Lessons in Sustainability Policy

by |April 9, 2015

On April 7, 2015, the Earth Institute hosted a panel event and reception on ‘Sustainability Policy: Progress and Opportunity.’ Over 170 students, faculty, and local professionals gathered in Low Library to hear a panel of experts speak about the role of government in advancing progress on sustainability (you can watch a video of the discussion, above). The panel, moderated by William Eimicke, director of the Picker Center for Executive Education and professor of practice at the School of International and Public Affairs, featured the following:

  • Steve Cohen, executive director, The Earth Institute and professor of practice, School of International and Public Affairs
  • Dong Guo, postdoctoral research scholar, Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management
  • Nilda Mesa, director, New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability
  • Andrew Revkin, senior fellow for environmental understanding, Pace University
William Eimicke, Steve Cohen, Dong Guo, Nilda Mesa and Andrew Revkin discussing sustainability policy in Low Library.

William Eimicke, Steve Cohen, Dong Guo, Nilda Mesa and Andrew Revkin discussing sustainability policy in Low Library.

Each panelist brought a unique perspective to the table. Cohen has years of experience as a practitioner and educator in the field of sustainability. Guo’s research areas include methods of evaluation, such as sustainability metrics, and he was able to comment extensively on environmental progress in China. Mesa has an understanding of environmental policy at all levels of government, and compared her time in Washington to her more recent experiences in New York City. And Revkin came to the table with decades of experience in environmental reporting, and brought lessons all the way from the Amazon. Here are the big takeaways from their talk:

Sustainability is not “one-size fits all.”

A sustainability policy that works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another. Mesa acknowledged that sustainability policies can be reworked, modified and applied, but there is no one solution. Revkin reinforced this point by pointing out that there is no single public opinion about environmental issues; people have vastly different perspectives and therefore different approaches to sustainability solutions. Poor people in developing countries think about sustainability very differently than middle-class Americans; individuals who worry about paying the bills think differently than governments who have to consider multiple dimensions of problems. While the night’s panel focused on government, the panelists made the broader context clear – sustainability is complex and requires many different solutions.

Sustainability is not a static process.

New York City is known as a leader in sustainability, for its path-breaking work on PlaNYC 2030, the city’s overarching sustainability plan. Mesa, who just came into the job of overseeing that plan, talked about the challenges of maintaining that leadership role by continuing to look beyond the obvious, modifying plans, and rethinking the status quo to create initiatives that are even more groundbreaking. Revkin agreed, remarking that, “we need a new city for a new century.” We need a new way to think about the fabric of the city that absorbs the stresses of the future. We won’t be able to apply the same formulas each time, because the variables are constantly changing.

Progress in sustainability requires measurable local-level policies.

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Panelists during their discussion.

While there was lots of talk about what’s happening in New York City, Guo brought the discussion global with his analysis of another major player — China. China is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, but has also set ambitious and significant environmental goals – goals that are not to be overlooked. He also noted that although overall policy and regulation is dictated by the central government, the local level is where goals are achieved and aggregated for broader impacts. People in communities can keep the local government accountable – this accountability doesn’t exist in larger national governing bodies.

Guo also stressed the importance of metrics in measuring and attaining sustainability. This is true in any sustainability plan; Mesa commented on the role of metrics in measuring the progress and impact of New York City’s sustainability initiatives; she emphasized the vast number of smart people in local government who understand the value of measurement to progress and how that helped build metrics into PlaNYC from the very beginning. Cohen said that the Earth Institute and Columbia University are graduating those types of people – smart, analytic professionals who are working in local government and community-based groups, at the level at which impacts can be made and felt.

We need public-private partnerships to build a sustainable economy.

Both the private and public sectors have a role in the transition to a sustainable economy. Government has always played a role in funding and building basic infrastructure – and the same will be true for the infrastructure needed for a renewable resource-based economy. We also need private enterprise to accomplish certain things as a society; this can be seen in the private sector’s role in the creation of the internet and other large, transformative technologies. This country became an economic power because of public-private partnerships. As Cohen put it, we need a sophisticated partnership to do things like provide tax incentives for renewables, generate funding for basic science research, and build the technology needed for a sustainable economy.

We need leadership of city governments, we need popular movements, we need new technology, and we need the private sector. All of these have a role in a sustainable economy.

While we have a long way to go, we’ve also made lots of progress: The environment is no longer a fringe issue.

Environmental issues are central in today’s political and social dialogue. Cohen argued that the environment has become a central issue because of a larger cultural shift. There is an entire generation of people who have grown up with the basic understanding that we should have clean air and water.

How did the millennial generation come to assume environment as a central issue? Mesa discussed some of the achievements of the past 50 years – including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and negotiations around ozone reductions – that have had a huge impact on cleaning up the environment, and that show the effectiveness of sound policy and regulation. Cohen remarked that the perceived tradeoff between economic development and environmental protection is eroding. Revkin agreed, and discussed various patterns of “decoupling” when it comes to the environment and economic growth. These are signs of progress and of increased understanding of environmental issues, and countries around the world are taking part. There’s progress even in China; Guo discussed the impact that international brands and the public have on pushing the government to act responsibly and achieve targets.

Although we haven’t quite figured out everything – such as how to combat global issues like climate change – as Cohen put it, “the capacity for human ingenuity is great,” and as Mesa remarked, we should be encouraged by the level of expertise, confidence, enthusiasm and skill that exists in today’s society to address issues of sustainability.


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