Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
Pending presidential approval, what will the enactment of the Great American Outdoors Act mean for America’s public lands and the gateway communities that surround them?
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), a landmark public lands bill that funds conservation and maintenance efforts in national parks, passed the House last week and now heads to the president’s desk for the final step of his signature. The GAOA promises $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a decades-old program to acquire federal lands for conservation and recreation that has long been hampered by funding shortfalls. The money will come primarily from revenue generated by taxing companies that extract oil and gas on federal land, which has provoked concern among some environmentalists that a transition away from fossil fuels could precipitate new funding woes. But the bill prompted limited backlash in Congress and sailed through both chambers with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes, in part because of the legislation’s potential to create jobs in struggling “gateway communities” that surround national parks.
On a virtual RFF Live event this week, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a pivotal cosponsor of the GAOA, discusses the bill’s passage with RFF Senior Fellow Margaret A. Walls, who has closely studied the outdoor recreation economy and the economic benefits of public lands. Asked why the LWCF emerged as a bipartisan concern this year, despite being a priority of conservationists for decades, Cantwell responds that “changing the focus to the economic value of public lands” cemented support from some formerly reluctant Republican legislators. The coronavirus crisis, by highlighting the importance of the outdoors, also has made clear the value of national parks. “That’s what’s so special about [public lands],” Cantwell elaborates. “You can have the same experience as your parents or grandparents or great grandparents had of visiting this unique place and seeing the grandeur and the beauty of it.”
Related research and commentary:
How are COVID-19 lockdowns reshaping the future of the transportation sector?
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown orders have disrupted the transportation sector, with potential long-term implications. As Americans become far less likely to leave their homes for work and recreation, demand for new cars has plummeted, and the auto industry has seen substantial declines in sales. The greatest impact may be on public transportation, which faces challenges on two fronts: lower revenues due to fewer riders, and reduced funding from cash-strapped local governments due to the ongoing recession. Public trains and buses traditionally are credited with providing a low-cost means of transportation while combating congestion and carbon emissions, by reducing the number of cars on the road. But now, government funding is unpredictable, and Americans might be reluctant to ride public transit for at least as long as the pandemic continues, meaning that the crisis could present an existential threat for public transit systems across the nation.
This week, on a new live-recorded episode of the Resources Radio podcast, University of Ottawa Professor Abel Brodeur provides an in-depth look at what lockdown orders mean for the future of transportation. Brodeur cautions that if the trend of working from home continues, then “public transportation is in trouble,” but he also acknowledges that “public transportation is not going to disappear.” Brodeur also discusses some indirect benefits of reduced traffic on the roads—namely, less air pollution and fewer traffic accidents. In Brodeur’s view, these underappreciated effects should be part of the discussion when deciding whether to implement lockdown orders in response to the spread of COVID-19. "All these car crashes are actually having a large effect. We're saving a lot of money [as accidents decline], and there are also other benefits in terms of remote work," Brodeur contends. "This should be part of a broader discussion on what the costs and benefits of lockdowns are ... It's very complicated."
Related research and commentary:
With global temperatures rising and pivotal climate talks delayed, how can the world nonetheless continue working together to address climate change?
A new report released this month by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a United Nations agency, offers dire predictions for the climate. The report predicts that annual global temperatures will likely be 1°C higher than preindustrial levels over each of the next five years—with about a one-in-four chance that temperatures will exceed preindustrial levels by 1.5°C in at least one of those years. These findings suggest that the world will need to make rapid progress to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement, which asks signatories to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. COVID-19 has only made these necessary mitigation efforts harder, with a global economic collapse demanding the world's attention and the pivotal COP26 conference delayed for a year. Whether signatories can resolve lingering issues from last year’s conference and announce ambitious emissions reductions goals—all while controlling a historic pandemic—remains unclear.
Amid such uncertainty about global climate change goals, two recent papers coauthored by RFF University Fellow Simon A. Levin in Nature Scientific Reports use game theory to assess the viability of different types of international agreements. One of the studies finds that the largely decentralized Paris Agreement—which fosters overlapping coalitions of cities, countries, and companies—offers a helpful alternative to more traditional arrangements, especially when universal agreement isn’t feasible. Meanwhile, the second study acknowledges that the Paris Agreement “will likely fall short of its goal,” but Levin and coauthors posit that “matching-commitment agreements,” whereby a country ties its emissions reductions to the mitigation commitments of another country, could incentivize ambitious reduction goals without the need for a central authority. For more about Levin’s research and how the pitfalls of the Paris Agreement do not mean that all climate agreements are destined for failure, read the related blog post from Cole Martin (yours truly).
Related research and commentary: