San Francisco Reforms Fines & Fees To Break Poverty Cycle

This article first appeared in Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity

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“What happens when people can’t pay?” That’s the question that vexes Anne Stuhldreher each day in her job as head of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, the nation’s first initiative embedded in local government to assess and reform how fees and fines impact a city’s most vulnerable residents.

Last month, San Francisco County became the first in the nation to make all phone calls from jail free, and to end markups on prison store items. In April, it partnered with the San Francisco Superior Court to clear all outstanding holds on people’s driver’s licenses for missing a traffic court date. And in January, the city announced that it was eliminating overdue library fines.

These are just a few of the landmark reforms to emerge from the relatively young yet prolific Financial Justice Project, launched by San Francisco in November 2016 and housed in the Office of the Treasurer. The project works on the premise that fees and fines, levied partly to generate revenue to balance public budgets, can have an unintended impact of pushing people into poverty. Often, the hardest hit are people of color and those on a low income.

For example, Californians who have their driver’s license suspended because they cannot pay a traffic fine may find it difficult to get a job and support their family. Unpaid parking tickets spiral into unmanageable late fees and recovery costs for towed vehicles. Homeless people who get a $200 ticket for sleeping on the sidewalk may see this grow to $500 if left unpaid. And, people exiting the criminal justice system begin their new life with a bill for thousands of dollars in probation administration fees.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s research found that the income it generated through such fees and fines was slight compared to the cost of recovery. It also shows that the city levies more fines per capita than most California local governments.

It was this ‘lose-lose’ scenario for people and for government that prompted the city to seek a more equitable solution to fines and fees that could both hold people accountable and recoup costs without causing them financial distress.

Championing economic empowerment

Stuhldreher traces the thread of her current work back to the 2015 U.S. Department of Justice Ferguson report following the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American man shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. The report drew national attention to the negative impact of intense ticketing, fees and fines on low-income Americans and people of color. It revealed that Ferguson officials had aggressively raised revenue through fining residents. Fines were the city’s second largest source of revenue in 2013.

“The report showed a pattern of a ticket of a few hundred dollars going to folks who couldn’t pay it,” she explains. “The consequences would start to snowball — their credit could be impacted, their driving license suspended, they could go to jail for non-payment.”

Social justice advocates in California quickly noted that “this was not just a Ferguson problem,” as demonstrated in the eponymous 2015 report on how traffic courts drive inequality in the state. The report showed that four million adults in California had their driving license suspended because they couldn’t pay traffic tickets. Meanwhile, uncollected court-ordered debt accounted for $12.3 billion. In 2013, California brought in $2.6 billion in revenue from fines and forfeits, more than any other state.

And the issue was by no means limited to California or Missouri. Granted, cities rely on fine and fees revenue to balance their budgets. However, the 2007 recession and a drop in tax collections prompted many to dramatically expand this source of revenue to fund services.

Stuhldreher is a self-confessed policy geek with a focus on economic empowerment for low income groups. Her public-private partnership approach has helped deliver San Francisco programs such as the Working Families Credit and Kindergarten to College, and the WE Connect Campaign across the state in her role as senior policy advisor to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2015, she was working as a senior program manager at a health justice foundation, The California Endowment, and was hearing stories from community organizers about the impact of fines and fees on marginalized groups. So, she began to cast around within her networks for possible solutions.

“I started talking to people at City Hall here about finding a better way,” Stuhldreher explains. “About the fact that we should be able to balance our books but not on the backs of the lowest income people in our city. And we should be able to hold people accountable without impoverishing them.”

Identifying fines & fees pain points

San Francisco city and county treasurer José Cisneros – a champion of financial justice initiatives such as the Bank on San Francisco program to widen access to checking accounts for low-income residents –recognized the need for local government intervention around fines and fees.

