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At Caltech, New Course Offers a Practical Look at Sustainability Solutions

Published on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 | 5:45 am

In a new course, Economics of Sustainable Development, Caltech is training the next generation of scientists and economists to create technologies that will reduce humanity’s impact on the environment and advance economies.

Sustainable practices ensure that humans and other living things can access the natural resources necessary for their survival and well-being while also providing for future generations. To meet a multitude of challenges posed by a changing climate, a sustainable mindset is key.

In her new course for undergraduate and graduate students, Juni Singh, postdoctoral instructor in social sciences of sustainability who is supported by the Resnick Sustainability Institute, shows how behaviors of individuals and firms, as well as international politics, impact sustainability and how markets have failed the environment in the past. Ultimately, she hopes to give students tools to make better decisions when they take leadership positions.

“Markets are focused on allocating resources based on the laws of supply and demand, but we cannot assign a price to the environment because it’s not traded in the market,” Singh says. “For example, how much is one unit of oxygen worth to people in a given economy? It’s a very abstract question. Markets have failed the environment in the past by not optimally evaluating what the value of the resource is.” This explains why energy companies have pursued the sale of gas and oil even though burning fossil fuels creates harmful greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change. Carbon cap-and-trade programs, which create economic policies with sustainable development in mind, have the capacity to lead to positive outcomes for the environment and spur economic growth in new ways.

Scientists use mathematical models to identify trends and make predictions about how Earth’s climate will change over time. Similarly, economists model the behavior of companies and individual consumers to understand policy response. In her course, Singh teaches students to combine the two methodologies and use economic models to evaluate potential sustainability solutions.

“I’ve spent a lot of time learning about ways science can combat climate change, and that discussion always comes to a point where we ask why the solution or improvement hasn’t been adopted,” says second-year chemical engineering major Virginia Canestraight. “This class is filling that gap: allowing us to understand reasons why a sustainable development hasn’t been applied, or why some haven’t behaved as we predicted. It includes the human nature of decision-making.”

Singh trains students to see sustainability challenges through an economic lens and to be aware of these nuances when they translate science into real-world applications, such as redesigning the electrical grid or deciding how high to build seawalls. “I want them to be able to say, ‘This is what we know about the science, but this is where we can learn from economics, and this is how the market works,'” Singh says.

Graduate student Jonathan Michelsen, who works in the lab of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Scott Cushing, says that the class complements his research on the chemistry of solar energy. “It exposes me to the broader context of economic policy that is necessary to reduce carbon emissions for slowing climate change.”

Third-year chemical engineering major Albert Kyi adds: “It’s incredibly important that we as engineers better understand the social costs and financial risks associated with new technology. Dr. Singh folds in examples from all around the world, which is refreshing since we often focus on domestic examples and policies.”

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