Ivan Allen College Faculty Address the Impacts of Climate Change
Among sobering statistics, 2018 was the fourth warmest year since 1880 (when consistent record-keeping began) with 2016, 2017, and 2015 ranking as the three hottest. Fallout from climate change includes melting polar ice, rising sea levels, coastal flooding, severe weather events, altered ecosystems, and species extinction.
From the perspective of the humanities and social sciences, faculty and researchers at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts are addressing critical aspects of the increasingly complex threats posed by climate change.
“The time to argue about the causes of climate change has passed,” said G. Wayne Clough, president emeritus of Georgia Tech and senior advisor to the Global Change Program. “We need to focus on real solutions."
By appropriately valuing the benefits of greenhouse gas mitigation measures such as increased energy efficiency, Laura Taylor, chair of the School of Economics at Georgia Tech, and Marilyn Brown, Regents Professor and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, are carving out innovative-yet-pragmatic solutions to the climate crisis.
Mitigating climate change isn’t just about new technologies, but also having the right numbers to develop effective policies and regulations.
“It’s critical to assign a dollar number to benefits,” said Laura Taylor, who specializes in the valuation of natural resources and ecosystem services. “The alternative is to say, ‘This matters because I say it matters.’ That may be true, but it’s not helpful in a regulatory context when there are real costs being laid out on the table.”
An important component of the economics behind carbon-reduction is the value of reduced mortality risk (VRMR). “Whether one is considering policies to reduce the risk of death from extreme weather events or air pollution, sound estimates of a policy’s benefits are needed to weigh against the policy’s costs,” Taylor said.
VRMR numbers have fluctuated wildly from $1 million per life saved to well over $20 million, and Taylor has been working on new methods to improve those estimates.
In one innovative project, Taylor and Jonathan Lee (East Carolina University) have found evidence to support VRMR numbers used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for regulations related to air pollutants and climate change. “There’s been a lot of debate over the EPA’s numbers, and I even thought they were too high before we began the study,” Taylor said. “But our numbers are exactly what they’re using ($8 million to $10 million per life saved). It’s important to nail that down because it can dramatically change the benefit-cost ratios.”
Energy efficiency: an unsung hero
People underestimate the role that energy efficiency can play in reducing carbon emissions, said Marilyn Brown, who serves as director of the Climate and Energy Policy Lab. “Yet energy efficiency can provide a cost-effective and reliable alternative to building new power plants.”
Indeed, during Brown’s tenure as a board director at the Tennessee Valley Authority, energy efficiency was modeled as “virtual” 10-megawatt power plants. Analysis showed such programs could achieve energy savings of 900 to 1,300 megawatts for TVA by 2023 and 2,000 to 2,800 megawatts by 2033.
In her new book, Empowering the Great Energy Transition: Policy for a Low-Carbon Future (Columbia University Press), Brown looks at policies and business models that would mitigate climate change. Some examples include:
- Rewarding utilities for promoting energy efficiency. Utilities currently profit from their investments in power generation and transmission lines, but don’t realize equal rewards from helping consumers use less electricity.
- Leveraging high-tech data. Microsensors and smart meters that provide real-time data, coupled with time-of-use rates, can help shift the use of appliances and machinery from on- to off-peak hours, making the grid more efficient and reliable.
- Better financing. Low-income households and small businesses often can’t afford to pay up front for high-efficiency HVAC systems or water heaters. “Power companies could offer on-bill lending for energy-efficiency improvements in buildings that are repaid through utility bills,” Brown said.
“It’s important to understand the consequences of the playing field and make policies more equitable,” she added. “In many instances, energy policies and programs only benefit those who can afford to make investments in new technologies — such as home energy retrofits, electric vehicles, and solar panels. Well-designed energy efficiency programs can pay for themselves and benefit all consumers.”
Edited from the story Cool Solutions: Science and Engineering Help Address the Impacts of Climate Change by T.J. Becker for Research Horizons.
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