Stuhldreher left her philanthropic role to help San Francisco become the first city in the nation to have a financial justice project. As the first-ever Director of Financial Justice for the city and county of San Francisco, she oversaw the work of an exploratory task force of community groups, local government and the courts to identify fine and fees “pain points.”

The taskforce identified a wide range of problems related to San Francisco’s fees and fines, and made a raft of recommendations to help address these issues. Of particular note, it found that in San Francisco, the burden of these fines and fees was falling heavily on the African-American community. For example, the city’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood has a relatively high rate of poverty (23.5 percent) and a driver’s suspension rate more than three times the state average.

Stuhldreher says charges related to the criminal justice system were an immediate concern: “We were handing people a bill when they got out of jail, asking them to pay for their probation supervision and their electronic ankle monitors, for their pre-sentence reports, their drug tests. It added up to several thousand dollars.

“You think about people coming out of jail — most of them don’t have jobs, they have no money, then when they do have a job to have this [to pay]. It is incredibly self-defeating and makes it very hard for them to reintegrate into the community. It’s also a horrible source of revenue.”  She adds that collection rate on the largest fee of $50 per month was just nine percent.

So in July 2018, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. “We wrote off $32 million dollars in debt that was hanging over 21,000 people That’s debt that would never really come in. It was a burden and a weight on low-income people and people of color in San Francisco.”

The latest example of the Financial Justice Project’s work in the criminal justice arena came last month when San Francisco announced that it will make all phone calls from jail free and end all county markups on jail store items. Currently, if an inmate makes two 15-minute phone calls a day in San Francisco, it will cost $300 over 70 days (the average jail stay), or $1,500 over the course of the year. Analysis done by the project estimates that 80 percent of phone calls are paid for by inmates’ support networks, primarily low-income women of color.

Stuhldreher explains the impact of not being able to afford phone costs: “You’re getting closer to potentially being released but you can’t tell your family, can’t sort a place to live, can’t start looking for work. You can’t call a social worker or anyone in your support network.” The move follows New York City’s decision earlier this year to make prison calls free.

She adds that the average county markup of 43 percent on items from the jail commissary places an unnecessary burden on incarcerated people and their families. The plan is funded in San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recently announced budget and the Sheriff’s Department will implement these reforms over the next fiscal year.

Partnership approach leads buy-in

The Financial Justice Project has also tackled towing in San Francisco, where it costs $575 on average if you get your car towed and 10 percent of cars are never retrieved. “Losing your car is really onerous. A lot of times, it’s a person’s biggest asset, it’s how they get around,” says Stuhldreher. “Also, it’s a money loser. When someone doesn’t retrieve their car, you’ve got to store it, pay a towing vendor, dispose of it, or sell it.”

The project worked with the Municipal Transit Authority (MTA) to halve towing fees for people who are below 200 percent of the poverty line, and to allow people to pay off citations over time through a payment plan that cost $5 to sign up for rather than previous $65. In the three months following implementation, the MTA saw a 400 percent increase in payment plan sign ups.

“If you make fines and fees more reasonable, people are more able to pay and pay them more readily. So your revenue can actually go up,” asserts Stuhldreher, who also stresses the need to bring those implementing the changes into the conversation to build buy-in.

San Francisco’s library service contacted Stuhldreher last summer with concerns that late fines and blocked library cards were stopping people from visiting their library. The city is now getting rid of library fines, writing off unpaid fines, and introducing measures such as more frequent reminders and automatic renewals where possible.

After San Francisco tackled the probation bill issue, neighboring Alameda County followed suit, with Contra Costa County and Los Angeles working towards similar measures. Oakland banned library fines earlier this month. Stuhldreher says Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC. are eyeing a similar approach around fees and fines. She takes a call “every week” from a city that wants to do the same, or just learn more.

Meanwhile, The National League of Cities has set up the Cities Addressing Fines and Fees program to support six cities across the US to assess and reform the status quo, with learning contributed by San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project.

