It has been a long and fun journey to Madison and my work at Dane County Office of Energy and Climate Change (OECC). I grew up in a city in South Korea and I traveled around the world thanks to my uncle and aunt who lived in Australia and France. This wonderful opportunity gave me a chance to experience different kinds of nature compared to South Korea, including this interaction with a baby kangaroo hitting me with its tail when feeding. Don’t worry–I wasn’t hurt. I remember the interaction fondly.
I think my kangaroo encounter was the start of my interest in the environment. I went to elementary school for three years in Vancouver, Canada. I lived my best life there as my friends and I were always playing hide and seek in the forest. In their backyards, raccoons and sometimes baby bears tried to take food out of their trash cans. I loved walking through the forest to go to school–I still remember the fresh rain smell on my first day of school; that smell relieved my nervousness of my first day of school on the other side of the world.
My interest in the environment meant I was 1,000 percent sure that I wanted to study in Environmental Studies and International Studies at UW-Madison.
At OECC, I was lucky to work with Keith Reopelle and Kathy Kuntz. With my amazing team, I was able to learn and expand my background beyond environmental conservation and international perspectives on the environment. I completed a variety of projects including research on green infrastructure, renewable energy, electrification, and net-zero energy (NZE) and net-zero carbon (NZC) buildings.
Most significantly, I was the primary author of our Dane County Green Infrastructure White Paper. The paper promoted green infrastructure as a way to build resiliency in Dane County. Resiliency is important as we experience more consequences–increased heat and flooding–due to climate change. I was also able to present information about green infrastructure to several audiences. During the presentations, I saw many people nodding in agreement about what we can do on individual and business level to foster resilient green infrastructure in Dane County, including innovative approaches like the combination of a green roof and solar energy systems, which is called biosolar.
I also researched definitions and paradigms of NZE and NZC buildings. The key findings are summarized here. Doing this research, I looked at how different organizations were approaching these challenges and I was surprised at the complexity. For me, a key insight was that when we are talking about reaching net-zero carbon and energy, we should not only consider operational (direct) energy of the building, but also its embodied (indirect) energy. Embodied energy is the energy associated with materials throughout the whole lifecycle, including production, transportation, disposal of materials, and construction process of a building or infrastructure. So, we should be conscious of the carbon and energy intensity of materials in buildings. Additionally, for businesses, we should go beyond building energy use to think about all the ways a business creates carbon, including its supply chain, product lifecycle and even employee commuting. There are opportunities to reduce emissions at all of these stages.
Today, amid a global pandemic, people are talking about the new normal and you might think that reduced carbon emissions and clearer skies are guaranteed for our future. That is not the case. While emissions are down this year, this is a temporary reduction. We need to do more to limit global warming to 1.5-degrees. This is a good time to think about how we can reduce carbon emissions on a permanent basis after the COVID-19 crisis ends.
I know some people might say this is not the right time to think about climate change. In addition to the pandemic, the US is grappling with important equity and justice issues. I’m very upset about the systemic racism in the US. As a person of color, I support “Black Lives Matter” and I know how important equity and justice are to all people of color. For me, actively addressing climate change is a social justice issue because people of color and other frontline communities are more likely to feel the negative impacts of climate change—flooding, pollutants, heat—it all disproportionately jeopardizes the lives of people of color.
I am still hopeful and optimistic amid these challenging times. Equity, public health, justice, and climate change issues are interconnected just as we're all connected to each other. My journey is not over, there's a longer way to go. Still, I am hopeful whenever I see more people listening and participating.
Sophia was first an intern and then a Clean Energy Specialist at the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change. Responsible for multiple research efforts she authored a white paper on green infrastructure and assisted with the creation of the county's climate action plan as well as other materials.
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