Friday, March 29, 2013

News of the Week March 29

  • The EPA is moving forward with new regulations on gasoline. "The proposed standards would add less than a penny a gallon to the cost of gasoline while delivering an environmental benefit akin to taking 33 million cars off the road, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made yet."
  • The best analysis this week comes from an IMF report (and this Washington Post summary), which estimates global fossil fuel subsidies at $1.9 trillion. "Not recognizing those costs, the IMF argues, has had profound consequences for energy markets and the world economy: encouraging overconsumption; leaving some nations short of funds to address health, education and other needs; and distorting investment decisions worldwide."
  • US farmers are facing another year of drought:
  • The State Department has called for public comments on the environmental impact assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline. But it won't make these public comments public
  • Coal consumption is down in the US, but we're exporting more coal than ever before. "U.S. coal exports reached a record of more than 115 million tons in 2012, more than double the 2009 figure."
  • A new study links fracking and earthquakes. Mother Jones summary of that study: "Now, having completed a yearlong study, Keranen's research indicates the Oklahoma earthquakes were likely attributable to underground injection of wastewater derived from 'dewatering' separating crude oil from the soupy brine reaped through a drilling technique that allows previously inaccessible oil to be pumped up. 'Pretty much everybody who looks at our data accepts that these events were likely caused by injection,' Keranen concludes."
  • For those following the recent good behavior of Indonesian forest companies, some possible bad news. APP, a pulp and paper company that just announced a no-deforestation commitment, may be deforesting. "The group monitored three APP supplier companies in West Kalimantan earlier this month and found evidence that two companies were continuing to clear forests and open new canals in peatlands, activities that should have been phased out by Jan. 31. Monitors also found heavy equipment operating in the companies’ concession areas and took video and photographs of land clearing and canal digging activities in the concessions." In its defense, APP claims that the deforestation is the responsibility of a mining company that also has claims to the land. 
  • Climate change means bad news for biodiversity. "If global warming continues as expected, it is estimated that almost a third of all flora and fauna species worldwide could become extinct."
  • I have been planning to write a post on discount rates (and I still might!), but, of course, David Roberts has beaten me to it. And he even has cute pictures of otters to make it less boring; it's a long post, but important and worth reading the whole thing. "That, to me, is the key take-home message about discount rates: They are social and ethical disputes being waged under cover of math, as though they are nothing but technical matters to be determined by “experts.” But social and ethical judgments should be made in an open, transparent way, not buried in models as inscrutable parameters. I mean, we’re talking about how much we value our children and grandchildren. Surely that’s a matter for democratic discussion and debate!"
  • Surprised by the cold Spring? It's been linked to declining polar ice cover. "According to Francis and a growing body of other researchers, the Arctic ice loss adds heat to the ocean and atmosphere which shifts the position of the jet stream – the high-altitude river of air that steers storm systems and governs most weather in northern hemisphere. 'This is what is affecting the jet stream and leading to the extreme weather we are seeing in mid-latitudes,' she said. 'It allows the cold air from the Arctic to plunge much further south. The pattern can be slow to change because the [southern] wave of the jet stream is getting bigger. It's now at a near record position, so whatever weather you have now is going to stick around,' she said."
  • Finally, the "Monsanto Protection Act" was passed this week. I'm still trying to figure out just exactly what it means for GMOs, but it doesn't sound like a just law. "Under the Monsanto Protection Act, health concerns that arise in the immediate future involving the planting of GMO crops won’t be able to be heard by a judge."

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bus Rapid Transit in DC

by Duncan Gromko

BRT in Delhi, India; Source: Flickr
DC Metro officials announced that a Bus Rapid Transit - BRT - system will be launched in Spring of 2014. The transit corridor would connect Crystal City in Arlington with the Potomac Yard in Alexandria. There are also plans to build a similar corridor on Wisconsin Avenue between Western Avenue and the Beltway. And, a study has been done to assess the feasibility of putting in a BRT system on H and I Street corridor in downtown DC. The DC metro area is clearly rethinking its public transportation strategy. (Apologies to non-DC readers for these references; the first two corridors are suburban high-traffic areas, while the last is in the center of downtown DC.)

The crucial part of a BRT system is that it creates dedicated lanes for buses. As you see in the above photo of Delhi, cars are prohibited from entering bus lanes. This improves bus speeds and makes riding the bus a much more attractive option. Instead of buses being slower than driving or taking a taxi, they become the fastest way to get around! These dedicated lanes are only on high density "trunk" corridors; feeder bus routes operate in peripheral zones without dedicated lanes. Essentially, it's an aboveground subway system - at less than 1/10th the price.

A BRT system dramatically changes the calculus for travelers. Would you rather drive to work, watching buses pass you or ride a bus that flies by traffic?

Washington DC has the worst traffic in the nation. Commuters lose an average of 67 hours per year because of congestion (LA is second with 60 hours per year). This translates to an additional 32 gallons per year per commuter wasted. Here is a pretty cool video of traffic modeling for the H and I corridors in downtown DC, where congestion can be horrendous at peak hours (I once sat in a bus in this corridor for ten minutes and traveled half a block; my bus actually moved into the intersection, where it stopped, blocking southbound traffic for four traffic light cycles):

BRT systems have already exploded in developing world cities. Curitiba, Brazil was the first city to implement a BRT system in the 1970s. Since then, there have been similar systems in Bogota, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Guangzhou, China; Delhi, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and many, many more. These investments have led to measurable impacts; in Bogota, the "Transmilenio" system has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 330,000 tons per year. Mitigating climate change by reducing traffic congestion isn't the only benefit; BRT systems also improve air quality, increase mobility for the urban poor, and decrease road deaths.

Here's a great video of how a BRT system works in Guangzhou, China:

Looking at just the direct benefits from a BRT misses the broader impact that reforming transportation systems can have; I recommend David Robert's piece on widgets vs. systems for background on this idea. A city's transportation infrastructure shapes the layout and design of the city (and vice versa). In a walkable city with good public transportation, fewer people will choose to live in the suburbs, there will be less urban sprawl, and fewer people will buy cars. If you compare the per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in different cities, it's evident how transportation investments transforms a city's energy use. The average person in New York City emits 1.365 tons per year from transport, while the average person in Denver emits 6.31 tons per year. That's more than 4.5 times as much!

BRT systems alone aren't going to transform Denver into New York City, but if we make smart urban transportation investments (public transportation, mixed-use zoning codes, high density zoning around transportation hubs, pedestrian friendly spaces) instead of traditional ones (more and bigger roads), we'll end up with cities that are lower-impact, healthier, and just better to live in. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sharks Gain More Protection Under CITES

by Nick Cunningham

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, and for a species that lives long and reproduces slowly, that alarming kill rate threatens their very survival. Much of the slaughter is due to demand, particularly in China, for their fins. Shark fins are considered a delicacy in China and are served in expensive soups. Strange as it sounds, shark fins actually have almost no taste, but serving shark fin soup is apparently highbrow. Much like the slaughter of African elephants for ivory, which is just a status symbol, middle and upper class Chinese are putting many species of sharks on the path to extinction.

