the World Resources Institute’s Sustainability Initiative and the Sustainability Managers Round Table, the team developed a benchmarking tool that will enable different groups to measure their sustainability against one another in common terms. Amit Mahadevia presented the project for his team.


On April 29, students of the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program presented six capstone projects.

Steve Cohen
Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and director of the two master’s programs, emphasized how important it was to learn to work as a team, and to interact with and translate information to other professionals in order to problem solve. “The field is too complex for one person to address,” Cohen told the students. “You need a team of people from different fields…The projects have helped you form a conceptual framework for solving problems.”


Quantifying the Financial Costs to Communities of Handling/Preventing Trash in Waterways

The goal of this study, done for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was to quantify the overall cost of managing trash in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. In the past, trash broke down more easily; today, there is more trash, and more of it is plastic (often due to single-use products), which doesn’t break down as easily. Most of the debris that ends up in waterways comes from runoff or combined sewage overflows and can harm the environment and wildlife. Because 80 percent of the marine debris emanates from land, the U.S. EPA Trash Free Waters program is working to reduce trash in waterways by focusing on the urban/coastal connection.

Presenter Bo Ra Kim and her team examined cleanup activities for municipalities in the New York/New Jersey area, calculated per capita costs for each area and each type of activity, and examined viable preventative policies such as extended producer responsibility (take back programs) and bans on single-use products, and reactive policies such as fees on plastic bags and establishing maximum daily loads, which sets standards for the amount of trash permissible in water bodies. They determined that up front investments could reduce overall costs down the road. The Department of Environmental Conservation plans to use the analysis to identify the most cost-effective trash reduction strategies, as well as potential communities in need of trash reduction efforts.

Venetia Lannon, New York City regional director for the Department of Environmental Conservation, and her colleagues at the EPA were “thrilled with the presentation.” “This is a piece of work that easily could have been a not inexpensive project to do had we done it with a consultant,” said Lannon. “It’s really incredible—the professionalism and depth the students got into.”

“Every time I work on a new sustainability project,” said Kim in an email, “I become more aware of how interconnected all of these sustainability issues are. Throughout this project, we found the connections between marine debris and stormwater management, bioaccumulation of toxins, and more. When you try to address one sustainability issue, you end up addressing multiple ones.”


roadmap for dubai capstones 2015Implementation Plan for the Abu Dhabi Quality and Conformity Council

Because of its abundant oil resources, the people of Abu Dhabi have grown used to subsidized cheap electricity. The government, recognizing that this is risky given the falling price of oil, wants to obtain 7 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. This project for the government and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, presented by Grace Relf, designed a framework for the country to achieve this goal and recommended ways to meet the challenges.

Grace Relf
Grace Relf

The team suggested the use of policy tools to promote renewable energy, such as a feed-in tariff that provides a fixed rate for renewable energy fed back into the grid, competitive bidding for renewable energy power plants, and adoption of a renewable portfolio standard that would require a certain amount of energy to be derived from renewables.

The experience taught Relf how to adapt policy tools she had studied to different needs and interests. “It was critical to consider what the needs of each stakeholder are, and the legal and cultural limitations that need to be overcome,” she said via email. “For example, in Abu Dhabi, all the energy sector players are at least majority owned by the government, making some free market policy tools not viable. It was challenging and exciting to think about how to adapt the tools we considered for this situation so that they would still successfully achieve the stated goals…it’s really important to balance what is desirable and what is plausible in order to find solutions that will actually work given the context of the situation.”

“We are very pleased with the Columbia University team’s work given the time constraints they had,” said Carlos Amaya, senior consultant at the Abu Dhabi Quality & Conformity Council. “They definitely met our expectations.”


Natural Resources Defense Council’s Urban Solutions Program

The NRDC’s Urban Solutions program addresses climate change and economic inequality by promoting new strategies for cities that help increase energy efficiency, reduce flooding, improve access to good food, and lower transportation costs. The goal of this project, presented by Tom Pellicano, was to design a tool to determine the baseline environmental conditions of cities and assess the impacts of various programs, with a special focus on food systems and stormwater management.


Assessing Incentive Program Models to Advance Energy Efficiency in NYC Multifamily Buildings

The Building Energy Exchange, a non-profit energy efficiency resource center in New York City, tasked the team with identifying the challenges and opportunities of the various programs that promote energy efficiency in multifamily buildings and recommending the most effective models. The team examined the energy efficiency rebates, grants and incentives available from federal and state government as well as local utility companies. Malin Meyer presented for her team.


Developing Policies and Legal Frameworks to Incentivize Forest Protection

The World Resources Institute’s goal was to analyze forest incentive programs and suggest policies to improve them. The project, presented by Anindita Chakraborty, examined case studies of forest protection programs around the world and recommended strategies that characterize the most effective programs.


raritan hq capstonesClimate Change Strategies for Raritan Headwaters Association

The Raritan Headwaters Association, which monitors water quality and advocates for sustainable policies, recognizes the need to focus more on water quality and watershed resiliency issues in the face of climate change. After collecting and analyzing data, the project, presented by Ligia Henriquez, recommended strategies to make the region more resilient and identify potential challenges.


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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