Stuhldreher is cheered by the project’s progress to date: “We’ve now at this point either eliminated or adjusted dozens of fines and fees, we’ve lifted millions of dollars in debt off of tens of thousands of people.

“I feel like we’re building this muscle locally just to be more thoughtful about what we’re doing.”

But she also advocates for more careful consideration of fines and fees – which should recoup costs and not be punitive – as a means to generate revenue. “These fines and fees are very blunt instruments. You can kind of get on to autopilot and just increase them a little bit each year, add them to cover things. All of a sudden, they’re big, they’ve increased in scope and severity.”

Looking ahead, Stuhldreher is interested in the ‘day fines’ means-adjusted approach to traffic tickets, and is concerned about industries making money from the criminal justice system.

“If you think about people getting out of jail, you want them to stay out of jail. The recidivism rate is so high. If you can cut that, that’s a bigger cost saving. We don’t want to be taking $100 from someone who’s getting by on $500 a month That’s for groceries and shoes for their kids.”

Kids In America Are Missing School Because They Can’t Afford Toothpaste And Tampons

This article first appeared in HuffPost’s Impact section

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The shiny metal cabinet in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom is full of necessary supplies — not paper and pencils, but personal care products. (Credit: Sarah Helms)

The locked metal cabinet doesn’t look amiss in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom, with its bright yellow walls and green plastic stationery caddies. But rather than pencils, pens or binder paper, its shelves hold bottles of shampoo and body wash, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, cotton swabs, sanitary pads and tampons.

For the past three school years, Helms, an English teacher at Horace Maynard Middle School in Maynardville, Tennessee, has stocked a “hygiene closet” with personal care items donated for students from low-income families by fellow teachers, current and former Horace Maynard parents, and members of the community. Helms uses cash donations to buy supplies at the dollar store. Her parents gave her the cabinet.

“I noticed certain kids being picked on for not being well groomed, and I felt that many children were just too shy to go to an adult and ask for help with the items they needed,” Helms told HuffPost. She could see how it eroded their self-esteem when their classmates commented on their appearance or body odor.

Once a month, Helms pulls toothpaste, tampons and other toiletries — including “random donations,” such as hairbrushes, combs, body spray and lip balm — from the hygiene cabinet and packs them into plastic grocery bags for 14 girls and 17 boys.

“A huge blessing” is how one Horace Maynard parent I contacted described the hygiene closet at her son’s school. Helms reached out to this single mom (she asked to remain anonymous) at the start of the school year to see whether her son would be interested in receiving a hygiene pack. She said yes. Her son’s monthly bag includes shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, razors and cologne.

Closet program increase highlights poverty gap

Horace Maynard’s hygiene closet is just one of the thousands of similar programs in public elementary, middle and high schools across the U.S., according to data from DonorsChoose.org, an online giving platform where public school teachers can ask for funds for their classroom needs. The site has seen requests for hygiene and personal care products mushroom, from just one in 2002 to 1,789 last year. Nearly two-thirds of requests come from schools in urban areas, and they are particularly common among schools where three-quarters of students or more are from low-income households.

Over a third of pupils at Horace Maynard are eligible to receive a free or reduced-priced lunch, and some benefit from the school district’s donation-supplied food program, which provides students a weekly bag of groceries to take home to their families.

Helms sends her students home with hygiene bags the Friday before the end of the month. “This is usually when items are needed most because those families who are on food stamps are low on money for other things like hygiene items,” she explained.

The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) provide state-level monthly help to low-income households in the form of a pre-loaded card to purchase vegetables, fruit, dairy and pantry items. Recipients cannot, however, use the cards to purchase non-food items, including toiletries and sanitary products.

Lisa Greenig, a teacher at Fairfield Middle School in southeast Iowa, said the idea for her school’s hygiene closet came about after a discussion with fellow teachers about SNAP restrictions. “Hygiene items can be expensive. Considering 50% of our students live under federal poverty guidelines, I decided to go public with the idea,” she said. “The community embraced the idea and has been very generous to help stock the closet,” which the school started in January.

