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Thriving Environment

READ THE STORIES: Tackling Methane Emissions | Catalyzing Investment in On-Grid Solar | Protecting Indigenous Environments and Lifeways through Climate Resilience | Assessing Cumulative Pollution to Protect Communities

Tackling Methane Emissions

More than 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge introduced at COP26 in 2021—a show of support for cutting methane emissions that was both important and long overdue. While carbon dioxide (CO2) gets most of the attention, methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that, ton-for-ton, is nearly 30 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And while not an air pollutant, methane reacts with other agents in the atmosphere to form smog. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, methane concentrations in 2019 were the highest of any year in the past 800,000 years.

Sources of Methane Emissions and its Productive Uses

Over the last decade, Abt has been at the forefront of efforts to address methane pollution globally. Since 2013, we have helped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) address methane emissions from agriculture and solid waste sources through the Global Methane Initiative and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. We have produced actionable tools to help project developers, governments, and implementers assess feasibility and benefits of potential methane mitigation projects and technologies, such as food waste digesters that produce valuable biogas. More than 50 cities–from Delhi, India, to Novi Sad, Serbia have used the Solid Waste Emissions Estimation Tool to estimate waste sector methane emissions and plan mitigation strategies. We have also conducted more than 70 studies and assessments, and developed more than a dozen guides and resources, including a recent best-practices guide for monitoring, reporting, and verifying methane emissions reductions for the biogas sector.

VIDEO: The Solid Waste Emissions Estimation Tool (SWEET) has been used by more than 50 cities around the world

Our work has spanned dozens of countries that want to limit smog, mitigate climate change, and harness methane for commercial use. Key to those efforts is knowledge sharing and capacity building around best practices for reaching scale in effective waste management. For example, on behalf of the U.S. EPA, Abt played a critical role in helping The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) establish its Center for Waste Management, which provides technical assistance to dozens of Indian cities. We helped establish the Center of Excellence for Circular Economy and Climate Change, which serves as a technical resource for Southeast European cities. And Ecuador’s Environment Ministry has incorporated the Abt-developed OrganEcs tool into its guidance for organic waste management.

Key to obtaining funding for methane projects is technical and financial feasibility analysis. In Naucalpan, Mexico, we conducted a technical analysis that was key to ensuring a waste treatment facility project moved forward. Our analyses helped the city secure a $17 million grant from the national infrastructure investment bank for its waste treatment facility, with the rest of the project’s financing coming from private investment. We showed the project’s technical soundness and quantified additional important criterion: environmental benefits. In Novi Sad, Serbia, our feasibility assessment for a compost project led to capital funding from the German government. The assessment showed that the project was both technologically and financially feasible and that a centralized compost project was preferable to multiple smaller ones.

Step by step, more countries are learning about the benefits of methane mitigation—and acting on it. The Global Methane Pledge may well accelerate that progress.

PROJECT: Technical and Capacity Building Support for the Global Methane Initiative and Climate and Clean Air Coalition
CLIENT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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Catalyzing Investment in On-Grid Solar

Energy consumption across Southeast Asia is projected to double by 2040. The region’s reliance on such energy sources as coal and large-scale hydropower will increase global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and harm ecosystems, human health, and livelihoods throughout the Lower Mekong River Basin and beyond.

One solution is investing in low-emission power generation, but the barriers to investing in such alternatives are significant. The Abt-led Clean Power Asia (CPA) project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, took a systems approach to help unlock almost $8 billion in investment in clean energy options by busting pervasive myths about integrating solar power into the grid. The efforts eliminated key obstacles by reconciling the often-conflicting interests of consumers, utilities, policymakers, and regulators.

At the heart of CPA’s strategy was encouraging scale-up of consumer-owned power such as distributed rooftop photovoltaics (PVs). Doing that required an overhaul of regulatory structures, which for decades facilitated investment disincentives and retained outdated requirements for consumers to use expensive equipment.

Understanding the utility revenue and rate impacts was a critical step in getting past barriers to a policy to promote greater investment in rooftop PV.

          - Thanyalak Meesap of the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, Government of Thailand

Abt used data to dispel the myths that stoked opposition to change. In Thailand, utilities feared large increases in rooftop PV deployment would slash their revenue, while regulators worried about the need for large tariff increases. A joint analysis by Abt and partners revealed no direct impacts on utility revenues and projected rate increases of less than one percent for even the most aggressive PV deployment scenario. The modeling supported consumers’ interest in rooftop PVs and government efforts to develop a new policy while alleviating utilities’ concerns. So Thai consumers can now install rooftop solar panels and sell excess energy back to the grid. Informed by this research and analysis, the Philippines and Vietnam followed Thailand’s path.

In total—in Laos, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam—the Abt-led CPA project supported amending 16 policies, and catalyzed investments of nearly $8 billion to generate more than 9,000 megawatts of power. These achievements dwarfed the original target set for the CPA project by a factor of more than 10 ($678 million investment in 824 megawatts of renewable energy generation). The policies would also avoid more than 93 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent emissions over the next 15 years, more than three times the original 29 million metric ton target.

Expanded investment and deployment of rooftop PVs will provide more evidence to rebut the myths that have been roadblocks to rooftop PVs’ development. As reality dawns on stakeholders, we can expect ever greater progress in the fight against GHG emissions.

PROJECT: Clean Power Asia
CLIENT: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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Protecting Indigenous Environments and Lifeways through Climate Resilience

Indigenous peoples are often on the frontlines of climate change; their intrinsic ties to the land for sustenance and cultural identity means that they are particularly vulnerable to its effects. Everything from wildfires, extreme droughts, and sea-level rise to more incremental climatic shifts can irrevocably alter sacred landscapes, resulting in the loss of places, plants, and animals that are critical to sustaining traditional ways of life. Indigenous and Tribal communities are also key to protecting and restoring lands critical to staving off the most severe climate change scenarios. Traditional, intergenerational knowledge embedded in these communities makes them powerful stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity.

Each Indigenous population has distinct values and uses of natural resources. It is with respect for those beliefs and practices that we partner with them to help assess climate risks and strengthen communities’ resilience to climate change. In the U.S., Abt has partnered with Tribal Nations for more than 20 years on an array of environmental topics that help preserve sacred landscapes, Indigenous first foods, life-sustaining and spiritual water sources, and traditional lifeways.

Our approach reflects the distinct nature of each Tribal Nation and helps strengthen climate resiliency based on a nation’s sovereign identity. We help identify a community’s unique vision through workshops with youth, elders, resource managers, and Tribal government leaders. We then assess vulnerabilities, including to plants and animals used as first foods, which are important foods and staples of Indigenous culture, spirituality, medicine, and overall well-being. Next, we help Tribes develop adaptation options, which typically blend western science with Indigenous knowledge. We collaborate with community leaders to ensure the results are accessible and resonate with the community.

We applied this approach in supporting the Pueblo de San Ildefonso to identify the community’s vision and adaptation options focused on traditional activities and places, community health and infrastructure, and governance (see graphic by artist Erin Martinez). We are currently working with the Pueblo to implement high-priority adaptation actions.

We ensure that our data collection and research expertise deepens understanding and improves communities’ adaptive capacity. Partnering with the Native Alaskan Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, we are studying the impacts of climate and contaminants on Alaska Atlantic Salmon. This first food of Native Alaskans and other Tribal Nations is under threat due to climate change, mining contamination, and other stressors. Diminishing fish populations upend local cultures and harm human health. Developing a better understanding of the effect of rising temperatures on these fish can inform the design of adaptation strategies, such identifying and protecting existing spawning grounds with groundwater inputs that serve as thermal refugia for developing salmon embryos. For a population facing multiple stressors, alleviating this one (temperature) may help to improve the odds of survival.

