A Rising Star Shares His Thoughts on Land Use & Climate Policy

In my podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in conversations with a significant number of outstanding economists, who have carried out important work relevant for environmental, energy, and resource policy, including by serving in important government positions.  That inevitably brings with it the reality that many of the people I’ve spoken with have been senior leaders in the profession, with the emphasis on the word “senior.”  I’m very pleased to say that in my most recent podcast, I’ve broken that mold with someone who is a young, rising star in the world of environmental economics, particularly in the realm of analyzing the causes and consequences of changes in land use.  I’m referring to my colleague, Charles Taylor, a relatively new Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.  You can listen to our complete conversation here.

Taylor’s research often uses satellite data to address policy questions associated with land use, and at the beginning of our conversation, he explains that he first got interested in land use issues during his time spent as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, following his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia.

“I got to go work abroad in Qatar, Brazil, and Europe, and get a lot of exposure to these big climate change and land-based initiatives that governments and the private sector were doing. And I got really excited by that, and also very quickly learned I didn’t want to be a consultant,” he says. “I felt that I wanted to get more either skin in the game at that time or more in depth into the issues, and that prompted my journey into more of the entrepreneurial world.”

Charles soon connected with David Tepper, a former banker who shared his passion for land use issues, and together they co-founded Earth Partners, a private company that provides land restoration and bio-energy services intended to help rebuild soils, habitats, and other critical ecosystems.

“How do we restore ecosystems to meet all the challenges we’re facing, from water to food security to pollution to climate change, and how do we do that at scale?  [The idea was to] start a company [dedicated to] next generation land management,” he remarks. “A lot of the challenges we’re facing as a society directly or relate to land management, and looking around, I didn’t really see any companies or organizations taking that head on.”

Charles notes that he decided to pivot from his entrepreneurial venture into academia once he realized the limits of what can be accomplished with capital alone.

“We had great small-scale investors who wanted to do good things, but you still had to get their money back in a few years and that limits the scope of what you can do if you really want transformational change,” he explains. “So, that made me say, okay, what if I went back to the research side and found some way I could contribute to these problems on the other side while keeping one foot or at least half my brain in this world of how this … on the ground world works?”

Much of Charles Taylor’s current academic research relates directly to environmental economics associated with land use decisions, and is intended to inform lawmakers and other stakeholders of the benefits of specific policy choices.

“Humans have touched nearly every acre of non-barren land on earth. We’ve transformed it. We farm it for our food. We take its water. We shape its rivers for reservoirs, for irrigation. We use the wood for forests. We build on it for housing… We get our energy out of it, increasingly for renewable energy. We need a lot of it for siting wind and solar. And then climate change interacts with all this,” he says. “So, there’s all these questions I am really curious about [and am interested in] quantifying and using some of the empirical tools we have [to do that].”

Taylor references a recent paper he co-authored with Caltech Assistant Professor Hannah Druckenmiller that examines land use regulation under the Clean Water Act.

“You might see this spurious relationship between where wetlands are lost and more flood damages, for example, to think of one of the benefits of wetlands. And that paper was just trying to find an empirical way to uncover that and give an estimate of the value of wetlands that then could be used by the EPA in measuring the cost and benefits of these types of regulations, which are super important and cover almost all land use decisions and where you’re going to build in the U.S.,” he explains.

For this and much more, please listen to my podcast conversation with Charles Taylor, the 62nd episode over the past five years of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunesPocket CastsSpotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.