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The hygiene closet at Iowa’s Fairfield Middle School, where half of the students live below the poverty line. (Credit: Lisa Greenig)

So far, about 24 families have signed up ― parents and guardians of students just have to complete a registration form to receive items from the hygiene closet. “We did not want to risk offending anyone by offering a bag of products without them submitting a request,” Greenig said. “At no time do we want families to feel embarrassed about using the closet.”

Greenig hopes more families, often reluctant to ask for help, will access the program once they realize how private distribution is. “Re-orders typically come through email directly to me. I pack a bag and quietly place the items in the student’s locker. Refills fit in student backpacks so they can be carried home.” With support from local businesses, such at the Hy-Vee grocery store, and backing from school Superintendent Laurie Noll and school board member Jennifer Anderson, Greenig says the district has plans to expand the program to the high school and two elementary schools.

School attendance and self esteem at risk

Other programs are a direct response to changing family circumstances, such as homelessness. “We’ve had an increase in families losing their housing, doubled or even tripled up in a household,” said Stephanie Martinez, program director of student services for the Jefferson Elementary School District in California’s Bay Area. “It’s been pretty drastic and very challenging [for students] if they’ve lost their housing or have a long commute into school.” Martinez is planning a hygiene pack program for the new school year to help students from the 100-plus families in the district living in transitional housing or shelters.

Lack of access to hygiene products can have a negative effect on the lives of children and teens, said Aleta Angelosante, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at New York University’s Langone Health: “If you are outwardly having difficulties with hygiene, it can certainly lead to at best being more neglected or ignored, at worst being pointed out and bullied in some way.”

North Carolina nonprofit BackPack Beginnings set up a personal care pantry in its Greensboro headquarters about 18 months ago to help schools in Guilford County provide products to students.“We have heard stories concerning the way it impacts self-esteem and the fact that some are skipping school because they are embarrassed by their own hygiene,” said BPB Executive Director Parker White.

Nearly 1 in 5 girls in the U.S., for example, have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to sanitary products. “Many have heard of teachers buying food for their students, but fewer people hear about them buying hygiene products. Our teachers are underpaid as is, and we want to take this burden off their plate.”

According to a survey of teachers who use DonorsChoose.org to make funding requests, 84% in the highest poverty schools have purchased essentials such as hygiene products for their students. Of those, 63% report spending more than $100 per year on these items.

Parker said about two dozen schools currently access the BPB pantry program, helping hundreds of students across the district.

Fighting for hygiene equity in schools

While programs led and funded by nonprofits and teachers are to be celebrated, hygiene equity campaigners say this issue calls for state intervention. Most hygiene items are taxed under state laws; some, such as dandruff shampoo and chapstick, are not. Some progress has been made around access to sanitary products and several states, including Nevada and Florida, have removed the so-called “tampon tax.” California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is unveiling a budget plan this week that would drop sales taxes on menstrual products.

But as long as government programs such as SNAP continue to put toothpaste and tampons on the same list of prohibited purchases as tobacco and beer, teachers, parents and local communities will likely still provide such items for low-income students.

Helms said the hygiene closet program had show her just how much of a lifeline this and other assistance schemes are for many students in her community. As the Horace Maynard mother I spoke to told me, “The closet at my son’s school has helped us tremendously. The products that are sent home are used by all my kids. It’s really a very thoughtful thing to do to help make sure the kids feel loved. I would tell everyone that has donated thank you. A million times over, thank you.”

 

What Happens When Teachers Can’t Afford To Live In Their Own Cities

This article first appeared in HuffPost’s This New World section

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Teachers like Sarah are being forced to leave the Bay Area because they can’t afford the outlandish housing costs

A few years ago, Sarah was living in a drafty garage belonging to one of her friends. Despite being a smart, highly qualified teacher to sixth- and seventh-graders at a public middle school not far from San Francisco’s international airport, she simply could not afford to live anywhere else in the city.

