The Trickle-Down Environment

Federal policies are harming Pennsylvania

Illustration by Clarissa Eck

Illustration by Clarissa Eck

By Jacqui Bonomo

President Trump’s napalming of environmental protection is withering the air, water, landscape and public health of our nation. As the president’s agenda begins to manifest in on-the-ground changes—at the state and federal levels, in our fragile ecosystems, in waterways and throughout our imperiled climate system—we move closer to crises that future leaders, laws and technology will be hard-pressed to reverse.

The most striking impact of the president’s effect in Pennsylvania is how it’s emboldened anti-environmental elected officials in the state Legislature. The past year saw an unprecedented series of attacks on previously hard-fought, and typically bipartisan, environmental protections that, at least until now, provided basic measures and tools to clean our air and water. The Trump effect has spawned copycat policymakers who embrace the same bombastic and divisive tactics and rhetoric as the president. If the electorate does not reject these destructive personalities or turn them out of office, the prospect becomes grim for providing a healthy environment and uncompromised climate systems to future generations. 

But despite the extreme anti-environmental provocations of the Trump team, we are seeing small victories for clean water and air. A large state coalition of clean water advocates recently beat back the Trump administration’s attempt to zero out the budget for watershed protection and restoration projects in local streams of the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The recently passed state budget closed Pennsylvania’s solar borders, and now clean energy credits needed to meet our renewable energy goals must come from solar projects and jobs produced here, and not from out of state, as previously allowed.  

We are witnessing a profound rejection of Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, and his demolition of the Clean Power Plan, a reasonable path forward to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Our communities are stepping up to take their climate and clean energy futures into their own hands. Backed by their constituents, mayors and elected officials around the commonwealth have declared their intention to reduce emissions and move forward with climate action in places like Bethlehem, Downingtown, Mount Pocono, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Swarthmore and State College, with the list growing every day.

There are opportunities for state and federal policymakers to shed the polarized fever that’s beset them and make progress for our environment. Congress could surprise us and produce a good Farm Bill reauthorization that helps Pennsylvania agriculture and water quality, or pass the RECLAIM Act to provide funding to accelerate restoration of land and water impacted by legacy pollution from coal mining. The state Legislature could get serious about reforming and reauthorizing the alternative energy portfolio standard and continue to build on 70,000 clean energy jobs around the state. 

Yet, the pull of the president’s fear-driven environmental policy is so strong, I would not count on it. My money is on the regular folks and emerging environmental leaders who know there is too much at stake, and who will not allow this president to get in our way.

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Jacqui Bonomo is the president and CEO of PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy organization in Pennsylvania.

What's in a Name?

Don’t be fooled by stores with a global supply chain that claim to be ‘farmers markets’

By Danie Greenwell

Walk into a supermarket and you will find yourself caught up in a whirl of “local,” “organic” and “farm fresh” merchandising. These words are intended to make us feel better about our purchases, but it is clear they have lost meaning.

Shifts in meaning, grammar and syntax are to be expected, but words are also intentionally misused by marketers to sell products. There was a point when the term “local food” had a clear(ish) definition: It was food grown on small, family owned farms and transported short distances by the farmers or by small distributors who kept the growers’ best interests in mind. 

Bypassing large corporations meant farmers saw a greater share of the proceeds, which allowed for the preservation of family farmland and a system that strengthened the local economy.

But once “local food” became popular, marketers from huge frozen-food companies with global supply chains wanted in, and the market was flooded with false advertising. Suddenly, those of us who spent years promoting “local” found ourselves on the defensive—we had to explain why our food is different, because the phrase that started the movement had been devalued.

Another phrase being devalued is “farmers market.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a farmers market is “two or more farmer-producers that sell their own agricultural products directly to the general public at a fixed location, which includes fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products and grains.” According to state law in Maine, “‘farmers market’ means a building, structure or place used by two or more farmers for the direct sale of farm and food products to consumers.” The statute includes a list of agricultural categories. Sadly, we have no such legal protection for farmers in Pennsylvania, Delaware or New Jersey.

In Philadelphia, a farmers market could be a weekly outdoor market that fits the current USDA definition, the 9th Street Italian Market, the Reading Terminal Market, an organic grocery store or even a truck parked on the side of the road filled with boxes of produce grown in South America.

You may ask why it is important that farmers markets remain producer-only markets. 

Not doing so means that customers have no idea where their food was grown, the farmers have not been paid a fair value for their products and the products are of lower quality. To travel thousands of miles, products are picked unripe and ripened artificially. They pass through multiple hands and risk contamination at each handling point. Nutrients and vitamins are lost during shipment and storage. 

