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ENVS Seniors Present Original Research at Thesis Presentations

Environmental Study's seniors, Alisa White and Kit Gardner, each presented their senior thesis research to a packed room of students, faculty, staff, friends and family on May 31st. Alisa's research focused on policy to incentive Vermont landowners to participate in carbon offset programs, while Kit's was a comparative case study of waste management systems in San Francisco, CA and Seattle, Washington.

Alisa and Kit each wrote a summary of their original research below.

Alisa White ‘17

My thesis began with a question: how can we create effective public policy to incentivize landowners to protect and sustainably manage their forest land? This question led me to forest carbon offsets. Forest carbon offsets allow landowners to make extra revenue by storing carbon in the trees in their forest above a regional baseline. Companies can then purchase these offsets to meet emissions reductions targets- whether voluntary or mandatory. The study for my thesis focuses on small-scale forest landowners in Vermont, who make up the majority of landowners in the state, and how they could become involved in the carbon offset market. Currently, offset markets only engage with large landowners who own 2000 acres or more.

A Vermont Forest

In my research process, I met with key stakeholders including landowners, policy makers, land trusts, foresters, carbon market companies and academics in the field. I went to meet with several forest landowners and heard about their stories and forest management practices as we walked their forest land. With stakeholder input and my own research, I designed carbon credit programs that small landowners could enroll in in order to engage with the carbon offset market. In January through March of this year, I administered a mail survey to 992 Vermont forest landowners enrolled in the Current Use program and utilized a novel technique, best-worst scaling, to elicit their preferences about these carbon credit programs.

Many thanks to my wonderful survey envelope stuffers!

After analyzing the survey data, I found that landowners significantly prefer working with a non-profit organization over a government or for profit-organization to participate in a carbon credit program and that Vermont forest landowners are willing to accept features of carbon credit programs for reasonable levels of monetary compensation. These results can inform policy-makers and practitioners and suggest that aggregated carbon offset projects and carbon credit programs could successfully be piloted in Vermont by non-profit organizations.

I hope to continue to engage with research on carbon offsets and pursue work on forest management and land use policy in the future. Next year, I will be working at Industrial Economics, an environmental consulting firm in Cambridge, MA. In the future, I hope to get a joint Masters in environmental management and law degree and pursue environmental and natural resources law and policy.

Kit Gardner ‘17

My thesis is a comparative case study of municipal waste management systems in San Francisco, CA and Seattle, WA. The central question that this research seeks to answer is, “What are the critical features of municipal waste management systems that are seeking to reduce waste, and how do variations in these features affect important outcomes?” My research compares forces of regulation, program organization, and stakeholder incentives as they pertain to outcomes in each city. I explored this through an aggregation of available data on city-level attributes, observational research, and interviews. The analysis is a qualitative unpacking of this information to determine the forces that have shaped key attributes of each city’s waste reduction programs.

I became interested in this topic while doing an internship in San Francisco last summer. I began interviewing people in the waste industry there and visiting various waste-processing facilities. As my research progressed, I decided to broaden the scope and include Seattle, which I was able to visit over spring break thanks to the Kaminsky Family Fund Award. Both cities are working towards being “zero waste,” but there are key similarities and differences between their approaches. I chose case-based research because of its potential to provide a more holistic picture of a complex system than if I were to have focused on a single metric of success.

My aim is that these research findings can be used by other municipalities in the United States in the creation of an effective waste reduction program. After graduation, I am planning to move to Seattle to pursue a career in waste-related consulting.

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