A Summer in Environmental Policy: Q&A with ISyE Student Kira O’Hare

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Fourth-year Kira O’Hare from the H. Milton School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) was able to explore her interest in environmental justice when she interned at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – a large policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. – in the energy security and climate change program. Throughout the internship this past summer, she worked on a project exploring coal-related socioeconomic dependency in Mpumalanga and Jharkhand, two prominent coal-dependent regions in South Africa and India.

O’Hare co-authored the report Understanding Just Transitions in Coal-Dependent Communities, which was produced by the Just Transition Initiative team in a collaboration between CSIS and Climate Investment Funds (CIF). Just Transition, as defined by the Climate Justice Alliance, is a “vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” In this Q&A, O’Hare discusses her involvement with CSIS and her research team’s recommendations from the report.

How did you get connected with CSIS?

I first got involved with this internship through a placement with Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute Program which connects a student to CSIS to work in their Energy Security and Climate Change program. Prior to this experience, I had an interest in environmental policy, participating in research at Georgia Tech’s Data Science and Policy Lab on a smart cities project focused on addressing housing and energy efficiency in the city of Albany, Georgia.

Were you personally interested in the project topic?

I was placed on this project because I expressed general interest in environmental justice, energy transitions, and climate migration. These topics are of great interest of me, particularly in developing countries, because the world is at a place right now where we cannot afford to have significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions if we want to achieve our goal set out in the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming under 2°C. Particularly in countries with such a large population such as India, the implications of moving away from coal, as opposed to increasing coal production, are huge.

Could you explain the purpose of the paper?

We identified three primary components of just coal transitions in both states: economic diversification, land remediation, and community engagement. The coal ecosystem in these resource-rich areas is very complex. Coal is viewed as a saving grace for these communities since it provides direct, indirect, and induced jobs, provides funding for social projects in coal communities through corporate social revenues, and largely enables municipalities to supply water and electricity services.

Despite coal being a huge component of these states’ economy, there are large research gaps in terms of quantifying the components of the coal ecosystem. Thus, the study we conducted recommends governments and researchers invest in quantifying all elements of the coal ecosystem, such as the number of induced and informal jobs, to understand the scope of the issue.

Why is economic diversification important for a just coal transition?

Moving away from coal requires the region to introduce new economic opportunities, leading to the point of economic diversification. Each region will have its strengths and weaknesses given resource availability, but potential sectors include tourism, agriculture, and renewable energy. We recommended that stakeholders support feasibility and scalability studies for potential diversification sectors by region to better understand job creation potential and how much money the state can make.

What were the findings surrounding land remediation?

After conducting 40+ interviews with local stakeholders, we discovered that currently there are many legacy mines that were abandoned without closure plans, and even the mines and plants with closure plans rarely follow through with them. With land already a scarce resource, polluted land is detrimental to new economic development as well as to human health. We recommend that the government allots adequate funding to address this in addition to ensuring that the regulatory bodies managing the rehabilitation process have sufficient capacity to carry out the law as written. Currently, there is a severe lack of enforcement of the closure plans.

What are the opportunities for community engagement?

Just transition is a new concept, so sensitizing local stakeholders to the concept of just transition is essential as well. International and national philanthropic foundations could support local media to cover just transition topics in regional languages, and think tanks and non-governmental organizations could conduct workshops for local communities. This also means ensuring that underrepresented organizations that we had classified in a stakeholder mapping exercise have a seat at the table in just transition planning. This includes worker unions, activist groups, informal coal workers, and local governments.

What ISyE skills did you utilize in your internship?

The experience was a great introduction to the policy world but with a more technical and research-like approach to policy analysis. I was able to use my data analysis and geographic information system (GIS) skills from my ISyE coursework to create maps to supplement the paper, as well as provide additional statistics regarding the coal ecosystem. ISyE has given me a strong, problem-solving mindset that assisted me in approaching the problem at hand despite not having direct policy experience before.

You can read the entire report here.


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