Jeremy Proville on the Economics of Sustainability

Jeremy Proville, Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund's Office of Economic Policy and Analysis, on the vital role economics and GIS play in shaping environmental policy

Interview by Omar Elsayed

Jeremy Proville from the Environmental Defense Fund explains the importance of economics in achieving environmental sustainability, how data is used to establish environmental policy and the role big economies have in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Omar Elsayed: To begin, can you share with us what your role is at EDF? Where do you work?

Jeremy Proville: I’m the senior manager in our office of Economic Analysis and Policy. The team focuses on helping the rest of the organization at large both with the economic aspects of their work and with the analysis and analytics of their work.

The four main programs that we help are: climate, energy, ecosystems and health. There are two aspects to this work. First, I work with GIS in which I help out with mapping and overseeing all of our GIS work. Second, in terms of economics, I focus a lot on both our climate and ecosystems work.

OE: You mentioned GIS, can you elaborate on what that is?

JP: Yes, absolutely. It stands for Geographical Information System. It’s basically anything related to mapping and the usage of spatial data. When you’re analyzing data visually, using it for research or trying to create maps, it’s all related to using the GIS software.

In terms of my own work, it spans from creating maps for our marketing and communications purposes to creating static maps we use in reports. But most often it’s for heavy analysis – putting in academic journals or papers in order to  try to understand spatial patterns.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the environment and we’re constantly trying to push back and fight for the environment. I think that’s what also makes working here great as well. Even though it’s this high-pressure, fast-moving environment, it also provides a lot of opportunities to solve these issues.”

OE: You mentioned you also work in economics, how exactly do you connect economics and GIS?

JP: Great question. Traditionally, there has been a disconnect with the two disciplines that’s often not founded. For example, for ecology and environmental science, you need to use a lot of geography knowledge and understanding of environments that vary depending on their locations. The data needs to be recognized regionally and locally in order to draw conclusions.

In economics, the same applies. You have a lot of social and cultural factors that differ in economies. You have factors such as GDP (gross domestic product) and job growth. There are also other factors related to energy, such as the cost of renewable resources. Our understanding of environmental economics differs depending on where you are located. In this way, the work I do in economics is very similar to the work I do with the GIS.

OE: And how does your work connect to the policy work that your organization does?

JP: I’ll give an example in terms of the work I do to help our sustainable agriculture team. We kind of have a broad mission: we have this pressing need to feed, what we expect to be about 9 billion people, by the year 2050. The way things going right now, it’s not really looking like we can do that.

We also need to minimize our environmental impacts. We have a lot of problems associated with growing the food we do currently such as fertilizer runoff, water quality problems and greenhouse emissions from converting land into agricultural land. So we have to resolve these problems as well as try to feed the growing population, especially in developing countries.

Broadly speaking, there are plenty of ways to deal with that. Traditionally, experts would say the way to deal with that in economic terms is to have both a demand and supply approach that you need to combine in order to get it done.

On the demand side, you know we need to reduce food waste because about 30-40% of the world’s calories are wasted – that’s a food distribution issue. Then on the supply side, we need to increase our agricultural production, but we need to do it in a way that won’t completely leach out into the environment and create a whole host of problems.

I also do work on the water quality side of things. I determine how to find ways to close the yield gap by reducing agricultural runoff into rivers and lakes. For example, in the Mississippi River you have a lot of fertilizer that drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

OE: In that respect, have you done any projects on water quality?

JP: Yeah, so in the example I gave with the Mississippi River, we’re definitely still exploring. We know that the problem can be solved; there’s even been many research papers and journals on this – you help farmers optimize their fertilizer use by introducing different methods.

One  method is to cover crops which are planted in the winter to help replenish the nitrogen in the soil. Another method is the use wetlands and other filtering practices that provide ways of filtering nitrogen and nutrients out of the rivers. If you combine all of those things, it becomes a massive restoration project. But you can largely reduce the big dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico as a result.

OE: Do you believe there is a way to advocate the issues you just mentioned through economics?

JP: Yes, I think that’s one of the ways I think this organization sets itself apart from other environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We understand that economics is a driving factor in decision making. It’s important to make the case that there are benefits to doing things in a more sustainable way by quantifying them like the cost of pollution and the benefits of green jobs as well.

OE: Let’s talk a little about yourself. What were you doing before you came to EDF?

