Group Project Results in China Trip for Students

June 9, 2010


China-bound MESM grads (from left): Gavin Feiger, Michael Conrardy, Aaron Sobel, Allison King, and Justin Whittet

Soon after graduating on June 11, five new Bren master’s alumni will travel to China, where they will collaborate with graduate students at Nanjing University's School of the Environment to develop strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) at the community level.

The trip is an offshoot of a 2010 Bren Group Project titled "Community Greenhouse Gas Solutions: Prioritizing Emissions-Reducing Strategies." For their collaboration, Bren master's students Michael Conrardy, Gavin Feiger, Allison King, Aaron Sobel, and Justin Whittet (all class of 2010) partnered with client and Bren Corporate Partner AECOM to "address climate-change mitigation at the community scale by providing recommendations for effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," according to the project final report.

The students performed cost-benefit analyses on twenty GHG-reduction strategies ranging from installing energy-efficient appliances to using public transit and installing solar panels. They then combined those results with geographic information to develop software they named SAFEGUARD, which allows community planners to tailor an economically viable GHG-reduction strategy that reflects the specific characteristics of their community, from geography and open space to budget and established goals. SAFEGUARD's recommendations are based on cost effectiveness, but the software addresses social and political realities by allowing users to override its economic prioritization for a recommendation that, for whatever reason, may not be feasible in a given community.

SAFEGUARD fills a gap for communities, which are responsible for meeting the requirements of environmental laws passed by the legislature, such as AB 32, California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, but may not know where to start or how to proceed. As the students write in their report, "SAFEGUARD scales these goals to the community-level, providing cities with targets of their own."

“The most interesting and potentially most globally beneficial aspect of our partnership with the Bren project is that our mutual investment already has the potential to positively impact two of the leading issues of today—energy savings and GHG reductions," said Bob Weber, chief executive of AECOM’s global environmental practice and chairman of the Bren School Advisory Board. "The software tool developed by the Bren students, combining engineering and environmental analysis with economic and policy analysis, showed that cities and communities are where climate change can be addressed with the greatest beneficial impact. AECOM is proud to be associated with this practical and aspirational collaboration among emerging engineering and environmental professionals from the U.S. and China.”

The group tested the software by working with the city of San Buenaventura (Ventura), California, conducting an inventory of the city's GHG emissions and using the SAFEGUARD software to develop recommendations for reducing GHG emissions.

"This project has created a tremendous opportunity for the City of Ventura by providing the foundation for developing a community-wide climate action plan," said Ventura Environmental Services Supervisor Joe Yahner, a Bren alumnus. "Due to the faltering economy and the resulting impact on the city budget, a study of this quality was unlikely to happen prior to the Bren students' taking it on. The study provides the city with clear goals and actionable steps to reduce our carbon footprint."

The group's advisor was Bren professor Oran Young, who heads the Sino-American Working Group, which is partnering with Chinese counterparts to address climate-change mitigation and providing funding for the students' trip.

"I've been waiting to see how good this project would be," says Young. "Now that it's finished, I know it's really good. It's the gold standard for Group Projects, so we set up this student-to-student collaboration."

Young says that the importance of the trip lies particularly in "building relationships and connections among early-career professionals whom we have every reason to expect are getting launched on long and productive careers." He adds, "There's an investment aspect to it, as the relationships that are formed will likely lead to additional opportunities in the future. At the end of the day, human relationships count. We can have all the papers and messages of intention we want, but getting people on the ground to connect and form relationships seems critical to making real progress."

In traveling to China, the Bren students will be joined by Lingxuan Liu, a Nanjing University PhD student in policy and management who is currently studying at the Bren School and working with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to plan for a California-Jiangsu cooperative arrangement. Last summer, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the agreement that established the cooperative effort. The students will spend a week interacting with their Chinese counterparts, whom Liu knows well, on emissions-reduction strategies for the new live-work Suzhou Industrial Park in Jiangsu province, as part of the "Low Carbon Cities" initiative in China.

Part of the work of the student groups, according to Liu, will be to "find common language" so that the software can be used reliably in the two different settings.

"It's a test case for future applications in China," he says. "We'll compare the results we get in China with what the group found in Ventura."

The SAFEGUARD software was sent to China ahead of time so that it could be adjusted to suit China's climate, geography, social structure, and economy. One difference that had to be addressed, says Group Project member Gavin Feiger, is that "Here, we measure straight emissions, but in China they measure emissions as a percentage of GDP, or emissions ‘intensity’. Because we are so far from being a manufacturing economy, that’s not something that’s built into our model."

The hope is that strategies developed from the two case studies can be expanded to the state and province scale, respectively, in both countries.