Many sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and thrown back into the ocean. The video below by the Humane Society provides a quick overview for those who can stomach it (graphic content).

Grisly stuff. The decimation of sharks has ripple effects down the food chain. Sharks, as a top predator, play a pivotal role in maintaining a delicate balance across interwoven ecosystems. In fact, scientists consider sharks to be a "keystone" species - critical players that if removed, cause ecological functions to break down. For example, according to Shark Savers, sharks prey on sick and weak fish, which reduces the risk of disease among those species of fish. They also prevent other fish from overgrazing marine habitats, maintaining healthy seabeds. As shark populations decline, ecosystems and species that are seemingly unrelated to sharks will be affected in negative ways.  

Yet, this month, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) met in Bangkok, and passed some significant protections for five species of sharks. The porbeagle shark, oceanic whitetip shark, and three types of hammerheads were added to CITES Appendix II, an intermediate step of protection that limits the trade of endangered species. The measure was pushed by several Latin American nations (Brazil in particular), the United States, and the European Union and fiercely opposed by Japan and China.

Under Appendix II, countries that want to export listed species must issue a "no-detriment finding," indicating the shark in question was taken sustainably. Countries that import these species must ensure the proper permits accompany the trade. Failure to comply for either party can result in sanctions.

Hammerhead Sharks. Photo: Smithsonian
Many international meetings often predictably end with little to show for them, but the recent CITES meeting is a modest step forward. (However, they did stop short of putting these sharks on Appendix I, which would put a blanket ban on their trade, except for scientific purposes).

This has the potential to significantly limit the trade of these species of sharks. Yet, putting sharks on Appendix II does not automatically mean sharks will actually be protected. Many countries lack the ability, or the will, to enforce conservation laws. Key officials are often complicit in illegal wildlife trade. So, the true impact of listing sharks under CITES remains to be seen.

In the United States, shark finning was already illegal under the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, signed into law in 2000. But, the law left a serious loophole - shark finning was not allowed in U.S. waters by U.S. boats, but the trade of shark fins was allowed. In 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act that ended this loophole, only allowing the trade of shark fins that are attached to bodies. States like California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington have gone further by passing a total ban on the trade of fins. Now, New York is the epicenter of the U.S. shark fin trade, due to the ban on the west coast. But, momentum in the state legislature to ban shark fin trade is gaining steam.

While the overall trend is gloomy - populations are declining as millions of sharks continue to be killed each year - the recent success at CITES should be celebrated. Still, with the appetite for shark fins coming almost entirely from China, more work is needed to reduce demand there.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Palm Oil and Deforestation

by Duncan Gromko

Palm Oil Plantation; Source Achmad Rabin Taim
French Nutella lovers breathed a huge sigh of relief when the French Senate voted down a budget that would have included a "Nutella Tax." The French have been proposing a lot of new taxes, but why would they tax something as delicious as Nutella? Palm oil is a major ingredient in Nutella, and the proposed tax would actually triple taxes on any food that uses palm oil as an ingredient. Palm oil is a driver of deforestation, particularly in Southeast Asia, and the tax would discourage consumption of the oil.

Before I started studying forestry issues, my assumption was that timber harvest caused deforestation. It seems obvious: cutting down trees leads to less forests. But, while timber harvest does play an important role, globally it has a much smaller impact than conversion of forests to agricultural uses. To oversimplify, there is only so much arable land on the earth and, as more food is needed to feed more mouths, the forests on good land are removed to make way for fields.

Drivers of Deforestation; Source UCS
The Union of Concerned Scientists has an excellent report on drivers of deforestation across the world. It's important to recognize the different pressures that lead to forest loss in different parts of the world. The chart on the left shows sources of carbon emissions from deforestation; this is different than directly measuring the acreage of forests, but it's a fine proxy.

The purple represents industrial timber harvest. You can see that it does cause some deforestation, but a relatively small amount. Looking at the Latin America bar, pasture is by far the greatest driver, with croplands coming in second. In Latin America, croplands mostly means soybeans and sugarcane. Deforestation in Africa looks much different. The yellow represents shifting cultivation, also known as slash and burn. Small-scale farmers burn down forest in a small area, plant on it for a few seasons, and then move onto another part of the forest.  I'm a little surprised that the blue - fuelwood harvest - doesn't play a larger role in deforestation in Africa.

Shifting cultivation, fuelwood harvest, and industrial harvest all play a role in deforestation in Asia, but croplands dominates the picture. There are other crops besides palm oil (rice, corn, sweet potato), but palm oil is the big story. It also receives more negative attention because of bad press about child labor violations and killing of orangutans.

If palm oil is so bad, why does Indonesia produce so much - 25 million metric tons in 2012? Palm oil is an incredibly productive crop. A hectare of a palm oil plantation produces almost 6,000 liters of crude palm oil compared to 450 liters and 170 liters for soybean and corn. In some respects, if increasing crop yield can reduce global pressure on forests, it makes more sense to get cooking oil from palm oil than from corn oil. Plus, the productivity means that converting forests to palm oil plantations is hugely profitable. It's tough to tell Indonesia, a fast-growing country, but still one with significant poverty, that they shouldn't take advantage of a crop their generates such great income. Palm oil exports amounted to $19.7 billion in 2011.

The consensus solution to this dilemma is to encourage palm oil expansion onto degraded land instead of forested land. WRI estimates that there are 14 million hectares of degraded land in Indonesian Borneo alone. They have developed a tool - the Suitability Mapper - that uses spatial data to identify land that is low in forests, but still productive enough for palm oil plantations. The idea is that companies that want to demonstrate their sustainability can shift expansion entirely to degraded lands. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) allows members to certify their palm oil as sustainable. One criteria for certification is to not replace primary forest.

Of the many obstacles to this laudable vision is the lack of a price incentive for companies to get certified by RSPO. As of 2010, the premium for certified palm oil versus conventional palm oil was only 1% of the total cost. In strict dollars and cents, it might not be worth the cost of certification.

Which brings us back to the Nutella Tax. In order for the RSPO price premium to increase, Nutella consumers are going to have to be willing to pay more for sustainable palm oil. In Europe, it seems like awareness of palm oil is increasing, but the really tough sell is going to be in China, India, and Southeast Asia, where palm oil is used as a cooking oil by people without much disposable income. Are they going to be willing to pay more for sustainable palm oil? 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rebuilding Golden Lion Tamarin Populations

Photo: Smithsonian National Zoo
by Nick Cunningham

Last week, Duncan wrote about the Mata Atlantica, or Atlantic Forest, in Brazil. I wanted to follow up with a post on one of my favorite little critters in the Atlantic Forest, the Golden Lion Tamarin. The campaign to increase forest cover near Rio de Janeiro dovetailed with efforts to conserve the Golden Lion Tamarin, which was a small reminder of just how interconnected species are with their habitat.

The Atlantic Forest stretches up and down Brazil's southeastern coast. However, since 3/4 of Brazil's population lives in this area, including the enormous cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, an estimated 90% of the original forest has been degraded or destroyed. Indeed, people have been settling in the Atlantic Forest for centuries, and the steady toll of development has left the remaining forest cover in small fragments.

