The law’s role in supporting sustainable cities

by Greg St. Martin

Toward the end of former Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency admin­is­trator Carol Browner’s eight-​​year stint on the job, the EPA exam­ined the his­tory of the Clean Air Act and com­pared the costs to industry to achieve air pol­lu­tion reduc­tion tar­gets and to the soci­etal ben­e­fits achieved by these mea­sures. The result: industry costs were lower—and the soci­etal ben­e­fits higher—than had been predicted.

The reason, Browner explained during a recent lec­ture at Northeastern’s School of Law, was that “once you set an envi­ron­mental stan­dard, you create a market” to meet the stan­dard. For example, she pointed to Con­gress’ deci­sion in 1990 to ban chlo­ro­flu­o­ro­car­bons, a chem­ical known to deplete the stratos­pheric ozone layer. That didn’t mean refrig­er­a­tors and air con­di­tioners stopped being made; instead, Browner said, “com­pa­nies made invest­ments and brought a new tech­nology to the market that was faster and cheaper than people had anticipated.”

“When we think about the role of reg­u­la­tions as we think about the issue of cli­mate change, we need to remember that his­tory,” Browner said. “When we look at the sci­ence, when we have a moral and eth­ical approach, when we set these stan­dards that aren’t based on an eco­nomic analysis, we will rise to the occa­sion and find a very good solution.”

Browner deliv­ered the keynote address last month at a con­fer­ence titled Lawyering for the Sus­tain­able City. Browner has served under two U.S. pres­i­dents: she worked as the admin­is­trator of the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency in the Clinton admin­is­tra­tion from 1993 to 2001 and as director of the White House Office of Energy and Cli­mate Change Policy under Pres­i­dent Obama from 2009 to 2011.

The day­long con­fer­ence con­tinued with a series of panel dis­cus­sions and breakout ses­sions focused on a range of issues, including rising sea levels, urban trans­porta­tion and city infra­struc­ture, rezoning cities to make water man­age­ment more resilient, and new legal approaches to obtaining, using, and con­serving energy.

Sus­tain­ability is one of Northeastern’s core research themes and solving chal­lenges in the field requires an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach, according to law school Dean Jeremy Paul, who deliv­ered opening remarks. The con­fer­ence aligned with that strategy, drawing aca­d­emic and industry experts from dis­ci­plines including law, engi­neering, busi­ness, envi­ron­mental studies, and urban archi­tec­ture and landscape.

Paul noted that North­eastern law stu­dents are taught the value of working across dis­ci­plines begin­ning on their first day on campus. “When clients walk into your office, they don’t say, ‘I have a torts problem.’ They tell you a story about some­thing that hap­pened to them,” he said. “This is also true on a broader level. If someone wants to build a bridge or improve a city’s energy effi­ciency or reduce air pol­lu­tion, they don’t walk into your office saying I have a legal problem or engi­neering problem. They say, ‘I want to build a bridge.’ Putting people together from mul­tiple dis­ci­plines as this con­fer­ence does is much more directly respon­sive to the human needs we’re all trying to serve.”

He added: “No one’s done more to head off cities’ envi­ron­mental prob­lems than our keynote speaker.”

For her part, Browner con­cluded her keynote address by arguing that nature itself can often help solve chal­lenges in urban sus­tain­ability. One example—which she called “one of my favorite things I did at the EPA”—focused on the fed­eral agency threat­ening lit­i­ga­tion against New York City over the dimin­ishing quality of the Big Apple’s drinking water. Browner said the EPA worked with city and state offi­cials in the 1990s to find the solu­tion at the water’s source—the Adirondacks—and increase pro­tec­tions of the water­shed. An alter­na­tive solu­tion would’ve been to build a water treat­ment facility.

“We were able to pre­vent a problem rather than treat a problem,” Browner said. She added that as more cities dis­cuss sus­tain­ability, resilience, and adap­ta­tion, “we’re going to have to think about how can we pre­vent the prob­lems and how can we let nature help us.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on April 8, 2014.