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Research Details Hurdles For ‘Next Generation’ Environmental Protection

Despite public pressure for industry to move quickly to renewable energy as part of a broad embrace of sustainable practices, new research is highlighting significant hurdles that will arise for efforts to bolster use of “next generation” efforts to improve environmental protection.

Inside EPA’s Environment Next has exclusive coverage of the latest research into emerging technologies and novel methods of environmental protection. Environment Next is a free service to our subscribers featuring wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy, including interviews, in-depth reporting and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate change. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts, including voluntary and industry-led programs.

Even as the United Nations is pushing countries and companies worldwide to adopt sustainability goals set out by its Environment Programme, a study released Oct. 29 by an international research group found significant “knowledge gaps” that are making it more difficult to meet those targets:

Study finds key ‘knowledge gaps’ hampering UN sustainability goals
A new study says the United Nations’ sustainability goals will be impossible to achieve without fresh research into a host of subjects including biodiversity and the complex relationship between environmental quality and human health, warning that those “knowledge gaps” make it all but impossible to tackle the “root causes” of environmental damage.

“Key Knowledge Gaps To Achieve Global Sustainability Goals,” published Oct. 28 in the journal Nature Sustainability, sets out seven areas where the researchers say further study will be crucial to advancing the UN’s environmental goals. Those include in-depth looks at complicated topics like “the synergies and/or trade-offs between biodiversity and the benefits that humans gain from nature,” but also a review of how “the knowledge of indigenous and local communities” can contribute to sustainability -- an area the article says has been neglected.

“We found that global sustainability goals cannot be achieved without improved knowledge on feedbacks between social and ecological systems, effectiveness of governance systems and the influence of institutions on the social distribution of ecosystem services,” reads the abstract to the article.

Meanwhile, an Oct. 29 report from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health looks at how to deploy new renewable generating capacity, and finds vast differences in the benefits green energy would provide across different regions of the United States:

Harvard Study Calls For Prioritizing Renewables In Mid-Atlantic, Midwest
A new Harvard University study says states and industry should be targeting the Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes and upper Midwest regions for new renewable-energy capacity, finding that shifting power generation away from fossil fuels would lead to more health and environmental benefits in those areas than anywhere else in the country.

Specifically, it says monetized benefits from new wind and solar capacity would be as much as 1,000 times higher in Midwest states like Iowa and the Dakotas than in California, which stands to gain the least in terms of human health and environmental quality from new wind or solar power.

“There’s benefits everywhere. But it shows that if we’re acting in a world of limited resources, if you only have one turbine to deploy, you are much better off putting it in the upper Midwest, the Great Lakes or the Mid-Atlantic,” Jonathan Buonocore, program leader for the Chan School’s climate, energy, and health team and lead author on the Oct. 29 paper, told Environment Next.

Those figures come from the regions’ greater use of coal-fired power, which translates to more benefits from switching away from it and to renewables, combined with the Golden State’s unique air-pollution issues that have little to do with power plants, Buonocore said. “Most of California’s air pollution is not coming from electrical generation. It’s coming from cars and it’s coming from wildfires,” neither of which would be directly affected by removing power plant emissions, he said.

Yet he added that adding more renewable generation could still be important to a broader electrification plan, such as boosting the use of electric vehicles in order to cut transportation emissions. “It’s possible that you could use this model to examine the effects of electrification, but we didn’t do that,” he said.

That fits with warnings from energy experts that trends toward lower-emitting technologies like electric cars will put new demands on the grid in addition to the challenges of boosting renewable energy in its own right, which will complicate any shift away from fossil fuels:

Energy Experts See Grid Challenges For Increase Of Nuclear, Renewables
Energy industry executives and attorneys say the power sector has “a lot of work” ahead if it hopes to supply the extra capacity needed to support the rise of electric cars, renewables and other environmentally-friendly technologies that are expected to put major strains on the power grid.

During a pair of Oct. 22 panel discussions hosted by the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., speakers representing energy firms, attorneys, regulators, and environmentalists highlighted a range of technological challenges the industry will have to address if plans to decarbonize the American economy are to succeed.

“You need to improve energy efficiency in the United States by at least a factor of two” in order to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, along with a doubling of the country’s energy production, John C. Dernbach, director of Widener University Commonwealth Law School’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center, said during a panel on the role of nuclear power in climate sustainability efforts.

Harvard’s study also highlights the tough choices that could await renewable-energy advocates if Democrats succeed in retaking the White House next year. While leading candidates have promised a complete transition to emission-free power, former Obama adviser Joe Aldy tells Environment Next that limited resources will force any future administration to pick its targets carefully:

Interview: Aldy, Obama Energy Adviser, Says GND Must Learn From 2009 Stimulus
Lawmakers backing the Green New Deal (GND) should learn from the fate of the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus, including abandoned plans for a second wave of spending that would have been funded by a carbon tax, says Joe Aldy, who served as a top White House energy and environment adviser at the time.

Aldy, now a professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government said the trillion-dollar price tag for the Green New Deal (GND) recalls the Obama administration’s original plans for its economic stimulus spending as “a down payment on President Obama’s climate goals” that would have been followed by more clean-energy investments coupled with an economy-wide carbon price.

Despite those plans, that second wave of investment never happened and the stimulus, rather than being “an initial burst” of green-energy spending, ended up as the Obama administration’s last major funding push in that direction after the GOP took the House and blocked future appropriations for similar programs.

Even if Democrats take the presidency and both houses of Congress, “there will be only so much” government money to spend on low-emission energy technologies as other priorities like health care and education fight for attention, Aldy said.

Despite those hurdles, the GND principles continue to gather steam among the left. Most recently, an international group of environmentally-friendly mayors recently backed a “Global Green New Deal” that draws on American progressives’ manifesto:

U.S. Mayors Back ‘Global Green New Deal’ For Strict Climate Policies
Mayors in the United States and other countries are backing a “Global Green New Deal” plan that builds on Democrats’ Green New Deal proposal for stringent climate policies, aiming to team up with the international youth climate movement and other advocacy groups in order to pressure governments to take steps including full implementation of the Paris agreement.

Mayors unveiled their agreement at the Oct. 9-12 C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, where more than 90 mayors from around the world declared a “global climate emergency.” C40 is a network of megacities representing more than 700 million citizens and one quarter of the global economy who seek to take bold climate action and take leadership for a more sustainable future, including by implementing the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goals, according to the group’s website.

Environment Next will continue to cover the push for industry to adopt new sustainability measures, and the plans to overcome barriers to their success.