State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Students Assess City Greenhouse Gas Reduction Tools

By Hilary Osborn

Students in Columbia University’s Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program worked this past semester to analyze city-level strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The MPA-ESP program is a unique year-long program that incorporates an understanding of natural systems and science with policy and management strategies. The program puts a premium on hands-on experience, and culminates in a semester-long capstone project in which groups of students take on an analysis project for a real-world client in a government or nonprofit agency. In the 2016 spring semester, program director Steven Cohen’s workshop group worked with the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) on Urban Sustainability Solutions. This project analyzed a variety of cities with policies and programs aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of the project was to determine if these initiatives are politically and economically feasible to be implemented in cities of different typologies around the world.

The group assessed 13 cities with innovative strategies for greenhouse gas emission reductions. The cases were divided them into three areas of focus: energy of the built environment, transportation, and the financing of green urban infrastructure. Below is a presentation of the project, led by group team leaders Scott Kjorlien, Teo King, and Brian Pellicore. Watch the full video here, or read on for highlights.

In the category of built infrastructure, the group presented on the city of Rizhoa, China and its Solar City plan. In order to improve air quality and mitigate pollution, all new buildings in Rizhoa are required to be fitted solar water heaters, and existing buildings are encouraged to adopt the technology as well. This implementation removes about 175,000 tons of CO2 from the air each year. The group also presented on New York University’s new cogeneration plant, which replaced its old system after state-wide standards deemed it unusable. “This is really useful, because NYU has energy resiliency capabilities. When Superstorm Sandy hit, NYU was still able to power many of their buildings as a result of this cogeneration plant,” says Pellicore.

For their transportation analysis, the group analyzed London’s transportation initiative, which utilizes the blunt incentive tool of congestion pricing, meaning that drivers are taxed for traveling through the city’s center. This is meant to incentivize citizens to use other modes of transportation rather than single-rider vehicles. To complement this tax, and relieve the burden of transportation on citizens, 300 buses were added to the public transportation routes. This initiative uses economic motivations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of cars on the road, while still giving the consumer options for transportation.

Amsterdam’s strategy, perhaps the most lavish of the cases that the group analyzed, is to provide large subsidies for the purchasing of electric vehicles. In some cases, up to 72% of the cost of these cars was subsidized by the city. As a part of this initiative, Amsterdam established an electric vehicle program for its local airport, Schiphol, by providing Tesla Model S Taxis and battery electric buses for transportation to and from the airport. Amsterdam chose to do this for early adopters as proof of concept. “This is probably not something that cities are going to be able to replicate on a worldwide basis because not every city is going to have the same resources that Amsterdam has,” explains King.

Portland, Oregon was faced with the challenge of connecting its growing residential neighborhoods with its industrial area. The city chose to extend its light rail line to provide access to these two zones for its citizens via public transportation. The city lined this extension of train track with “eco tracks,” grass lining meant to eliminate noise, as well as eight miles of bike lanes. Each of the train stations had either installed solar panels to generate energy, or green roofs and rain gardens to improve air quality. A project like this, with its focus on free public access and health, had to be financed by public funds. “Because it’s such an emphasis on public goods, there’s absolutely an emphasis on public funding, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Kjorlien explained. “With public goods that anyone can enjoy, the government needs to step up and put the funds forward.”

Kjorlien concluded with the group’s analysis of financing green infrastructure in regards to risk versus profitability of a project. With the different cases that the group chose to highlight, we see a variety of techniques for how greenhouse gas reduction policies can be funded. There’s the blunt tool of taxes to deter drivers, government-funded projects for public benefit, and public-private partnerships. The presentation concludes that in some ways these projects are replicable across the world, depending on a city’s resources. “It really just comes down to political will, and the desire and ability to put their foot down as a government,” Kjorlien says in his closing statements.

This project showcases different types of cities around the world that have been working to reduce their emissions for the last 30 years, using a variety of policy management techniques. It will be interesting to see how NRDC continues to aid governments as they take on new challenges to reduce their emissions. By utilizing a variety of tools – such as regulation to command these developments, economic incentives such as subsidies and tax credits, and the creation of a culture geared towards a push for environmental welfare –  cities can significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The student team for this project includes: Ilinca Kung Parslow (project manager), Frederic Klein (deputy manager), Judah Aber, Tess Arzu, Paulo Bergamos dos Santos, Matthew King, Scott Kjorlien, Siyao Liu, Brian Pellicore, and Norman Shafto.

Author Hilary Osborn is a student in the M.S. in Sustainability Management program, and an intern in the Executive Directors Office at the Earth Institute.

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