How Green Infrastructure Minimizes the Impacts of Climate Change
With support from The Earth Institute, writers Caswell Holloway, Carter Strickland, Michael Gerrard and Daniel Firger recently published “Solving the CSO Conundrum: Green Infrastructure and the Unfulfilled Promise of Federal-Municipal Cooperation” in Harvard Environmental Law Review.
Collectively, the authors represent expertise in climate change, urban sustainability planning, environmental protection, and environmental policy and law. In this article, the authors propose regulatory and policy reform to develop comprehensive, locally led infrastructure and sustainability initiatives that improve public health and the environment. They look specifically at the case of water management as an opportunity for federal and local governments to work cooperatively, specifically through the implementation of green infrastructure systems. The following is an overview of the publication.
Stormwater Management and Green Infrastructure
In the absence of federal policy on climate change, cities across the U.S. are making great strides in sustainability planning. We are seeing this for a variety of reasons. For one, the effects of climate change are felt more tangibly at the local level, and because city governments can make decisions that are attuned to local needs, innovative and flexible in design. These initiatives are designed to improve public health, environmental quality, overall quality of life and economic development and can engage citizens in the development process.
In the absence of federal policy on climate change, cities across the U.S. are making great strides in sustainability planning. These initiatives are designed to improve public health, environmental quality, overall quality of life and economic development and can engage citizens in the development process. Photo credit: Shutterstock
One issue cities face is the challenge of reducing water pollution from stormwater runoff and combined sewage overflows (CSOs). In most U.S. cities, stormwater runoff is combined with wastewater streams into one single combined sewer system, leading to overflow during times of heavy rain and flood. Stormwater runoff is a large source of water pollution—especially in cities where the urban landscape is dense with pavement and concrete.
Many cities are addressing this issue with green infrastructure implementation. Green infrastructure is an approach that mimics or restores natural hydrological features to allow for the capture and reuse of stormwater—such as with green roofs and filtration planters. This is in contrast to traditional grey infrastructure, which refers to the usual stormwater pipes and storage tanks. Green infrastructure systems reduce stormwater runoff by filtering water through vegetation, soil and other media, slowing and reducing the flow of water. These green features also have many co-benefits including reducing the heat island effect and improving air quality, and have climate change-related benefits like cooling buildings and reducing the need for electricity powered air conditioning.
Who regulates the environment? Since the 1970s, federal level agencies in the U.S. have had the authority to regulate environmental resources. While it can be beneficial for the federal government to have complete authority in certain cases, environmental regulation is by its nature widely distributed across different levels of government. The authors note that because many sustainability initiatives are implemented at the local level, the interaction between local, federal and state regulatory authorities is significant. For example, federal mandates often create a mismatch between capital budgets and the priorities of local citizens and taxpayers. In the case of stormwater management, there are a number of issues.
As of 1987, stormwater is regulated under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act grants authority to states to then impose requirements on municipalities to meet federal water quality standards—often in the form of fines, discharge limits, or rigid mandates. However, local government officials don’t get much of a say, even though they are the ones who are designing the neighborhood, and building and maintaining water infrastructure. In addition, there are challenges with costs. Stormwater management doesn’t receive the same level of financial assistance as do other components under the Clean Water Act; in many cases cities are essentially told what they must do, how they must do it, and that they must also bear the cost.
The Way Forward
The authors see potential in addressing some of these regulatory issues, especially as cities are taking on increasing roles in sustainability planning. They suggest new approaches to regulation – ones that involve multiple community stakeholders, creative problem-solving across traditional silos, and cooperative agreements across government agencies. The case of green infrastructure provides an excellent example of how to integrate city-level initiatives with federal regulation.
Some cities are taking up a more integrated approach to stormwater management, by making long term investments in both green and grey infrastructure. In contrast, the federal approach tends to be more rigid, and goals are often compartmentalized in different programs, even though many of these goals are aligned and contain initiatives that impact one another. The authors argue that investment decisions that are aligned with regulatory planning at the municipal level would lead to more efficient allocation of resources, and solutions that are better tailored to local conditions. To illustrate their point, the authors looked to New York City. New York is well known for its innovative sustainability planning, and in 2010 released its Green Infrastructure Plan, which was formalized in 2012 when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) agreed to reduce CSOs and achieve higher water quality standards through a combination of grey and green infrastructure, with increased investment in green infrastructure technologies. The agreement took a flexible approach, setting broad performance goals while giving the city the flexibility to decide how it wants to meet them. This is a groundbreaking test case of adaptive management, and has the potential to provide a set of best practices that other municipalities can draw from.
