By Alana Masciana
“The opportunities in what we do right now have never been brighter.” Richard Erickson of First Environment, an environmental engineering and consulting firm based out of New Jersey, opened the semester’s second Speaker Series event with a piece of encouragement for the student attendees. Erickson, along with Brittin Boenning and Phillip Ludvigsen, PhD (also of First Environment), was hosted by the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development on October 19th for a dialogue on career paths in environmental consulting.
Erickson launched the morning’s discussion speaking about his work in municipal markets, teasing that he’s allowed to try any idea he has “as long as it makes or saves people money.” An example of the kind of innovative program he likes to encourage is solid waste recycling. When implemented in municipalities, this type of program can recover resources such as methane and heat from solid waste—which reduces harmful outputs and saves costs for the municipality. In other words, it’s a program that is effective both environmentally and economically.
This turned out to be the theme of the day; truthfully sustainable projects are ones that can keep afloat on their own, without requiring constant subsidization from the government. To do that, they need to be economically sustainable. Ideally, they need to be able to generate their own revenue streams to attract investors.
As the afternoon’s session went on, the importance of integrating economics into models for environmental sustainability was echoed by the other speakers. In the discussion of his work on emerging markets, or what he jokingly likes to call “new and interesting things,” Phillip Ludvigsen challenged students to think critically about financial accountability. When asking students, “Who’s going to pay for [these projects]?” Ludvigsen brought up green bonds as one important way to attract responsible investors, referencing his experience in green bond verification with the Climate Bond Standards verification work group.
Brittin Boenning, a member of First Environment’s litigation support team, and alum of Columbia’s sustainable development program, reiterated the significance of green bonds—but also spoke to their inherent challenges. Specifically, she addressed the challenge of measuring the impact that green bonds can have for a company, since only those companies that volunteer to be audited as part of the verification process are actually audited.
By the end of the event, there was a clear take-away: our shared goal may be an environmental one, but our shared challenge is an economic one.
The Speaker Series previously hosted Thomas Abdullah of MTA New York City Transit, and will host Susanne DesRoches of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability on November 16.
Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at email@example.com.
Alana Masciana is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.