The fragmentation of forests present threats to many species even if the total forest cover seems sufficiently large. When we were doing research in Brazil, we visited the habitat of the Golden Lion Tamarin, a small charismatic species that resides in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The GLT is endangered because its habitat is being lost to deforestation, which in Brazil is often due to cattle ranching or agriculture (soy and sugarcane).

GLT's live among the trees, and depend on fruit for food. Like many animals, it covers a large amount of area relative to its size. Studies show that GLTs need habitats of about 100 hectares in order to thrive. However, the Atlantic Forest has been so fragmented, that an estimated 83% of the remaining forest cover is in fragments of only 50 hectares or less. Unlike animals that feed on vegetation instead of fruit, GLTs cannot adapt well when their habitat is degraded. As a result, GLT numbers steadily declined over the past several decades.

Due to a concerted effort by NGOs, National Zoos (including the Smithsonian National Zoo), and governments, GLT populations stabilized in the early 2000's. Now, there are high hopes of reversing the trend. And the obvious way to rebuild GLT populations is to restore the habitat. Since reforestation on a mass scale is a slow and expensive process, it can be more effective by targeting key areas to reforest. Creating "ecological corridors," - tracts of forest that connect two separate forest fragments - allows foresters to greatly expand forest habitat at low cost. GLTs could travel safely through a forest corridor to another fragment that had been previously disconnected.

While we were in Brazil, we visited a small NGO, the Associacao Mico-Leao-Dourado (AMLD, which translates to Golden Lion Tamarin Association), which is spearheading efforts to build ecological corridors to increase GLT habitat.

Our research team at AMLD in Rio de Janeiro (2012)
AMLD's approach was much different from the other forest restoration projects we visited. For example, timber companies doing reforestation were interested in restoring sheer volume - intensively replanting trees and using lots of pesticide in order to kill competing grasses and rapidly cover a large area. This would allow them to sell "sustainable" timber which fetches a higher price. The primary objective of AMLD, on the other hand, was to create habitats safe for the Golden Lion Tamarin. This required a different approach, one that seemed more ecologically sound, though it was a slower and more expensive process.

Learning about the Golden Lion Tamarin emphasized the multiple objectives of forest restoration, which sometimes gets lost. Not only are forests essential for carbon sequestration, and local benefits like erosion control and filtering water. But, forests are home to hundreds and thousands of species, and without intact habitats, these species cannot survive.

The campaign to rebuild GLT populations is ongoing. While we left Brazil with as many questions as answers, learning about the Golden Lion Tamarin was a particular highlight for me.

*update: I just wanted to thank all the people who helped us with our research: IBIO, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, Smithsonian National Zoo, and of course Associacao Mico-Leao-Dourado.

Friday, March 22, 2013

News of the week, March 22

  • To celebrate the International Day of Forests (which was Thursday), here's a cool video from FAO Forestry 

  • Some bad news from the Guardian, the drought outlook for 2013 is worse. "The historic drought that laid waste to America's grain and corn belt is unlikely to ease before the middle of this year, a government forecast warned on Thursday. The annual spring outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted hotter, drier conditions across much of the US, including parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where farmers have been fighting to hang on to crops of winter wheat.
  • More bad news, now from Reuters. Katrina-like storms are likely to increase. "The extreme storms are highly sensitive to temperature changes, and the number of Katrina-magnitude events could double due to the increase in global temperatures that occurred in the 20th century, the researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
  • The big domestic climate news is that the EPA is delaying regulating greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act. Brad Plummer speculates why. "So that’s the basic dilemma the EPA is now facing: Does it weaken its rule on new power plants in order to avoid getting bogged down by court challenges? The downside is that revising the rule now would create a delay. But getting struck down by the courts could create an even bigger delay."
  • Bill McKibben shames a coal company for horrendous labor practices. He's been making a concerted effort to reach out to other progressive groups (he also wrote an op-ed in the LA Times about immigration). Future case study in how to build a coalition! From the coal article: "In a corporate sleight-of-hand, the promises won with a lifetime of hard work and hard bargaining disappeared first into a holding company. Now, if the bankruptcy judge agrees, they will disappear into thin air."
  • responds to the State Department SEIS on Keystone XL. "While the draft SEIS recognizes that tar sands is far more carbon intensive than conventional crude, it erroneously concludes that Keystone XL would not increase tar sands production in Alberta. However, there is strong evidence that the incremental emissions above and beyond the use of the oil for transportation alone would be equivalent to the annual emissions from to over 6 million new cars on the road.13 And new data suggests that the current analyses of the impacts of tar sands under-estimate the climate impacts of tar sands pollution by at least 13 percent because they don’t account for a high-carbon byproduct of the refining process used as a cheap alternative to coal: petroleum coke.14 Therefore, the total carbon pollution impacts of Keystone XL then increase to over 9 million cars on the road when considering the total emissions to produce tar sands and the
    combustion of petroleum coke."
  • Amy Harder says that it's pointless for Obama to "trade" approval of KXL, because he won't get anything in return. "Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly think that Obama will approve the 1,700-mile, Alberta-to-Texas pipeline sometime this year. But after years of delay, bitter messaging wars, and even one outright rejection of the project, Republicans would welcome Obama’s approval of the pipeline with subdued optimism that probably wouldn’t create much long-lasting bipartisan goodwill for solving the big fiscal issues dividing Washington."
  • Going international, there was a really interesting op-ed in the NY Times by Alexander Songorwa, Director of Wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. "ODD as it may sound, American trophy hunters play a critical role in protecting wildlife in Tanzania. The millions of dollars that hunters spend to go on safari here each year help finance the game reserves, wildlife management areas and conservation efforts in our rapidly growing country. This is why we are alarmed that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the African lion as endangered. Doing so would make it illegal for American hunters to bring their trophies home. Those hunters constitute 60 percent of our trophy-hunting market, and losing them would be disastrous to our conservation efforts." I'm not sold 100% on this, but it's important to remember that hunters in the United States are often the best advocates for habitat conservation.
  • Sean Carberry writes about timber smuggling in Afghananistan. "Ashaqullah, who goes by one name, is from Asadabad, the capital of Kunar. He is the head of the Youth Provincial Council, but even he acknowledges that he smuggles on the side. He says there is a clear system.
    'A specific amount of tax is levied on each truckload of timber. The deal is made during the day between the officials and the smugglers," he says. 'The cutting and transportation goes on at night.' He says dozens of trucks carry hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of timber to Pakistan each night."
  • And just because I'm obsessed with REDD+, here is Tracey Osborne with some criticisms. "REDD+ Social and Environmental Standards outline a set of principles to guide the development of safeguards, which will ultimately rest in the domain of domestic law, including free prior informed consent, local participation, and the protection of indigenous land rights. While safeguards are well meaning, I argue that the market structure they are tied to is likely to undermine them, for it consistently privileges land uses based on market value over the social needs of people within communities."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Atlantic Forest

by Duncan Gromko

Atlantic Forest, Photo Credit: Ben Smith
Today is International Forest Day, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to write about my favorite forest. People that know me well know that I like trees. Don't get me wrong; other biomes like reefs, savannas, or deserts have their own appeal. But there is something about the immensity of trees and the way that being in a forest just swallows up.