These foods are more healthful than heavily processed ones, but companies should promote their produce without devaluing the term “farmers market.”

There will soon be a new chain grocery store in South Philadelphia. The store’s title inaccurately uses the term “farmers market.” There are no farmers at the store, and the people selling food were not involved in its production. And this store is not the only one appropriating the term for its own benefit. In my research, I found several regional markets and bazaars with the name “farmers market” in their title that had few or no farmers.

Informed consumers realize stores that use “farmers market” in their branding misrepresent their commitment to farmers. But there are plenty of shoppers who do not. Farm to City’s efforts to promote farmers markets as lucrative venues for growers have been devalued to create more profits for companies that do not give farmers ethical prices for their products. In turn, farmers currently making income to support their families and maintain their farmland may lose that ability if real farmers markets go under.

There are actions you can take to make changes. Start by contacting companies that inaccurately label themselves farmers markets and have them explain why they are engaging in false advertising. You can also contact local and state representatives and ask for a statute to protect the term. Educating yourself is also key: Learn phrases related to the local food movement and insist on their accurate use. Finally, shop at a real farmers market and meet the people who grow the food you feed to your family.

The more you shop at the farmers market, the easier it is to pick out who is honestly selling you locally grown food from small family farms, and who is simply trying to cash in on the local food movement.

Danie Greenwell works with Farm to City, a business whose mission is to “unite communities, families and farmers year-round through good, locally grown food.”

Climate Change’s 900 Pound Gorilla

Energy efficiency remains a giant opportunity for building resilient cities

Illustration: James Heimer

Illustration: James Heimer

By Alex Dews

Over the past 15 years, the Philadelphia region has been deeply involved in a national movement to change everything about the building industry: how buildings are designed, built, operated, demolished, disposed of and rebuilt. “Green building” is now in the mainstream, and this greater emphasis on efficiency and healthier materials has resulted in tangible benefits ranging from cost savings to improved occupant health. 

But it is far more important to acknowledge that progress to create a more sustainable built environment has been incremental. 

In the next 15 years, progress needs to be exponential in order to meaningfully address local goals for affordability, health and climate resiliency. The recent, historic devastation caused by severe weather, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reminds us that buildings are our only refuge from the increasingly frequent destructive events that accompany a changing climate. They are also the primary source of carbon emissions that cause climate change. To adapt and survive, we need better buildings.

The Kenney administration has committed to work to reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, in keeping with the Paris Climate Accord and the commitments of many other global cities. The city’s sustainability and energy offices released some preliminary findings this summer on several potential pathways to reach this ambitious goal, and the results are eye-opening; a full Citywide Energy Vision will be released later in the year. 

For example, we could focus on putting solar panels on most of the rooftops in Philadelphia (effectively adding 40 megawatts, or 13 Lincoln Financial Field-sized solar projects, every year for the next 33 years). If that were possible, the result would be a meager 4 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

The same city analysis shows that maximizing energy efficiency would yield a 36 percent emissions reduction by 2050. This significant reduction potential in this category area is due in part to the fact that Philadelphia has issued more than 10,800 building permits since 2014, and most of these projects are using an outdated building code that is at least 30 percent less efficient than what all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states use. That’s a huge missed opportunity with a simple solution, but it’s politically elusive: Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code requires all municipalities to adopt the state’s building codes, and that reality is compounded by the cumbersome process by which the unelected Review and Advisory Committee (RAC) adopts new code standard. As a result, Philadelphia, unfortunately, adheres to 2009 ICC codes. 

But on the bright side, solutions abound: Using existing technologies while strengthening building codes and incentives that encourage above-code certifications such as LEED, passive house and the Living Building Challenge can help to significantly reduce emissions. Passive house buildings—which use 80 percent less energy for heating than code-compliant buildings—are popping up all over the state, primarily in the affordable housing sector. Meanwhile, City Hall and its municipal “quad-plex” neighbors have gone from energy hogs to Energy Star buildings by investing a modest portion of the city’s annual energy spend on simple conservation measures and improved operations.

We can (and should!) have a robust debate about optimal strategies to achieve the deep carbon reductions that will equitably distribute economic impacts and enable a livable future. But while we’re doing that, we already know that energy efficiency will be a huge part of the eventual solution, and that it is always a sound investment. That’s why it should be the top priority for climate adaptation at the local scale.

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Alex Dews is the executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.