7 Reasons to Consider a Sustainability Management Degree
Current Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM) student Divya Bendre had just completed postgraduate work in Policy Studies and was working in management consulting in Singapore when she stumbled upon an article by Steve Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, entitled “Educating Sustainability Professionals" that changed the trajectory of her career path. Divya joined the program because she felt the flexible curriculum would help her to combine her interest in sustainability with her academic and professional experiences. After the program, Divya hopes to continue her work in ESG measurement, disclosure and investment space.
1. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM)?
Volunteer research-work for a local environmental non-profit brought me to Prof. Cohen's article entitled “Educating Sustainability Professionals" and something just clicked for me—the MSSM program was exactly what I needed to bring together my academic background in engineering and policy, professional experience in the corporate world, and my interests in sustainability. The funny thing is that I was not actually looking for a master's program when I first learned about the MSSM program. At the time, I had just completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Policy Studies and was working full-time in management consulting in Singapore.
2. What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?
I think the biggest challenge is that sustainability risks and opportunities play out over generations, while planning and accountability processes at governments and corporations usually have short-term horizons—often less than 5 years. It is really important for sustainability professionals to acknowledge this mismatch and paint a realistic picture of the short-, medium- and long-term implications when they are building a case for change. Obviously, this is easier said than done because sustainability issues are so complex and inter-connected.
3. What do you intend to do professionally once you achieve your degree?
I'd like to continue working in the ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) measurement, disclosure, and investment space. I see this career path as a natural progression of my past work experience. Before coming to Columbia University, I helped companies quantify and strategize about critical-yet-hard-to-measure issues such as compliance culture, talent retention, and manager quality. It might be a cliché to say 'what gets measured, gets managed,' but I really believe that better measurement and disclosure is necessary for unlocking sustainability innovation in the corporate and public sector.
4. What is your favorite class in the MSSM program so far and why?
My favorite course was Sustainable Finance with Professor Bruce Kahn. Much of the coursework is about framing and quantifying ESG issues in terms of financial risk and returns. Most students in the class had no background in finance, but by the end of the semester we could all build valuation models that integrated companies' sustainability performance alongside traditional financial metrics.
Most of my friends (and my husband and mother) work in the financial services industry, but I'd never felt drawn to it until I took this course. The course showed me how critical the capital markets are for a transition to a sustainable economy and introduced me to some of the sustainability-focused innovation in this space. Ultimately, the course helped me connect the dots between the five curriculum areas in the MSSM program and understand where I my skills and interest fit in the sustainability arena.
5. What skills and tools have you acquired through the program so far?
MSSM professional development seminars on Microsoft Excel and Bloomberg ESG have helped me deepen by analytical toolkit. MSSM workshops have also helped me gain certifications in LEED and GRI Reporting. In my final semester, I am looking forward to adding on environmental data analysis skills in R programming and ArcGIS.
One of the best things about the MSSM program is that it gives students the flexibility to design a multi-disciplinary learning experience that draws on courses, seminars, and student groups across Columbia University. Taking courses in different schools has helped me see sustainability from the lens of different actors. For example, taking Environmental Issues in Business Transactions at Columbia Law School made me aware of the legal risks and liabilities posed by certain types of environmental disclosures in contracts and financial reports.
6. How have you applied what you've learned in the program so far?
I apply what I've learned everyday; the program has made me a more responsible consumer, investor, and citizen. I have also had two internships where I have directly applied my new sustainability analysis skills. Over the summer, I interned at Ceres—a leading sustainability non-profit organization. At Ceres, I applied and expanded my skills in corporate sustainability, stakeholder engagement, and ESG disclosure.
Since October 2014, I have been an intern at the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative (PRI). At PRI, I support the Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative and UN Global Compact teams on ESG disclosure projects. Our projects cover sustainability reporting as well as ESG communication through financial reports and investor calls. Everything that I have learned from MSSM's Sustainability Management, Sustainable Finance and Sustainability Communications Strategy and Reporting courses are directly relevant for my work at PRI.
7. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Management students?
Going to conferences and meetings with my classmates has broadened my view of the professional opportunities in the sustainability space. MSSM alumni and the SUMASA (Sustainability Management Student Association) board do a great job of sharing relevant professional networking opportunities throughout the year.
In addition to external events around New York, I participate in workshops and networking events organized by student groups such as the SIPA Energy Association and Columbia Impact Investing Initiative (CI3). Through CI3, I have worked with students from MSSM and SIPA on pro bono consulting projects for social enterprises. My CI3 team designed metrics to help a Mexican rural solar energy company assess the impact of their financial education and community development programs. I also consulted for a wine start-up that helps small family-owned wineries in developing countries get access to American markets.
Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.
Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program's 682 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.
<div id="7aab6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff71c40172c15736f73fe73ed18078"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330967606585593857" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today, I’m announcing the first members of my national security and foreign policy team. They will rally the world… https://t.co/bAisIQk5P6</div> — Joe Biden (@Joe Biden)<a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/statuses/1330967606585593857">1606162380.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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