Choosing my favorite forest is tough. Growing up in the midwest, the temperate deciduous forests of that region (at least the few that remain) have a special familiarity for me. Another possible favorite is the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, particularly those with redwood groves. Redwoods are the tallest trees on earth. Most any tree is tough to photograph, but redwoods are near impossible. How do you capture their size? But, although I love those two forest types and others, I think my favorite forest is the Brazilian Atlantic Forest.

Getting to spend a year researching the Atlantic forest - or Mata Atlantica in Portuguese - including a three week trip to Brazil has left me hopelessly biased. It's the first real tropical rainforest that I've been in and rainforests have a completely different feeling than the northern hemisphere forests I'm used to. A rainforest is just so much denser than the forests I was used to. It's hot. And humid. And it's noisy; it feels like there is so much going on all around you. The Atlantic Forest is a particularly rich, with over 20,000 plant species, 8,000 of which are endemic (meaning that they are only found in the Atlantic Forest). Conservation International has labeled the forest a "biodiversity hotspot" because of its species variety.

Pasture in Brazil, Photo Credit: Ben Smith
It's also easy to get sentimental about the Atlantic Forest because just how little of it is left. Most of the forest doesn't look like the picture above, but  more like the picture to the left: small forest fragments surrounded by various forms of agriculture. Some 90-95% of the original extent of the Atlantic Forest has been destroyed. Located along Brazil's Atlantic Coast, the Atlantic Forest has been under severe pressure since the 1600s when the Portuguese sought to extract more resources from their colony. Since, the Brazilian Atlantic Coast has become home to huge population centers, inevitably leading to destruction of the forest. 62% of Brazil's population lives in the Atlantic Forest ecosystem, including the megacities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In addition to pasture for beef cattle, the other primary agricultural uses have been sugarcane and eucalyptus plantations.

In our research of the Atlantic Forest, John, Nick, Ben, and I were looking at efforts to restore the Atlantic Forest. There is a consortium of NGOs, government agencies, private companies, and academic institutions known as PACTO, which are all dedicated to increasing the extent of the Atlantic Forest. With such widespread deforestation and high population pressures, their goals are modest: restoring 15 million hectares (original extent was 120 million hectares). Doing so would reduce species extinction in the Atlantic Forest and provide critical ecosystem services, such as water supply, climate regulation, and flood regulation, to the population centers on the coast. For instance, there is a large protected forest near and around Rio de Janeiro that reduces the temperature in the city by an estimated 4-7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although private sector actors have historically been primary culprits in deforestation, there is reason to think that they are starting to invest in restoration. The Brazilian Forest Code requires that 20% of any property be protected, natural forest. Although this law is loosely enforced, pulp and paper companies that we visited, like Veracel and Fibria, were spending large sums on restoring parts of their land to natural forest. In addition to legal compliance, another incentive for companies is that restoring other parts of their land allows them to certify their plantations through the FSC, increasing their profits.

Another reason for optimism is the parallels between the Atlantic Forest biome and the forests of the Eastern and Southern United States. Early colonials converted our forests to agricultural uses. But, as the economy has shifted and farming has become less profitable in the North and South, forests have come back. Given that about a quarter of the Atlantic Forest biome is used for low-density, low-profit cattle ranching, a similar scenario could play out in Brazil.

I sure hope so. It's a beautiful forest, but there's hardly any of it left. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Forests and the Private Sector

by Duncan Gromko

An immature palm oil plantation; source: Energie-experten
There has been some good news recently from two different corporations that have historically done a lot of damage to forests. Golden Agri-Resources Limited (GAR) and Asian Pulp and Paper (APP) have made announcements that would significantly reduce their impact on forests in Southeast Asia. GAR, a palm oil conglomerate, has agreed to a "forest conservation policy," which would ban conversion of peatland forest and other forests with high conservation value. Similarly, APP, a company that produces pulp and paper products, has committed to a "no deforestation" policy, which would end the sourcing of tree fiber produced from the destruction of tropical rainforests.

A little background. In Indonesia, (and, in fact, most countries) the greatest threat to forests is not timber harvest, but the conversion of forests to agriculture. In Latin America, forests are often burned down to be replaced with soy fields or grazing land for beef production. In Southeast Asia, conversion of forests to palm oil is the primary driver of deforestation. The palm oil species is an incredibly productive and valuable crop; in strict economic terms, it is difficult to make the case that palm oil production shouldn't continue to expand. Conversion of forests to pulp and paper plantations is similarly profitable. Most typically, a palm oil or pulp and paper company leases forest land - a "concession" - from the government. Concessions give different rights to company and a palm oil concession allows the company to convert the forest on the land to palm oil.

So why would a company agree to not convert forest on land in a concession that is has paid for? Doing so is forgoing potential income.

There is a cynical answer and an optimistic answer.

The cynical answer is that the companies are doing this purely as a response to pressure from outside groups. Greenpeace and other advocacy groups deserve a lot of credit for calling attention to the conversion of forests to palm oil and pulp and paper plantations. Images of orangutans being burned to death (warning, disturbing video) make palm oil companies look like villains, which leads to actual financial risk for the companies, and ultimately a public relations campaign to improve their public image. APP has made similar commitments before, only to renege on them. Supporting the cynical perspective is the argument that APP has already destroyed nearly all of the natural forests in their concessions (meaning that this recent announcement has no cost to them). According to this argument, their only reason for the policy change is to stop Greenpeace from making them look so bad.

The optimistic answer is more nuanced. Concern over public image plays a role, but companies are ultimately interested in their long term sustainability. Most corporations are dependent on natural resources; therefore, their profitability depends on good management of resources. In Costa Rica, for example, hydropower producers have recognized that increasing forest cover upstream from their power plants improves power production. It is economical for them to pay to protect forests. Another example is the water bottling company Perrier in France, which likewise realized that improving water quality was most easily done by paying farmers to protect the watershed.

The World Business Council on Sustainable Development has developed a methodology (corporate ecosystem valuation - CEV) for identifying and valuing corporations' dependency on ecosystems. I recommend reading the report; there is a particularly interesting case study of Dow Chemical recognizing how dependent it is on water resources and making investments to protect those resources.

Ultimately, we need both the optimistic and pessimistic pressures. In some (optimistic) cases, better recognition of corporate dependency can improve management. In other (pessimistic) cases, however, the environmental costs of degradation are not borne by the company that profits from them. In such a case (like with APP and GAR), organizations like Greenpeace have an important role to play in calling attention to the damage that corporations are doing to other groups and shaming corporations into more responsible actions.