The authors also acknowledge that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken some positive steps towards increased flexibility. They highlighted EPA’s recent Integrated Framework, based on an adaptive management, agreement-based framework that includes participation of the community—an important step to truly integrated planning. This new integrated framework represents a “real shift in both tone and substance for EPA,” although the extent of meaningful change is still unclear.
Cities are taking action to implement sustainability initiatives that impact multiple sectors, while the federal government is barely beginning to move away from using tools that are unsuited to address sustainability. The EPA often works in a manner that conflicts with how cities operate, when it should be working with and learning from them. Fortunately, federal and local governments can work more collaboratively to improve sustainability. The authors show how water quality in urban areas can be improved through locally-designed solutions, using green infrastructure to reduce CSOs and stormwater pollution, while complying with federal law. It’s therefore no surprise that: “many of the green infrastructure innovations pioneered by cities are now making their way into federal programs and initiatives.”
Caswell F. Holloway is Deputy Chief Operating Officer of Bloomberg LP, and from 2011–2013 was New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Operations.
Carter H. Strickland, Jr. is Vice President for Water and Natural Resources at HDR, Inc., and was Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection from 2011–2014.
Michael B. Gerrard is Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, and Senior Counsel to Arnold & Porter LLP.
Daniel M. Firger, the former Associate Director and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, is with Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The Earth Institute is made up of more than 30 research centers and over 850 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, staff and students. To learn more about the Earth Institute’s education programs such as the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy or the MS in Sustainability Management, click here.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
By Tara Lohan
Our plastic pollution problem has reached new heights and new depths.
Scientists have found bits of plastic on the seafloor, thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. Plastic debris has also washed ashore on remote islands; traveled to the top of pristine mountains; and been found inside the bodies of whales, turtles, seabirds and people, too.
1. There’s a lot of it.<p>In a September study published in <em>Science </em>about the growth of plastic waste, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons — or 11% of plastic waste generated — ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016. And even with countries pledging to help cut waste or better manage it, the amount of plastic pollution is <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1515" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">likely to double</a> in the next 10 years.</p><p>A <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">study</a> about solutions to plastic waste, published in the same issue, attributed the plastic pollution epidemic to a rise in single-use plastic and "an expanding 'throw-away' culture." The researchers also found that waste-management systems simply can't deal with the onslaught of plastic, which is why so much of it ends up in the environment. We now know that only <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/whopping-91-percent-plastic-isnt-recycled/" target="_blank">9% of the plastic products</a> we use actually get recycled.</p>
2. The United States is a big culprit.<p>Plastic pollution is a global problem, but the United States plays an outsized role. In 2016 the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country, a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288" target="_blank">new study</a> in <em>Science Advances</em> found. Some of that waste was dumped illegally within the country and some was shipped to other countries that lacked the necessary infrastructure to handle it.</p><p>"The amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States' contribution among the highest in the world," the researchers concluded. Part of that is because the United States ranks second in exporting plastic scrap.</p>
3. It threatens wildlife and ecosystems.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg3MTUwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzE1MzM2MH0.YL5C-5GF2mq9OZBLSkcAnreq2Mai20DweKSNqeUSWM4/img.jpg?width=980" id="20233" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3db4a05d5d417d925a770cf309db1db1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A giant otter plays with a plastic bottle. Paul Williams / CC BY-NC 2.0<p>Out of sight (for Americans) is <em>not </em>out of mind — and definitely not out of our waterways. An estimated 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have either ingested plastic or been entangled in it.</p><p>"If we don't get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales," George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist and coauthor of the September <em>Science </em>study about plastic waste's increase, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it/" target="_blank">told <em>National Geographic</em></a>. "And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean's wildlife essentially forever."</p><p>Microplastics have also been found in terrestrial animals, soil, drinking water and, not surprisingly, <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2020/08/18/microplastics-found-in-human-organs-for-the-first-time/?sh=42994a4e16f2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in our own bodies</a>, although it's not clear yet just how dangerous that is for people.</p>
4. The fracking boom is producing a plastic boom.<p>Despite the known risks of plastic pollution and concern over its mounting presence in the environment, plastic production — driven by fossil fuels like fracked gas and its component chemicals — is on pace to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.</p><p>The American Chemistry Council <a href="https://www.americanchemistry.com/Shale-Infographic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">boasted that shale gas drilling is driving a surge</a> in plastic production, including the investment of more than $200 billion to fund new and expanded operations at 343 production plants in the United States.</p><p>On the ground this means more harmful pollution along the Gulf Coast's "Cancer Alley," where petrochemicals have been manufactured for decades in low-wealth communities of color. And it means the build-out of new facilities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.</p><p>Fracking also causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, to be released into the atmosphere — amplifying the climate crisis. The refining process and the incineration of plastic waste also further drives greenhouse emissions and hazardous pollution.</p>