To further advance progress in this area, Abt is investing in our development of a remote-sensing fish-population modeling tool that will allow Tribal Nations and government agencies to assess climate and other impacts on fish populations. Our hope is that use of this tool, in combination with Indigenous knowledge, will support the management of key fisheries that sustain the traditional lifeways of many Tribal communities.

Community population-level health is also a critical area of our work. We conducted a human impact assessment on the combined effects of contamination and climate on the Pueblo de San Ildefonso, in the U.S. Southwest. Our work demonstrated that increased runoff and erosion during storm events following wildfires can result in greater movement and concentration of contaminants, potentially increasing the risk of exposure and harmful health effects. Our analysis showed that contaminant concentrations tripled after a particularly significant runoff event that followed a large wildfire.

Detecting effects is just the starting point. Western science and Indigenous knowledge and ingenuity can combine to produce truly sustainable solutions. All with three goals in mind: improving community health outcomes, protecting Tribal Nations’ environments, and preserving Indigenous ways of life.

PROJECT: Climate Adaptation Planning, Pueblo de San Ildefonso; Southwest Alaska Salmon Habitat Partnership
CLIENT: Pueblo San Ildefanso, Department of Environmental & Cultural Preservation; Modeling Early Life Stage Salmonid Developmental Rates Under Future Climate Change Scenarios

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Assessing Cumulative Pollution to Protect Communities

For years, the process for granting a facility an emissions permit in Massachusetts focused primarily on emissions expected from the proposed facility or process change. It did not consider nearby communities’ exposure to existing pollution sources or the cumulative effects of emissions from existing and new sources.

That’s about to change. A 2021 state law mandates a more holistic approach. The law sets new goals for emissions and clean energy, and establishes a clear definition of communities overburdened by pollution. Partnering with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), Abt is developing a cumulative impact analysis framework which will evaluate the impacts of increased emissions in areas that may already be overburdened with pollution, environmental degradation, and the effects of climate change.

This change in air emissions-permitting is important because individuals and communities do not experience a single pollutant or a single exposure. They are exposed to numerous pollutants from multiple sources. In addition, these chemical stressors may interact with each other as well as with non-chemical stressors, such as extreme weather and climate change to affect health and well-being. Under Massachusetts’s new process, permit applicants will have to explore whether a neighborhood already has poor air quality and a disproportionate amount of pollution, which can lead to varied health problems from cancer to pulmonary issues. Applicants will need to determine whether the population has unique vulnerabilities that make it susceptible to harm from increased air pollution.

To build this Cumulative Impact Analysis (CIA) framework for Massachusetts, Abt identified and screened more than 80 environmental, public health, demographic, and climate indicators. We are now supporting MassDEP’s development of a risk-screening tool for CIAs to streamline and scale the analysis.

Gathering input from communities and ensuring communities have access to information are critical for governments to build trust and ensure transparency in environmental regulation. In Massachusetts, Abt supports community engagement through webinars at half a dozen MassDEP stakeholder meetings designed to gather input on the new CIA process. Abt is also providing data to communities across the U.S. to strengthen Right to Know activities and ensure residents know what goes into the air their kids breathe, the water they drink, and the ground they play on.

Abt has created tools for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that make neighborhood-level data about pollution levels accessible. For example, we developed a user-friendly search on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) homepage with interactive charts, tables, and maps to help the public learn about toxic chemical releases in their community.​ This tool, known as TRI Toxics Tracker, includes data on community demographics near facilities reporting to TRI. An expanded version of the tool provides users with even more ways to understand the trends in toxic chemical releases over time and the demographics of who lives near reporting facilities.

An EPA press release in January noted that the agency is setting its research agenda to evaluate how to implement CIAs to identify and quantify environmental justice issues that the Biden Administration seeks to address. If EPA pushes ahead to adopt CIAs, states that aren’t yet exploring the issue will have to adapt to the process quickly.

PROJECT: Massachusetts Cumulative Impact Analysis; Toxics Release Inventory
CLIENT: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA)

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