The combination of reputation risk from shaming and a better understanding of the private sector's dependence on natural resources has led to some very positive outcomes. The Consumer Goods Forum (which includes CEOs from Walmart, Unilever, Coca Cola, General Mills, and Cargill - the combined revenues of the group amount to 5% of global GDP) has announced that all the agricultural products in their supply chain will be sustainable and deforestation free by 2020. There is a lot of work to be done to get the companies of the CGF to no deforestation and even if they do accomplish their goal, there are still plenty of other barriers to overcome. But this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lessons from Maryland for the climate movement

pretty good year for Gov. O'Malley
by Nick Cunningham

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and the Maryland legislature have tallied quite a series of progressive achievements over the last few years. Last year, Maryland legalized same-sex marriage and passed the DREAM Act. Gov. O'Malley will soon sign a bill that repeals the state's death penalty. The state will subsidize the development of offshore wind power in the Atlantic Ocean. The legislature is set to approve broad new gun control measures, including an assault weapons ban. A 5-cent tax on plastic bags may be the nation's first at the state level. To increase funding for transit, the Governor has proposed a 2% tax on wholesale gasoline (although this one looks a bit more contentious).

An impressive list no doubt. I think over the past few years Maryland has made a strong case for being the leader of the Progressive movement nationwide

However, I think the bag tax in particular offers interesting lessons for the climate movement, and tie into the ongoing debate about how to build the political support for climate action.

There has been a very interesting debate within the environmental community that we have been following closely on this blog. Theda Skocpol sparked controversy over her paper that concluded that the cap-and-trade campaign failed in 2009-2010 because environmentalists focused too much on the "inside game," while it failed to generate broad grassroots public support. Her paper led to some self-reflection and internal analysis of what went wrong. Her recent article in Grist talked about what needs to be done to build political support for action:

"reformers should be building broad center-left organizational alliances and broader public support to prepare for the next opening for possible congressional action, perhaps in 2017. To be effective, these inter-organizational alliances will have to stretch far beyond environmental activists, reaching community groups, unions, churches, organizations of healthcare providers, women’s organizations, and many other kinds of associations with deep roots and actual constituents."

While not the sweeping climate legislation we are looking for, one Maryland action provides interesting parallels to Ms. Skocpol's conclusion: the potential 5-cent tax on plastic bags. Last year, the General Assembly considered the bag tax, but it died because of what was seen as an unacceptable burden on low-income residents. This has been the main hurdle for the environmental community for years, as Ms. Skocpol has noted. Environmental actions are often seen as at odds with anti-poverty measures; environmental action is the purview of white, well-off elites. The environmental community must broaden its coalition.

However, Miranda Spivack of The Washington Post looks at the broad coalition that has been put together to push the bag tax over the goal line, something the Governor failed to do in prior attempts: 

"But bag-charge advocates said they have knit together a broad coalition that is framing the debate as a matter of economic and environmental equity, something they failed to do last year when the House delegation from Prince George’s was divided about a county bag bill." 

Instead of being seen as a tax that hurts the poor, supporters have convinced people that the poor, in fact, suffer disproportionately from local pollution. The tax therefore is a not just an environmental measure, but also an anti-poverty measure. And later in the article, "Dottie Yunger, a minister trying to rally religious leaders in Maryland, said some lawmakers from predominantly African American communities remain wary of a bag charge because some view environmental advocates as elitists uninterested in the impact their proposals have on low-income residents. But Yunger, who is white, and other advocates of the bag charge have won over many by pointing to the potential to expand recreation in a cleaner Anacostia and the prospect of resuming river baptisms, abandoned years ago when the river became too polluted."

As I said, the bag tax is surely a small measure, but if it is to be successful, the support from religious, minority, and anti-poverty communities - that are not necessarily engaged in environmental debates - will be critical. And, as Ms. Skocpol has talked about, the same will be true for the climate movement. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Climate regulation may be delayed; Obama to broaden fight elsewhere

By Nick Cunningham

On Friday, March 15, two rumors about Obama's plans on climate change were leaked to the press, and I imagine their timing was not a coincidence. First, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration is considering delaying EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions for new power plants. But, Bloomberg reports that the administration may seek an alternative route to address climate change - the National Environmental Policy Act.

In March 2012, the EPA issued a draft rule for new power plants, which would limit them from emitting no more than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatthour. This would essentially make it impossible to build a new coal plant, as the average one emits about 1,768 pounds of CO2/MWh. Natural gas plants, on the other hand, emit an average of 800-850 pounds of CO2/MWh. This rule was the first-ever limit on GHG from power plants, a major step forward on climate action.

With the prospects of climate legislation slim, environmentalists have been pushing the administration to issue additional rules on existing power plants, forcing coal plants to either clean up or shut down. This is the major executive power that Obama has in his pocket, and many believe his statement in the State of the Union that "if Congress doesn't act, I will," was a veiled threat to issue such a rule.

Which is why last Friday's story that the administration was considering delaying finalizing the GHG rule for new power plants was a big setback. Ostensibly, according to Eilperin, the administration wants to rewrite the rule to shore up its legal holes so that it could survive legal challenges. While it is imperative that it does in fact survive the inevitable legal suits that will flow forth from a final rule, rewriting it now will significantly delay its implementation. And as Eilperin notes, "environmentalists are particularly worried about finishing the standards for new power plants because they are less controversial than imposing carbon limits on the existing plants..." In other words, if finalizing rules on new power plants is a huge challenge, additional limits for existing power plants may be further off than many imagined.

However, the other big piece of climate news from last Friday was that the administration is considering using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to address climate change. As I stated above, this was likely leaked on the same day as the story about delaying EPA rules in order to placate environmentalists and assure them that the administration is taking climate seriously.

NEPA was passed under President Nixon in 1970, and is one of the cornerstones of environmental regulation. NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of a proposed federal action before allowing it to move forward. This means that any proposed new road, pipeline, or power plant requires the consideration of its impact on the environment before permits can be issued. For significant projects, this requires an "Environmental Impact Statement," which must consider alternative scenarios, as well as compare the project to a "no action" scenario. In other words, NEPA, in theory, forces federal agencies to not only consider the economic benefits of a proposed project, but also the environment.

For a practical example, the State Department just released its EIS for the Keystone XL pipeline, in which it concluded the impact on the environment was not significant.

Should Obama decide to regulate carbon under NEPA, it would provide a broad new environmental tool. All new projects would have to account for their effects on climate before being approved (the State Dept. did not have to consider this for Keystone XL). And, if agencies ignore the climate effects when approving a project, environmental groups would have greater legal opportunities to halt dirty projects (they could sue the agency to halt the project).

On the one hand, it seems to me that it would do little for power plants. Since NEPA would apply to future projects, EPA's rule to limit GHG from new power plants (as discussed above) would already fulfill this mission. NEPA wouldn't seem to add much. However, for non-power plant projects, NEPA could have a significant impact. For example, forcing to account for the impacts on climate, it is conceivable that ports on the west coast could be blocked from exporting coal to China.

This would be a welcome development. Attacking greenhouse gases from multiple avenues is needed.

However, on balance, taking the two issues together - delaying EPA regulations, but broadening NEPA - I'm not sure is a net-positive. It's thus far hard to see how NEPA will actually be tweaked to address climate change, what criteria will be used, or how NEPA could reign in emissions from existing sources. Without Congress in gridlock, getting limits on existing plants, in my opinion, must be the top priority for the climate movement. Therefore, it seems that last week's announcements point to the fact that the administration still lacks the courage to make significant headway on this issue, despite strong words from the State of the Union. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Climate, Shale, Methane Hydrates, and Climate Politics

by Duncan Gromko

There's been a lot going on the last two weeks, so I though I'd do a round up.