San Francisco is facing an unprecedented housing affordability crisis. That was the conclusion of an analysis published in July by the city’s planning department documenting the huge challenge facing the city and the wider Bay Area. Rapidly rising rents and soaring property values, combined with high construction costs and prohibitive zoning policies, have stymied the “missing middle” housing options needed for public sector employees like Sarah, who earn too much to qualify for low-income housing, but not enough to afford the Bay Area’s often outlandish market rates.

While teachers may be invaluable to society, their pay and working conditions are deteriorating as housing costs rise. On Monday, Los Angeles public school teachers began their first strike in 30 years after more than a year of failed negotiations over issues that include pay.

“It’s so important for our public servants to be able to live in their communities,” says Kristy Wang, community planning policy director at the nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR. “But we live in such a high-cost housing market that it’s really difficult for them to do that because they just don’t make enough.”

Desperate measures

Sarah (who asked that her real name not be published to protect her privacy) is a 32-year-old originally from the East Coast who moved to the Bay Area after gaining her master’s degree and teaching credential in Southern California. In 2011, she was living with her boyfriend and their young daughter on the outskirts of San Francisco in a one-bedroom apartment that cost around $1,500 a month. When she and her boyfriend split up four years later, the market rate for a similar apartment was at least $2,400. As a newly qualified teacher earning $2,700 a month, she just couldn’t make her budget stretch that much.

“Basically, we had nowhere to live,” she says. Then her best friend, also a single mom and struggling to afford her duplex rent, suggested that Sarah move in. “My daughter shared a room with my friend’s son — they’re the same age, went to preschool together and know each other well,” Sarah says. “And I lived in her garage for a year.”

Listening to Sarah’s matter-of-fact account of how she bought carpet and space heaters to make her new sleeping quarters more comfortable, the rationale is compelling. Her rent was now $1,300 a month, and sharing grocery shopping with her friend also cut costs.

But, she says, the situation was ridiculous. The poorly insulated garage was stifling hot in summer, uncomfortably cold in winter, and lacked direct access to the duplex, which meant going outside at night to reach the bathroom. The move added up to 40 minutes each way to her daily commute. And she had to buy a baby monitor so that her daughter could hear her mom’s voice before she fell asleep.

“It’s really upsetting to be a working adult who can’t even afford a one-bedroom apartment by myself,” she says. “That makes me very angry.”

She criticizes tech companies — whose presence in the Bay Area has been blamed for rocketing rents and house prices — for not helping to manage the problems they’ve created.

The salary/housing cost divide

The Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis has made stories like Sarah’s shockingly common. Assuming a household spends no more than 30 percent of income on rent, it would need to earn $180,000 a year to be able to afford the median rent in the city, according to the planning department’s analysis published last summer. In San Francisco, the starting salary for a credentialed teacher is $55,461.

Two-thirds of teachers spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to a 2018 survey by Stanford University for San Francisco Unified School District. Of those, 14.7 percent say rent accounts for more than half their income. Annual teacher turnover is around 12 percent, which translates to the district having to fill an average of 400 classroom vacancies each school year. Housing affordability is the biggest reason given for teachers leaving, according to Daniel Menezes, SFUSD’s chief human resources officer.

“Educator turnover hurts a school because children need to experience safety and stability,” says Elaine Merriweather, executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco union. “Educators develop relationships with students that really help to support their growth and learning.”

Collective bargaining and the parcel tax approved last June ― which will provide teachers with a 7 percent wage rise over the next two decades funded by a $298 annual tax on San Francisco property owners ― have increased basic teacher salaries by over a third since 2014, according to SFUSD’s Menezes. But, he says, the costly housing market means these pay increases aren’t enough to attract and retain educators, particularly those just starting out or who have a family.

“Every year, it is getting harder and harder to go out to national universities and convince a teacher to come to San Francisco because of the affordability issue,” Menezes says.

