April 20, 2016

University of Chicago Urban Labs Keeps Spirit of Earth Day Alive With Evidence and Civic Partnerships

A man rides his bicycle next to Indian soldiers marching in front of India Gate on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
A man rides his bicycle next to Indian soldiers marching in front of India Gate on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

by Emma Berndt

Back in the 1970s, Los Angeles was known as the smog capital of the world. White-collar workers in Gary, Indiana brought two shirts to work to ensure they had a clean white one to get them through the day. Thousands of images captured the visible impacts of pollution on communities across the United States. This environmental degradation contributed to a broad and bipartisan call for change that culminated in the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year, and numerous state and federal regulations such as the Clean Air Act.

When President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law on the last day of 1970, he said: “1970 will be known as the year of the beginning, in which we really began to move on the problems of clean air and clean water and open spaces for the future generations of America.” The years that followed have shown his words to be prescient in many respects, including through substantially improved air quality. Here in Chicago, we’ve added about two years to our lives since 1970 because of improvements in our air quality. The former smog capital of Los Angeles has seen particle pollution cut in half and people there are also living longer.

As we celebrate the 46th Earth Day, it’s important to take stock of all the progress we’ve made, but also of all the work that remains to be done. Despite significant improvements in the United States, cities both here and around the world continue to face urgent environmental challenges—among them, ensuring access to clean water, clean air, and clean energy. The urgency of these problems continues to fill our headlines: from lead-laced water in Flint to a historic drought in California to Beijing’s first smog red alert last year.

Cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 percent of all carbon dioxide. In an increasingly urban world, a fundamental challenge we face is to learn how to leverage the possibilities urbanization offers while addressing the challenges it creates. This will require close collaboration between policymakers, community leaders, and researchers. Last year, The University of Chicago founded Urban Labs for this purpose: to partner with cities to identify and rigorously evaluate the policies and programs with the greatest potential to improve human lives across five key dimensions of urban life: crime, education, health, poverty, and energy and environment. 
Research in India’s Gujarat State conducted by Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago Urban Labs, provides an example of the approach Urban Labs takes and the impact this type of work can have.

India suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the world, and its citizens are living shorter lives because of it. Gujarat is one of the most industrialized states in India and among its most heavily polluted. The Gujarat Pollution Control Board regulates more than 20,000 industrial plants and previously used a system of third-party audits whereby firms would choose and pay their auditors directly with no mechanism to scrutinize the quality of auditors’ reports. As a result, auditors that reported the truth were unlikely to be hired, especially by highly-polluting firms that did not wish to be noticed.

Neither the Gujarat environmental regulators nor the auditors themselves thought the status quo system was producing accurate information about pollution. For the regulators, this meant they were unwilling to take action based on audit reports. So the Gujarat authorities partnered with Greenstone and his colleagues to answer a simple question: Does adjusting incentives to break the conflict of interest lead to more truthful auditing, and thus, less pollution?

Greenstone and his team tested a series of reforms including randomly assigning auditors to industrial plants and having their work double-checked for accuracy. The reforms led to more accurate reporting, and reduced pollution by 28 percent. In January 2015, the pilot reforms were officially adopted by the Gujarat government.

This example highlights the need for evidence to support successful policies. But it also shows that the people who are most familiar with a community’s challenges are those who live and work in that community every day. Urban Labs believes there is no shortage of great ideas coming from the men and women in communities all throughout the world. One of the ways it connects with these great ideas is through Innovation Challenges—competitions that crowdsource the best ideas from community groups, non-profit and business leaders, and other stakeholders. Successful applicants receive funding to support their program and also partner with Urban Labs researchers to evaluate their program.

Last October, Urban Labs awarded more than $2.1 million in grants to innovative, Chicago-based organizations to support programs with high potential to address critical urban challenges in the poverty, health, and energy and environment realms. For example, $650,000 went to Elevate Energy, which is working in partnership with ComEd on a new program that uses financial incentives and insights from behavioral economics to help low-income households save money on their monthly electric bills.

Urban Labs has also joined hands with the Delhi government and launched an Innovation Challenge in Delhi to improve the city’s air and water quality. Urban Labs has since received nearly 250 proposals from students, entrepreneurs, non-profits, businesses and citizens who have cutting-edge ideas and a lot of passion to make those ideas happen to clean up their city.

This grassroots spirit is at the heart of the environmental movement that started 46 years ago on the first Earth Day.

Emma Berndt is the executive director of the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago Urban Labs. The University of Chicago is a civic partner of the 2016 Chicago Forum on Global Cities.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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