Last week there was some pretty frightening news about just how unusual the global climate is.

Source: Grist, originally Science
Mann et al. were able to get data about climate changes from 11,300 years ago. In this period of relative stability, the last few decades stand out as being dangerously abnormal.

Shale gas

Resources for the Future has done some excellent analysis on the impact of shale gas development on local water sources. I'd say it's a must read for folks interested in natural gas. The two big conclusions are: 1) the presence of treatment plants that treat waste water from fracking is associated with increased chlorine concentrations and 2) the presence of shale gas wells is associated with increased concentration of solids in water. John Quigley points out that the report also found no evidence of systematic spills or leaks of gas in surface water.

It's an important report because the researchers used over 20,000 water quality measurements taken over 10 years (all in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania). The report should guide regulators as they look to minimize the impact of natural gas development. Michael Levi does a great summary here.

This report comes on the heels of an interesting take on the way that fracking is transforming economies in greater Appalachia.

Methane hydrates

Japan has successfully extracted gas from offshore methane hydrate reserves. Development of methane hydrates is still at an experimental scale, but if/when these resources are commercially extractable, the viable carbon reserves of the planet would double. Technical challenges had kept developers from getting at the hydrates, but Japan seems to have solved the problem. Keep your eye on this one.

Climate politics

Keystone continues to be the divisive issue in the climate movement, especially in the mainstream media. Joe Nocera of the NY Times has continued his confused attack on James Hansen and the anti-Keystone folks; the Washington Post editorial board also came out against the Keystone movement, saying that they are fighting the wrong battles. On the other side, the NY Times editorial board and Thomas Friedman wrote that they support fighting the pipeline. Here's where I stand, if you're curious.

Concurrent with the increasing attention over the pipeline, four Democratic Congressman announced a "discussion draft" of a bill that would tax carbon. Both Brad Plummer and David Roberts have good takes on the bill.

Why are they introducing the bill now when it has zero chance of becoming law? Repeat: zero chance. I wonder if they're trying to signal climate activists, saying "Hey, ease up on Keystone and come support us." Or if they're sending a message to President Obama: "You know this has no way of passing; you gotta lead here."

Theda Skocpol has weighed in again with her take on the climate movement (if you read one link from this post, read hers). I think the important take away is that the climate movement has not done a good job creating support outside of the upper middle class:

"Global-warming reformers must stop being blind and tone-deaf to the real-life circumstances of typical American families in an era of astonishing socioeconomic inequality. The current fashion is to suppose that severe weather emergencies will, in and of themselves, prompt most Americans suddenly to support governmental actions with real bite. I really doubt this. Severe weather events are not self-interpreting; they are most likely to be understood as signs of global warming by educated people who already believe in the reality of this threat. Beyond that, humans have, for thousands of years, grown accustomed to adjusting to weather events and trends. People just devise work-arounds and truck on, and that is what will happen if global-warming reformers cannot do better than cheer for speeches by President Obama that point to weather emergencies. Anti–global warming policies that ordinary Americans can understand, policies that deliver concrete benefits to ordinary families, plus the construction of far-reaching networks of allied organizations able to push Congress — these are what it will take to pass carbon-capping legislation next time."

Talk about laying down the gauntlet. Skocpol's case is augmented by this take on why it is really difficult to get people excited about climate. Skocpol's argument is especially poignant in the context of the Keystone discussion and the introduction of carbon tax bill. We can see where we are now, how far away we are from where we want to be, and a glimmer of how we might get there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Response to Foreign Affairs REDD+ Article

by Duncan Gromko

Source: Catedral Verde
Foreign Affairs published an article on deforestation in the Amazon and REDD+ (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation) in their most recent issue. I was torn. On the one hand, I was thrilled because a popular and respected journal was covering two issues that I believe are important and don't get enough attention. On the other hand, the article just isn't very good and doesn't seriously engage the issues. There are a lot of nuances to these two issues, but the article just glosses over them. I'll go over four problems I saw, from least to most important.

First, and most pettily, it's REDD+, not REDD as Jeff Tollefson, the author, writes. That "+" may seem small, but including it is a big deal as it means that carbon payments can flow for afforestation and reforestation (planting trees) and not just avoided deforestation. Writing "REDD" makes me think that Mr. Tollefson is not familiar with the topic.

Second, the article paints a slightly rosy picture of deforestation in the Amazon. Yes, there are great signs that the situation is improving and there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Huge strides have been made and a lot of credit goes to the Brazilian government. However, the latest deforestation data from the Amazon points to large increases in deforestation compared to last year. How could he not mention this fact?

Third, at times Mr. Tollefson conflates decreases in deforestation in the Amazon and REDD+ implementation:

"...good news has emerged from the Amazon. Brazil has dramatically slowed the destruction of its rain forests, reducing the rate of deforestation by 83 percent since 2004, primarily by enforcing land-use regulations, creating new protected areas, and working to maintain the rule of law in the Amazon. At the same time, Brazil has become a test case for a controversial international climate-change prevention strategy known as REDD...which places a monetary value on the carbon stored in forests."

Let's be clear here: REDD+ has not yet been implemented and is very unlikely to be implemented in the near to medium future. My best guess is it never will be implemented or at least not as originally conceived. Later in the article, Mr. Tollefson gets much closer to the truth:

"REDD remains a distant promise for most landowners and communities, and the precipitous drop in deforestation in Brazil is more a function of broader government policy than the result of any individual project."

OK, that's much better! But he also wrote:

"Brazil's preliminary experience with REDD suggests that, in addition to offering multiple benefits to forest dwellers (human and otherwise), the model can be cheap and fast: Brazil has done more to reduce emissions than any other country in the world in recent years, without breaking the bank."

Call me crazy, but Mr. Tollefson is contradicting himself. At the very least, he is seriously muddling the waters. Why did he choose to write about REDD+ and the Amazon? Many countries (that have not experienced declines in deforestation) have similar early engagement on REDD+ so it doesn't make much sense to focus on Brazil. I wish the article was about deforestation in the Amazon or REDD+, but not both.

Finally, Mr Tollefson fails to critically assess REDD+. From his largest section that brings up issues with REDD+:

"Some environmentalists and social activists worry about the validity and longevity of such credits, as well as the prospect of banks and traders entering the conservation business. One fear is that 'carbon cowboys,' a new class of entrepreneurs specializing in the development of carbon-offset projects, would sweep through forests, trampling the rights of indigenous and poor people by taking control of their lands and walking away with the profits. This concern is valid, as there is always a danger of bad actors. But civil-society groups and governments, including Brazil's, are aware of the problem and are working on safeguards. Brazilian officials have also expressed worries that the ability to simply purchase unlimited offsets would allow wealthy countries to delay the work that needs to be done to reduce their own emissions."