Dedicated solutions

To address the crisis, SFUSD has partnered with the city and the teachers union to build its first teacher housing complex, with occupancy expected in 2022. The Francis Scott Key development in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood in the west of the city will convert a surplus school district site into 130 apartments, costing from around $1,600 for a studio to $2,300 for a three-bedroom.

 

An artist's impression of the Francis Scott Key development in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.

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An artist’s impression of the Francis Scott Key development in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.

“We’ll have teachers at the higher end of that scale and we’ll have para-educators — special needs teachers and assistants in the classroom — who earn less,” says Kate Hartley, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “We’re really excited about being able to serve that wide range of school employees.”

While Sarah welcomes the idea of dedicated housing for teachers, she says she wouldn’t be able to save any money or afford a house if she stayed in the Bay Area and had to pay those kind of rents.

To genuinely address the teacher housing crisis, the Bay Area needs protections for existing tenants and a deluge of new housing units, says Sonja Trauss, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation.

Trauss, who was a high school math teacher in the East Bay, quit her job a few years back when housing and commuting costs became too much for her to afford. Since then, she has campaigned for higher-density zoning.

“Too much of the city is zoned for low-density housing in a place that is incredibly in demand,” Trauss told HuffPost. “It’s not just San Francisco, but all over the Bay Area.”

Trauss has also fought against homeowners who block development to preserve neighborhood character. “The situation we have now is that people who already have their homes really don’t care if there’s a [housing] shortage”, she says. “Their feeling is that allowing the city to grow would change neighborhood character … But these are the people that the city needs to survive.”

In a recent example of the kind of Bay Area nimbyism Trauss has called out, more than 6,500 people signed a petition against proposals to build low-cost teacher housing in the wealthy Almaden Valley neighborhood of San Jose. San Jose Unified, the largest school district in the South Bay and a good one-hour drive from San Francisco, is considering converting eight schools with aging buildings or declining enrollment into affordable teacher housing. The plans, however, have attracted criticism from residents.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Union High School District just outside San Francisco plans to use a $33 million voter-approved bond to fund 116 low-cost apartments for teachers and other staff, due to break ground this year. Teacher pay in the district is reportedly among the lowest in the county — $49,500 to $87,300 a year.

“The plan will definitely be a game changer for a lot of people and would really help me out because housing will be low market rate, which would allow me to have more of a long-term outlook in the district,” says Mike Rodriguez, a 12th-grade math and economics teacher at Jefferson Union’s Thornton High School.

Rodriguez, 30, has a master’s degree and has been teaching for four years. He makes $50,000 a year and has $100,000 of student debt. He drives for Uber for at least two hours each day to boost his income, lives with three others and looks forward to the day when he might not need to rent a room in a shared apartment.

The region’s teacher housing crisis needs both investment and political will, says Wang from SPUR. While there is no magic bullet, she adds, European models such as Germany’s baugruppen co-housing communities and Vienna’s affordable social housing, which offer city-based, lower-cost accommodation with shared facilities, could provide solutions for middle-income earners such as teachers and other public-sector workers.

For Sarah, change isn’t coming quickly enough. For the last two years, she has been living with her parents and her daughter in Redwood City, a 30-minute commute to her current school. Once the school year ends, she plans to move to a more affordable city like Sacramento.

“It would have been nice if there had been rent control and better salaries,” she says. “I do love teaching here, but I am being driven out.”

 

How big data can help fight climate change faster

This article first appeared in the World Economic Forum’s Agenda section

 

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Credits: Maria-Jose Viñas/NASA’s Earth Science News Team/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s cryospheric sciences laboratory

new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns us that “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are required to limit global warming to 1.5C and avoid an irreversible natural tipping point.

By 2030, carbon dioxide emissions caused by humans need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050, says the report. Remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the atmosphere, for example through reforestation and improved land management.

