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Biden Day One: climate change

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UD experts address resilience, environmental justice and national planning for response to climate change

Editor’s note: As University of Delaware alumnus Joseph Biden starts his first full day as president of the United States, UDaily offers thoughts from several UD experts and doctoral students on the Biden-Harris administration’s top four priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. This article focuses on climate change.

The Biden Administration’s call to respond with urgency to climate change is a welcome development for one of the University of Delaware’s top environmental experts and for a young researcher, pursuing her doctoral degree.

Donald Sparks, who is Unidel S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), was delighted to see climate change as a major priority.

“Without question, our changing climate is one of the defining challenges of this century and it is imperative that we aggressively address it over the next decade,” he said. “The impacts of climate change — including extreme events such as drought, fires, storms, flooding and sea-level rise — affect every aspect of our lives, including food production and security, human health, water quality and security, the economy, infrastructure, environmental justice and national security, to name a few.”

Sara Parkison, who is pursuing a doctorate in energy and marine policy in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, sees hope for better coordinated national plans and objectives. Parkison is a senior policy analyst with the Electric Vehicle Research and Development Group in UD’s Center for Research in Wind (CREW). Her adviser is Prof. Willett Kempton. 

“One of the major challenges that plagues the policy-making process in the U.S. is that our politics and our system of government are not conducive to long-term, coordinated national planning,” she said. “This is particularly true when the federal government is divided. Without a unified federal government leading policy-making efforts for deep decarbonization of the power sector, states and local governments have thus far stepped up to fill the void. Twenty-nine states now have renewable portfolio standards and 468 mayors have committed to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal. This has had positive effects in driving the market and incentivizing technological innovation, but it has also led to independent and, at times, disjointed power procurements and system planning efforts.

“The power sector system is changing in a multitude of ways — from the technology being deployed, to the policies guiding their interconnection and their participation in the sector, to the actors defining and reacting to evolving rules and regulations,” she said.

Parkison said the Biden administration has the opportunity to fundamentally design and expedite the system’s transition to complete decarbonization by 2035. 

“There is an opportunity for ambitious, long-term and meaningful energy policy that can drive a coordinated approach to decarbonizing our grid and the economy,” she said.

Sparks said he is glad to see the focus on resiliency in the Biden climate change plan. Coastal resiliency is a focus of research at UD, he said, with support from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

“More than 50% of the U.S. population lives along coasts where we are seeing increasing flooding, rising seas and sinking coastlines,” he said. “Along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast there are more than 2,500 sites which are contaminated with metals and organic chemicals.”

One example, he said, is the Southbridge area of Wilmington, which sees frequent flooding and has soils contaminated with toxic arsenic and chromium, left from leather-tanning industries that were abundant there in the late 1800s.

“In addition to the concerns over contaminant mobility with flooding and sea-level rise, there are significant environmental justice concerns, an area that is highlighted in President Biden’s climate change plan,” Sparks said. “Increasing sea-level rise and coastal flooding can cause soils to become salinized, impacting crop production and groundwater salinization.”

Climate change also threatens national security, with a number of military installations located in coastal areas. Flooding, storms and sea level rise impact infrastructure. 

“Green infrastructure is an exciting approach for addressing resiliency, environmental sustainability and natural resource preservation,” he said.

One example, he said, is the Engineering with Nature (EWN) initiative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which links nature with human engineering to develop infrastructure.

Another is the Coastal Resilience Design Studio (CRDS), directed by Jules Bruck, professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, which is using green infrastructure strategies to address resiliency challenges in Delaware’s coastal communities.

“To protect humans from water, dunes can be used to prevent flooding of inland areas from waves and storm surges, berms to protect natural and constructed wetlands, and living shorelines and oyster reefs to slow inland water transfer, build and protect marsh and prevent erosion,” he said.

“To protect water, which is critical in enhancing resilience, intercepting water through planted buffer zones mitigates erosion and nutrient movement into water. Rain gardens and planted bump-outs can be used to control urban flooding and clean water before hitting the stream systems. Permeable paver planting can also aid in controlling flooding and urban tree canopy can be useful in intercepting rainwater.”

Parkison sees Biden’s “Build Back Better” platform as ambitious, complex and doable.

“Creating a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a carbon-free economy by 2050, revamping transmission infrastructure and driving innovation in clean energy technologies all require a realignment among clean energy developers, advocates of Distributed Energy Resources (such as solar, batteries, electric vehicles and their charging stations), utilities, state commissioners, policymakers and federal decisionmakers,” she said.

Monumental initiatives, deep change and mass coordination are needed and most are feasible now, she said.

“Most important, they are necessary if we are to efficiently, effectively and equitably combat climate change.”

But many challenges lie ahead, she said.

“Achieving a net-zero power sector by 2035 requires tapping into every available policy mechanism,” she said. “Successfully passing long-term fundamental clean energy legislation in Congress depends on effectively communicating its economic opportunities. Biden’s plan demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between clean energy and economic development.”

Links to stories in this package:

Biden Day One: Overview

Biden Day One: COVID-19

Biden Day One: Economic recovery

Biden Day One: Racial equity

Biden Day One: Climate change

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