Saying that some environmentalists worry about REDD+ is an intentionally dismissive and misleading way of brushing aside real concerns about REDD+. You could also say that "some scientists believe in the theory of evolution" or "some tables have four legs." There are very few, if any, environmentalists or social activists who are actively engaged in REDD+ that don't have any concerns. Many may believe that these issues can be overcome or that possible problems are offset by the gains. But everyone working on this issue is critically engaged in identifying and trying to address problems! If Foreign Affairs wants to make a positive contribution to the REDD+ discussion, they would too. 

I've already written about REDD+ obstacles, so I'm not going to get deep into that again. I'd recommend this Munden Project report and this Rainforest Foundation report for anyone interested in learning about issues with REDD+. 

So...thanks Foreign Affairs, for at least publishing something on forests, but I really hope your next attempt is better.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Markets and the Environment

by Duncan Gromko

There's a great audio file up of a recent presentation by Joshua Farley. If you have 80 minutes to burn, I really recommend listening.

Dr. Farley lays out the new approach of thinking of the environment in terms of benefits to humans - ecosystem services. In short, the market has mostly ignored value of ecosystem services, meaning that we have fewer environmental services than "optimal." Having identified and quantified this value, there is optimism that we can "internalize" ecosystem services by including them in markets.

Recognizing the benefits to such an approach, Dr. Farley then explains how, even using the ecosystem services framework, markets can never do a good job of managing natural resources.

I love the context he provides for his critique of neoclassical economics. When economists were coming up with these ideas, the world population was one-fourth the size and per capita consumption was one ninth what it is now. That means that our economic output is now 36 times greater! At the advent of the industrial revolution, natural resources were abundant and human-made products were limited. Using natural capital to create built capital made a lot of sense. Now the situation is reversed and we are constrained by limited natural resources, but economic thinking has not adjusted! Nature is assumed to be limitless.

Some economists and environmentalists are thrilled by the idea of ecosystem services because, having identified these benefits, we can use markets to protect them. A simple example is a situation where an upstream farmer is clearing trees from his land, negatively affecting a downstream individual, like a hydro power plant. The market solution is to value the benefit of the trees on the farmers land to the hydro owner and for the hydro owner to pay the farmer that amount. The farmer is better off because of the payments and the hydro owner is better off because her power plant is more productive. Win-win, or in economic speak, a Pareto outcome. In some situations this mechanism (known as payment for ecosystem services - PES) may be effective, but Dr. Farley says that, for the most part, markets will fail to protect ecosystem services for many reasons.

One reason is that markets discount benefits to future generations. A discount rate is used to value benefits today over benefits tomorrow. This makes sense for most situations: would you rather have $100 today or $100 ten years from now? Clearly money today is worth more - you could invest that money and have much more in ten years or spend the money now on something you need immediately. But for inter-generational benefits, the discount rate values benefits far in the future as close to zero. In a climate change cost-benefit analysis, what we're saying is that benefits to future generations from reducing green house gas emissions are worth much less than the benefits that come from pollution-causing activities today. Neoclassical economics makes this mistake because it assumes perfect substitutability, the second problem outlined by Dr. Farley.

Neoclassical economics assumes that all inputs and goods (capital, labor, and natural resources) are substitutable. For example, a car factory can replace workers (labor) with machines (capital) and produce the same amount. You can do this to an extent with natural resources, but at some point natural resources are not substitutable! Climate change may reduce agricultural output by one third, but since agriculture is such a small part of GDP, according to this model, no big deal! We can substitute agricultural products with more TVs or cars. But this is obviously absurd: at some point you can't substitute food! Applying the discount rate to benefits to future generations is assuming that decline in ecosystem services because of climate change can be substituted by other products and services from built capital.

A related issue is that we're getting marginal benefit/cost analysis wrong. What is the added benefit of an extra bushel of wheat versus the cost of producing that bushel? Most of the time this works: if there are fewer bushels, the value of an extra bushel goes up. If there are many bushels, the value of an extra bushel goes down. But at some point (when someone is starving), the value of an extra bushel nears infinity! Markets have no way of dealing with infinite value.

This is an especially important concept when talking about critical natural capital. Ecosystems are not simple resources that produce benefits proportionate to their size. Take the Amazon rainforest. Destroying 1% of the Amazon reduces the ecosystem services provided by the rainforest by X amount. But if you destroy 20%, it doesn't reduce services by 20X. Since the rainforest actually generates most of the rainfall that trees use, destroying 20% of the rainforest would lead to lower rainfall in other parts of the Amazon. Drought would lead to tree die off, more forest fires, and the possible collapse of the entire ecosystem. There are tipping points beyond which the Amazon cannot recover. If the tipping point for the Amazon is 20%, the cost of destroying 20% is much much more than 20X, it could be as much as the entire value of the rainforest. Economics has a tough time dealing with that.

A third problem is equity. Markets distribute resources based on purchasing power and price signals (the value of a good is the price paid for it), not where the resource would be best used. If you have a finite quantity of ecosystem services, people with the most money will "buy" most of the ecosystem services. A poor farmer in India cannot afford to pay as much for clean water as a banker in New York. Distributing resources by purchasing power leads to "bad" outcomes. Say, for example, there were 100 extra calories per person per day produced in global agricultural markets. Most of these calories are going to end up in wealthy countries where there is actually negative value to additional consumption (wouldn't most Americans be healthier if they ate a little less?) instead of where those calories would have a greater benefit: in the stomachs of those who don't have enough.

In terms of ecosystem services, this distribution is particularly damaging. The poor are much more dependent on ecosystem services than the rich. Take a mangrove in Indonesia that provides locals with protection from storms and food from the fish that live in the mangrove. If the mangrove is destroyed, a wealthy Indonesian can buy food from elsewhere; their home may be more threatened by storms, but they can afford to move. A poor Indonesian will be much more impacted as they cannot afford to move or purchase food elsewhere. I like how Dr. Farley summed this up: markets don't distribute resources to the most important uses, they distribute resources to the most important people!

Despite all these problems, Dr. Farley still likes the idea of ecosystem services. It's a great way of talking about the environment in terms of value to people. The environmental movement previously talked about things like pandas and tigers, which people in developed countries like, but do not affect them in a tangible way. Now we're talking about human well-being and things that matter. However, just because we are starting to better understand the value of nature, that doesn't mean that we use that value information to let the market determine resource distribution. If we do, we will: 1) undervalue future generations; 2) risk destroying critical natural capital; and 3) exacerbate wealth inequality.

What's the solution? Valuing ecosystem services is a start and hopefully it will better communicate the magnitude of these issues to policy makers. But as Dr. Farley says, we need to seek economic institutions that work with ecosystems rather than trying to internalize ecosystems into our existing system. Not particularly satisfying, but if we had an easy answer, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Tribute to Wangari Maathai

by Duncan Gromko

Source: Agencia Brasil
From Wangari's autobiography, Unbowed: "The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table. The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and gushed out as a spring. Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams. The reverence of the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me. The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides. In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity."

On international women's day, it's important to recognize the crucial role that women play in natural resource management. It's unfortunate we need a special day to celebrate and honor one half of the population, but that's the state we're in.