From analyzing large data sets — or big data — we know that our planet lost the equivalent of 40 football fields per minute last year in tree cover. We know that more than a quarter of global tree cover loss between 2001 and 2015 was associated with commodity-driven deforestation.

Big data — whether historical or real-time — can also help us tackle the problem, for example by locating harmful emissions or identifying pressure points along the supply chain. This transformative change in data capabilities is an example of what the World Economic Forum refers to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

When California Governor Jerry Brown announced in September that the US state would be launching “its own damn satellite” to monitor the effects of climate change, his promise was bold: an initiative to help governments, businesses and landowners to pinpoint — and stop — destructive emissions “with unprecedented precision, on a scale that’s never been done before”.

Launched against a backdrop of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, California is taking local action to a global problem in the absence of federal leadership. Working with San Francisco-based Earth imaging company, Planet Labs, the state will develop and eventually launch a satellite capable of detecting the “point source” of climate pollutants, monitoring leaks and other anomalies at specific locations.

The satellite, an initiative of the California Air Resources Board, will complement project partner Environmental Defense Fund’s MethaneSAT, scheduled for launch in 2021. The latter will provide broader, more frequent coverage, quantifying emissions from oil and gas fields producing at least 80% of global output roughly every four days.

Individually, the projects will generate important data on harmful emissions. Combined, the data sets pack a bigger punch. For instance, if MethaneSAT waves a red flag about an emissions spike in a given field, the California instrument would then zero in on specific facilities and pinpoint the larger sources. EDF says it is “like having two camera lenses — wide angle and telephoto” that together produce a more complete picture of the methane problem.

The California Air Resources Board and Planet Labs will work in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund amongst others to set up a new Climate Data Partnership, a common platform for reporting data to enable governments, businesses, landowners and others to pursue more targeted mitigation measures worldwide.

Tom Ingersoll, who is leading EDF’s MethaneSAT project, suggests thinking of these separate but complementary data projects “as a set of overlapping circles, like the Olympic rings”.

He says: “Multiple methods of assessing methane emissions lead to a more complete and actionable set of insights than any single method can by itself.”

Bringing solutions into focus

Combining data captured via satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to monitor forests and land use to provide the ‘where, why, when and who’ was among the solutions discussed at a 4IR event held at the recent Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

Kavita Prakash-Mani, practice leader – markets & food at WWF, says data from projects such as Eyes on the Forest, which investigates deforestation and land grabs in Indonesia, needs to be combined with other information to create the full picture. “We need technology to monitor why we are losing forests, looking at traceability through citizen sites and data on where food is coming from,” she says.

One example of this is the Trase platform, which connects independent data sources to reveal the trade flows for commodities such as beef, soy and palm oil which are responsible for an estimated two thirds of tropical deforestation. The aim is bring transparency to global supply chains, using publicly available data to map in detail the links between consumer countries via trading companies to the places of production.

The Trase platform reveals trade flows for commodities such as beef, soy and palm oil. (Image: Trase)

 

Using existing data such as customs records and trade contracts, tax registration data, production data and shipping data, Trase pieces together a bigger picture of how exports are linked to agricultural conditions (including specific environmental and social risks) in the places where they are produced. This enables companies, governments and others to better understand the risks and identify opportunities for more sustainable production.

By 2021, Trase aims to map the trade of over 70% of commodities that pose a major risk to forests. Clément Suavat, lead developer at Trase, says combining different data sets “allows you to connect landscapes, to quickly identify sustainability risks”. So, a mash-up of supply chain information and shipping data for example can help a business to pinpoint exactly where to make changes that will have an impact on climate change goals.

Sharpening the picture

Like Orbital Insight, which is using geospatial analytics to support the Global Forest Watch monitoring initiative, the Trase and Planet Labs projects are just some examples of this fast-growing field of using technology for climate change transparency.