JP: Before EDF, I studied and worked at McGill University in Canada. I did my undergraduate in Business where I focused on finance and economics. Doing this helped me recognize that I wanted to focus on environmental issues as well. I got a diploma in Environmental Science and crossed over into a Masters in Water Resource Management. I also spent time working in a biology and ecology lab, as well as a geography lab.

OE: How essential do you think teamwork is in your department in EDF?

JP: It’s absolutely key. We’re also more teamwork-oriented than other parts of EDF specifically because we work with the other departments. We help out with the economic analysis across the whole organization.

We have people here from many backgrounds like lobbyists, lawyers, researches, Ph.D scientists and economists. Our part is to generate research and help coordinate with everyone.

OE: And has there been any economic or environmental issue that has caught your eye lately?

JP: One I have been paying attention to is definitely climate change and negotiations. Mostly I pay attention to how big economies like in China and the U.S should curb their greenhouse gas emissions and bend the curve down and reduce environmental impacts.

A map of the total area of grassland by county. Grassland ecosystems in the U.S. are currently being converted to crop cultivation at higher rates than seen in previous decades. Much of this conversion is concentrated in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) and surrounding states including Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota (Source: Jeremy Proville)

OE: And talking about impacts, have you or your company achieved any positive impacts over the years?

JP: On terms of the organization, we’ve achieved a whole range of things for the 40 years we’ve been around, from things like DDT a while back to some issues now. In terms of an impact I’ve made personally, one I will mention that I have been working a lot was the previously mentioned farmers reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One way we did that was to create a market in which firms can pay their farmers to reduce emissions and in turn they would receive revenue for it. We created this market last year and the California Air Resources Board adopted it as an official thing in their statewide cap-and-trade system.

OE: In light of these achievements, have you or the company faced any challenges within the recent years?

JP: I think we’re perpetually facing challenges.

OE: That’s just the way the work is set up, right?

JP: Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure on the environment and we’re constantly trying to push back and fight for the environment. I think that’s what also makes working here great as well. Even though it’s this high-pressure, fast-moving environment, it also provides a lot of opportunities to solve these issues.

OE: Regarding these issues, do you think there are any in particular that you think people aren’t paying enough attention to?

JP: Honestly, I could say that about everything I work on. I guess I’ll pick climate change as the main one. Even though within my field we study and talk about it a lot, the world needs to know more about it and make it a more pressing priority. And quickly.

Another issue is the rising emissions problem; we need to move the world to a more clean energy-based economy.

OE: Do you have any future plans for the organization or for your own work to help solve for these issues?

JP: That’s a great question. Touching still on those two topics – we need to make sure that we stay on the trajectory of the Paris climate negotiations and that countries, both globally and the U.S, can pledge to stay on that path. And hopefully move beyond it as well. We must basically curb the worst effects of climate change.

But also, I would like to see work in the agricultural sector; seeing the world come together and help feed 9 billion people while not degrading the environment in the process.

OE: You mentioned previously that while you were going to school you were interested in pursuing sustainability issues. What exactly encouraged that?

JP: The main thing that drove me there was a class that I took called “Social Context to Business.” It was a complete antithesis to my other classes in which the professor showed that businesses aren’t necessarily held accountable for their actions on the environment and society, and are often making a profit with their damages. There was a whole range of examples in that course and it really opened my eyes to the bigger picture.

“We’re staring at a really tall wall and we need all the people we can get to try and scale that wall. If you look at current projections of where society is heading and how the environment stands, things look pretty dire. But human ingenuity can cover that if we work as a group and put our brains to it.”

OE: Do you think there’s a way to have these businesses be held accountable for their actions?

JP: There’s the hopeful approach that they will do the right thing, and to a certain extent a lot of corporations are moving that way. They understand the idea of a corporate-social responsibility. 

At the same time, getting there requires folks like us to put a price on pollution so they can understand the externalities they’re creating. You don’t want them to be privatizing profits and having society pay for it.

You have to have them be accountable for everything. Getting there requires research on how to do it best and finding ways to get that priced into the markets and decisions that they make.

OE: With all of these issues that we’re dealing with, do you have any encouraging words for people who are currently in STEM to get involved with these issues?

JP: Yeah, definitely! We need all of the help we can get. We’re staring at a really tall wall and we need all the people we can get to try and scale that wall. If you look at current projections of where society is heading and how the environment stands, things look pretty dire. But human ingenuity can cover that if we work as a group and put our brains to it. So I would love students and any new talent help us out.

OE: That sounds great. Thank you for your time.

JP: Awesome, thanks so much!

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