Wangari is an environmental hero. Unbowed is an inspirational story that I recommend reading. She saw the direct relationship between human well-being and the environment and fought to improve resource management. She faced overwhelming odds and powerful forces in Kenya, but risked her life and reputation to protect what she saw to be important. Eventually she was recognized internationally for her actions and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Wangari came home from education in America, she saw the degradation that had taken place in Kenya and recognized the resulting decline in ecosystem services - primarily watershed protection - provided by Kenya's "Water Towers." She then started the Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees by working with the farmers and other small landowners that are particularly dependent on the environment.

Wangari was targeted by the political elite for her conservation work: "I was taken in a police van down a long, dirt road lined with small market stalls to the prison proper...I was put into a concrete, maximum-security cell with four other women and given a uniform, a pan to use as a toilet, and a blanket. The women wardens also cut off my braids." When she was released from jail, "I woke up and was confronted with the question of what to do with my life. I had no job and no salary. I had no pension and very few savings. I was about to be evicted from my house. Everything that I had hoped for and relied on was gone...I was down to zero."

After eventually winning her battle over the protection of Karura Forest: "In the end, what was important is that we showed we were not intimidated. We were in the right and had stood up for what we believed in. We were making a statement that this was a public forest and no houses should be built there...Today that beautiful forest is still there, helping Nariobi breathe, and more trees are being planted to reseed what was lost and restore its biodiversity and beauty."

Wangari died in September 2011. If you're a DC resident, I recommend visiting the memorial Wangari Gardens over at the intersection of Kenyon and Park. I've planted trees there with Casey Trees!

To learn more about women and the environment more generally, I recommend looking into the work that CIFOR is doing. Here's a short video that summaries the work they're doing; women are important to forests and forests are important to women:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sequester This! (Seriously)

by Duncan Gromko

Given that the absurd sequester is dominating talk in DC, I'm proposing two simple ways to cut $115-170 billion from the national debt over ten years: fossil fuel and agricultural subsidies. Both environmental Analysts and Activists can get behind these cuts. And folks like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul too.

To put the those billions in context, here is an abbreviated list of cuts that the sequester is making:
  • $600 million in special education grants to states
  • $97 million in homeless assistance grants
  • $424 million to Head Start
  • $350 million to the Center of Disease Control
  • $120 million to community health centers
  • $35 million to senior nutritional programs
  • $68 million to the Impact Aid Program (the cuts would reduce education funding to 1 million children with parents in the military
The losses to those programs add up to $1.7 billion, or around 1% of the subsidies to fossil fuel and agriculture.

To be fair, cutting subsidies doesn't cover all the sequester cuts, which are about $1.2 trillion over ten years. But the subsidies are not insignificant - they're about 10% of the sequester!

Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Fossil fuel subsidies recently celebrated their 100th birthday! Consumers are paying high prices at the pump, while Big Oil is enjoying record profits. So why do subsidies make any sense?

Source: Dirk Ingo Franke
Considering that fossil fuels already have such high externalized social costs, subsidizing them is sending the exact wrong price signal. Climate hawks' holy grail, the carbon tax, may be politically impossible, but cutting fossil fuel subsidies would achieve a similar effect.

Joseph Aldy identifies ten distinct subsidies for fossil fuel companies and values them at $41 billion over ten years. The subsidies and tax breaks are based upon production. That $41 billion in savings is based on estimates that predict modest growth in US fossil fuel production; now that fracking and oil production are exploding, the production estimates and, therefore the budget savings, are far too conservative.

In the words of Representative John Sarbanes: "Inexplicably, the Republicans in Congress have refused to eliminate huge taxpayer subsidies to the oil and gas industry, whose top five companies in 2011 posted profits of over $137 billion. How can we justify cuts to the Head Start program while these unwarranted subsidies continue to flow?"

On top of these tax breaks, a report from Representative Ed Markey's office reveals that the government is giving Big Oil royalty-free drilling rights. When oil prices were low in the 1990's, the government tried to encourage drilling investments by waiving their rights to royalties on federal land. At a time when the deficit wasn't viewed as a problem and most people didn't understand the threat of climate change, this sort of made sense. But now it's ridiculous.

Representative Markey says: “Oil companies are making record profits. They should be paying the American people a fair price for the oil and gas they are taking from America’s waters. We have already given oil and gas companies $11 billion in special free-drilling breaks. It’s time for this free ride to end.” Over the next ten years, these forgone royalties could be as high as $40 billion.

In terms of reducing the federal deficit, we can save about $80 billion on subsidies and lost royalties to the fossil fuel industry. But for some inexplicable reason, Congressmen and deficit hawks Rand Paul and Paul Ryan support fossil fuel subsidies. (Rand Paul actually said that cutting the subsidies would "punish the secretary that owns Exxon stock." You can't make this stuff up.) Weird, right? It's almost like they have an ulterior motive and reducing the deficit isn't actually their priority.

Agricultural Subsidies

Ag subsidies are hidden in the Farm Bill, which is a complicated piece of legislation. Unlike fossil fuel subsidies, it's hard to parse out what to cut and what to keep. Of the $300 billion in the 2008 Farm Bill, 67% was for food stamps. That I wouldn't cut.
Source: ml.wikipedia
In 2011 (I'm using 2011 as the baseline year because that's the most recent, comprehensive data I found), ag subsidies were about $15.2 billion to 1.2 million recipients, $1.9 billion for conservation subsidies, $0.9 billion to disaster subsidies, $4.9 billion to commodity subsidies, and $7.4 billion to crop insurance premium subsidies. 2011 was a bit of a low year; the CATO Institute estimates subsidies at an annual $15-35 billion. And given climate trends and implications for agriculture, it might not be wise to use 2011 as a baseline - the 2012 drought meant that crop insurance alone cost the federal government about $27 billion.

US subsidies to corn alone totaled $90 billion between 1995 and 2010.

Unlike fossil fuel subsidies, I don't think it makes sense to cut agricultural subsidies across the board. A bill that was passed by the House would have cut $35 billion over 10 years. That amount is probably conservative and I think there is more room for cuts. This report identifies $90 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. Let's say there is room for savings of $35-90 billion over 10 years.

In addition to the budget savings, ag subsidies cost the nation a lot in terms of environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. They push farmers to plant corn in vast monocultures. Corn is a productive crop in terms of yield, but the way that our agricultural system uses corn is extremely inefficient. Rather than consume it directly, we use corn to make corn syrup, feed animals, or turn it into biofuels. Those conversions result in a lot of energy lost.

A recent study found that 1.3 million acres of grasslands were lost between 2006 and 2011 in the northern plains of the US (wonkblog short version). This is the fastest pace of conversion since the 1930s (when conversion of natural environments led to the Dust Bowl) and is comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This conversion is a consequence of expensive subsidies and the recent push for biofuels.

...So, can we just do this? These subsidies add to the deficit and subtract from the environment and our well-being. Subsidizing corn makes refined sugar much cheaper, leading to obesity and other health problems. The best hypothetical objection to ending ag subsidies is that it would hurt small farmers. However, the large majority of the subsidies go to large, corporate farms. And there is another issue here that I haven't begun to address in this post: ag subsidies undercut poor farmers abroad. We'd need less foreign aid if we cut ag subsidies!