Most recently, US climate change think tank Woods Hole Research Center is using a satellite-based tool to create a new global carbon monitoring map. The dataset behind the launch of The Carbon Source comes from the Woods Hole Carbon Monitoring System, which employs an innovative time-series approach to measuring changes (losses and gains) in aboveground carbon density across tropical America, Africa and Asia.

Woods Hole claims the approach is “poised to transform how the world measures and tracks changes in forest carbon” and its vision is to use the data “to tell a near real-time story” about the state and vulnerability of land-based carbon from the Arctic to the Tropics.

Dominic Waughray, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for Global Public Goods, predicts a “huge transformation” of the environmental community: “Think about how difficult it’s been to tackle climate change, to track emissions. And then think about the possibilities of large-scale transparency of data, and what that would mean to be a company or a civil society organization, finding that information and doing something with it.”

 

US activists launch climate change initiatives in absence of federal leadership

This article first appeared in The Guardian

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Credit: Global Climate Action Summit

America’s governors, mayors and CEOs are forging ahead with climate change initiatives despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and commitment to reviving the coal industry. But a report published today sets out a roadmap that could quicken that pace and cut carbon emissions to 24% below 2005 levels by 2025 in the absence of federal leadership.

Many US states, cities and businesses have rallied around the Paris commitments since Donald Trump pulled out from the agreement in June 2017. The America’s Pledge on Climate initiative was set up the same year by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and California governor Jerry Brown to map “bottom up” US climate action.

The US is already almost halfway to meeting its 2025 Paris Agreement emissions goal of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. The report claims existing commitments and policies will drive US emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2025 – around two-thirds of the original Paris goal.

It also sets out 10 climate action strategies – across most major economic sectors including electricity, transportation and buildings – that, if implemented broadly, could lower emissions to 21% . Broader engagement and collaboration could bring this figure to 24%, the report suggests.

Strategies include setting and implementing more stringent renewable energy procurement policies, accelerating the phase out of super-polluting refrigerant gases, and mapping and repairing methane leaks from natural gas pipelines.

Researchers at the University of Maryland and the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent thinktank, surveyed all 50 states, the largest 285 cities (100,000 plus population) and a cross section of businesses to map climate actions nationwide. Those committed to the Paris Agreement represent over half the US population (173 million people), over half the US economy ($11.4tn) and over 35% of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Report co-author Paul Bodnar, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, told The Guardian: “There have been growing coalitions in the US – cities working together, states working together, businesses working together. What’s changed in the last year and what’s new is this cross-cutting perspective. When states pass laws that help cities’ [emissions] strategies, or when states’ renewable portfolio standards are designed to help businesses – that’s really where we’re seeing really interesting, high impact results.”

The report, launched on the eve of Governor Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this week, showcases examples of states, cities and businesses pioneering climate change initiatives.

Arkansas is the only state in the south-east with energy efficiency resource standards (EERS), which require electric and natural gas utilities to propose and administer energy efficiency programs. Since 2009, strategies ranging from customer outreach to new technology have supported these programs, resulting in megawatt-hour savings enough to power 28,000 homes for a year.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was the driving force behind BlueLA, the city’s first all-electric car share program designed to sere low-income residents. Stations are located in LA’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and is expected to take 1,000 vehicles off the road by 2020. BlueLA also employs community members to lead on education and outreach.

New Jersey’s largest utility, Public Service Electric & Gas used methane leak data collected by EDF and Google Street View vehicles equipped with leak detection sensors, leading to a 83% reduction in leakages.

Brown signed a bill this week pledging that the state will obtain 100% of its power from clean sources by 2045. California is the second US state to do so, following Hawaii’s pledge in 2015.

The report comes in the same week that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released proposals to ease monitoring of methane gas leaks. These would unpick the raft of rules introduced under the Obama administration in 2016 to monitor methane leaks because of their negative contribution to climate change.

Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board and vice-chair of America’s Pledge, acknowledged that the bottom up approach “has no sanctions or penalties” but that it represented “a coalition of entities that have the capacity to make a difference”.