I try to make my research not only policy relevant, but also directly useful to policy-makers. Below are some projects that have made it into the real world.
Using existing U.S. law to manage nitrogen pollution
In early 2017, I published an article with co-authors from Columbia, Tufts, the University of Virginia, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) on what existing laws in the U.S. could be used to manage nitrous oxide – the third most important greenhouse gas and the largest remaining threat to the ozone layer. Because of the unique chemistry of the nitrogen cycle, reducing nitrous oxide emissions could reduce other forms of nitrogen pollution as well, such as nitrate run-off, and ammonia and nitrogen oxide emissions. Each of these forms of nitrogen pollutions come under the purview of a different piece of environmental legislation, which opens up a number of possible legal pathways to explore. In addition to the legal analysis, we also estimated what the environmental and economic implications would be of implementing these legal options to their full potential.
Our article got picked up by Earth Justice, an environmental law NGO, which used it as the basis for a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requesting that it take a closer look at regulating nitrous oxide. While the current administration is not exactly a friend of the environment, legal strategies like this one are a key tool in bringing previously overlooked environmental threats to the government’s attention and forcing them to take action. I’ll post updates on this as they come in.
Controlling nitrous oxide under the international ozone treaty
As I mentioned above, nitrous oxide is an important greenhouse gas and ozone depleting substance. It is currently controlled under the international climate regime, which was recently plunged into uncertainty with President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. However, because nitrous oxide is also an ozone depleting substance, it could be taken on by the international ozone regime. This regime includes the 1987 Montreal Protocol, widely agreed to be the most successful international environmental agreement ever, having reducing the production and consumption of 97 ozone depleting substances by 98%.
In 2013, I published an article with co-authors from Princeton, Tufts, the University of Virginia and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) outlining the scientific and legal case for transferring nitrous oxide under the control of the international ozone regime. Since then, I’ve organized several events at Montreal Protocol meetings to raise awareness among country delegates and other stakeholders; the idea was picked up by the United Nations Environment Program, which led to a report on nitrous oxide that I co-authored; and I’ve worked with several organizations, including the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Industrial Development Organizations on projects to demonstrate the viability of nitrous oxide emissions reductions across different sectors.
Developing a policy framework for nitrogen management
Most environmental policy, from local to global, is organized by impact (air pollution, climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion etc.). This makes nitrogen pollution, with its multitude of impacts, a particularly challenging issue for policy-makers. Currently, nitrogen pollution is subject to a range of different laws and regulations. For example in the EU, nitrate pollution is controlled under the Nitrates Directive, while ammonia and nitrogen oxide emissions are subject to the Gothenburg Protocol under the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Meanwhile, nitrous oxide reductions can generate credits from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (the world’s largest carbon market), but only from certain industrial sources (and not agriculture). This ecosystem of policy approaches wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that a narrow focus on one form of N pollution can sometimes exacerbate others.
As a result, a policy framework needs to be developed that accurately portrays nitrogen pollution as a systems issue covering multiple spatial and temporal scales and enables smarter decision-making. I’ve been working with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to develop such a framework, and we’ll be publishing a report on this later in 2017.