Dr. Alice Favero, a lecturer in the School of Public Policy, focuses her research and teaching on environmental policy and economics. Her work not only provides students with an invaluable education but also real world opportunities to put their learning into practice as part of Serve-Learn-Sustain. In our interview, Dr. Favero shares her wisdom about sustainability and the impact of the United States and Georgia Tech on the global environment.
What initiatives do you think the United States (U.S.) needs to act upon to achieve the climate goals set forth in the Paris Agreement?
The U.S. has submitted its Intended nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement with a specific greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and also specific steps for achieving these reductions through existing and planned policies addressing electricity production, light and heavy-duty vehicles, appliance and equipment standards and building codes.
The current administration might make the reduction goal more challenging by disregarding the nation’s main federal climate action (the Clean Power Plan). Local initiatives might balance the possible absence of federal regulation but they might not be enough to achieve the U.S. international pledge.
I think the easiest instrument, although not very popular, is introducing a price on the main climate change externality: CO2. In this way there will be a clear market signal of the cost of the externality for society. This will increase the cost of the use carbon-intensive sources (like coal) and reduce the production of the externality.
Finally, it is important to remember that the U.S. international climate commitment represented a key message to the international community. Not meeting it, or stepping back from it, might produce a domino effect where other key countries (China, India and Brazil) do the same. The result could be that the Paris Agreement unravels, taking it from the 97% CO2 emissions currently covered to little more than the European Union’s share.
What are some ways the Georgia Tech community can help?
There are several ways in which Georgia Tech can help but the two most important are creating knowledge and educating students (and faculty) to be responsible citizens and respectful people. First, the campus can be a living laboratory to test new technologies for climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that can be applied at larger scale. This is the place where enthusiastic and smart students meet a wide range of experts from different fields, this is the place where a new idea starts, is discussed and tested and then becomes an applicable solution. Georgia Tech also has to be a place for best practices, where we practice what we preach starting with waste reduction (etc., energy, water or food).
What is your biggest concern about our ability to create a sustainable world?
The greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for creating a sustainable world is eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions. For example, let’s go back to climate change. Poorer countries are more vulnerable to climate change than richer because they are more exposed to the impacts of climate change: their economies are more agriculturally-oriented and they rely more on water resources. Poorer countries tend also to be in hotter places and have limited capacity to adapt which depends on the availability of technology and the ability to pay for them. Therefore, climate change may trap people in poverty. Eradicating poverty will make these countries less vulnerable to changes in climate and more proactive overall reducing the negative effect of climate change.
What part does economics play in building a more sustainable world?
As Solow in 1991 wrote, “sustainability is a vague concept […]. It is, at best, a general guide to policies that have to do with investment, conservation and resource use.”
In this context, economics plays a critical role by proving the tools to assess the most efficient ways to use human, natural and physical resources in a budget constrained world.
Looking at the past hundred years, we did deplete natural resources but we also created more human and physical capital: cures for diseases, vaccines, more access to primary needs, improved education, more freeways, airports, and buildings and new ways of doing things (internet!). According to the Millennium Development Goal website, “more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990” and, “enrolment in primary education in developing regions reached 91% in 2015, up from 83% in 2000.” So, we are far better off than our predecessors a century ago. Of course, there is still room for improvement; clearly, we cannot replace all aspects of natural capital with physical or financial or intellectual capital. So, a sustainable world obliges that we keep some of natural capital intact, as it provides services and goods that cannot be replaced by anything else.
What is your perspective on the use of forests in the U.S. over the next 50 years?
Forests are an incredible source of ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, natural habitats and timber supply. In a low-carbon economy scenario, forest area will increase in order to increase natural carbon sinks and meet an increasing demand for wood from the energy and industrial sectors. In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that in the U.S., forestland should increase from 202 Mha to 347 Mha. For comparison, adding 145 Mha equals adding 87,000,000 football fields of forest by 2050 in order to meet stringent climate targets. The increase will be for both natural forestland (carbon sequestration) and managed forests (wood production).
How do you try and embed sustainable thinking in your students?
I work with many practical examples.
For instance this semester my PUBP 4418 HP class is working on the George Tech Climate Action Plan. This project, sponsored by Serve-Learn-Sustain and in collaboration with the Office of Campus Sustainability and the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory will allow students to apply their academic knowledge to practical assignments on climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies for Georgia Tech.
Last year, the same class worked with the Office of Campus Sustainability to complete the first Waste Audit project. It was a valuable and enjoyable experience: students not only collected and sorted trash but they also produced a quantitative analysis of the impacts of waste management on the GT Climate Action Plan. The results of the waste audit were fascinating for us. We learned that food waste and liquids play a key role in the overall amount of trash. Personally, I felt very bad seeing so much food in the trash. I think we should focus both on consuming less (buy just what you can eat) and being more knowledgeable about what we can/cannot recycle.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your research?
The biggest challenge is definitely publishing: researchers cannot think only about their own interests when they develop a research agenda but also how interesting, useful and/or applicable the project is to a broader audience. Selecting the right research question and the right journal is a challenge. Then, you might stumble upon biased reviewers and this is frustrating. Finally, it is a long process: it might take a year to get back from the journal – with a rejection. However, it is a good exercise: you learn to be patient (you have to wait a long time), precise (they will check even the smallest detail) and efficient (you cannot waste time).