A petrochemical plant in Houston's ship channel. Louis Vest / CC BY-NC 2.0
5. Solutions are multifaceted.<p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/plastic-pollution-do-beach-cleanups-really-make-a-difference/a-46196975" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Beach cleanups</a> tend to make headlines, but it's a losing battle as long as petrochemical companies keep producing so much plastic and we keep using plastic for products we're meant to toss after a single use.</p><p>The September study in <em><a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">Science</a></em> on plastic solutions found that it's possible to cut plastic pollution — perhaps as much as 80% by 2040 — but it will take systemic change both in reducing the amount of plastic produced and in better managing the waste stream.</p><p>Regulatory efforts can help this process, including by regulating plastic as a pollution source under the Clean Water Act.</p><p>Efforts to ban single-use plastics, as the European Union aims to do by 2021, are another positive step. So too are "<a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">circular economy laws</a>," which have been <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5845?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22H.R.5%22%5D%7D&s=1&r=5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">introduced, but not yet passed</a>, in the United States.</p><p>These laws would halt the production of new petrochemical facilities and encourage businesses to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the products they produce by requiring them to be reused, adequately recycled or composted.</p><p>Getting circular economy laws enacted, though, will mean enough public and political will to counter the petrochemical, fossil fuel and plastic industries.</p><p>At <em>The Revelator</em>, we'll keep covering the push for solutions to the plastic problem and new science to better understand the threats. And if you want to know more about how wildlife has already been affected, what laws could help, whether industry will be held accountable and more, check out these stories from our archives:</p><p><strong>Laws and Regulations</strong></p><p><strong></strong><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-warnings/" target="_blank">Plastic Pollution: Could We Have Solved the Problem Nearly 50 Years Ago?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/clean-water-plastic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How an Old Law Is Helping Fight New Plastic Problems</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-illegal/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal?</a></p><p><strong>Impacts</strong></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-ship-shore/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution: From Ship to Shore</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastics-fracking-climate/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plans to Turn America's Rust Belt Into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trash-galapagos-ecotourism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Trash in the Galápagos Reveals the Dark Side of Ecotourism</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/elephant-seals-diving-garbage/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephant Seals: Diving Through Garbage</a></p><p><strong>Taking Action</strong></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Story of Plastic: </a></em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-movie-stuff/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How to Win the Fight Against Plastic</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/cities-zero-waste/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Cities Go Zero-waste? One Japanese Town Tried</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/secret-value-trash/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Secret Value of Trash</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/junk-raft-polluted-ocean/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Junk Raft: A Journey Through a Polluted Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/bioplastics-environment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Are Bioplastics a Better Environmental Choice?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-straws-problem-solution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution Is a Problem — These Kids Are Working for a Solution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/thai-activists-fight-trash-taboo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thai Activists Fight Trash Taboo</a></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-archives/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
- 9 Super Cool Facts About Sea Turtles - EcoWatch ›
- Sea Turtles Often Get Lost for Miles, but Always Find Their Destination ›
- 100% of Sea Turtles in Global Study Found With Plastics in Their ... ›
The night sky has a special treat in store for stargazers this winter solstice.
- NASA Satellites Enable Scientists to Observe Climate Change ... ›
- Why Scientists Are Searching for Life in 'Alien Oceans' - EcoWatch ›
- To Save Endangered Species, Scientists Point Stargazing Software ... ›
By Dena Jones
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was sued three times this past summer for shirking its responsibility to protect birds from egregious welfare violations and safeguard workers at slaughterhouses from injuries and the spread of the coronavirus.
By Julia Conley
Conservation campaigners on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of taking a "wrecking ball" to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the White House announced plans to move ahead with the sale of drilling leases in the 19 million-acre coastal preserve, despite widespread, bipartisan opposition to oil and gas extraction there.
The Sheenjek River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alexis Bonogofsky / USFWS
- Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Ban Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ›
- Bank of America Promises It Won't Fund Arctic Drilling - EcoWatch ›
- Trump's Drilling Leases on Public Lands Could Lead to 4.7B Metric ... ›
- Trump Administration's Alaska Oil and Gas Lease Sale a 'Major Flop ... ›
- Will Oil Companies Drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... ›