Thomas' Plant-Related Blog

On plant science. Mostly.

Mechanics of Conservation

with 2 comments

A couple of BBC stories:

Institute of Mechanical Engineers says the UK’s emissions targets are impossible, and calls for a ‘war’ on climate change

My first thought is that, between the war on drugs, war on terror, and now war on climate change, we’re rather devaluing the word ‘war’.

Although the media likes the ‘unachievable’ quote, the report actually “concludes that [these targets] cannot be met with the current approaches to cutting carbon” (italics mine). Subtle difference. And I agree with this: there’s a feeling that ‘someone ought to do something’, but people seem  unwilling to accept any change (witness the NIMBYs who campaign against building wind turbines).  I am aware that there’s a touch of hypocrisy in sitting here in a lit, heated house, typing these words into a computer.

Further down the article, a commentator suggests carbon rationing. Is that a good idea conceptually? Yes. Could it be implemented? Maybe: It wouldn’t be easy to design a system with a number of exceptions, e.g. professional pilots are clearly going to exceed a standard carbon ration. Could it actually be put in place and enforced? Not a chance. “I’m sorry, sir, you’ve used up your carbon ration for this month, so we’ve clamped your car to prevent you going over.” People wouldn’t accept it. Especially when it came to holidays: you could say goodbye to anywhere beyond Europe. In wartime, people might live with that sort of restriction for a few years. I very much doubt they’ll do it for a couple of decades or more, without a clear, looming danger.

Second, and more upbeat, the calculation that conservation easily pays for itself.

The idea is that nature provides a lot of things that are valuable to us, but because there’s no monetary charge, we tend to overlook them, resulting in deforestation, collapsing fisheries, polluted rivers, and so forth. If you work out how much all that is worth (for example, by pricing up how much it’d cost to do the equivalent services ourselves), and compare it to the cost of conservation, you can, in theory, see what’s best from an economic point of view. This study found conservation to be a clear winner. The services, it reckoned, are worth 25 to 100 times the cost of protecting them.

While I think it’s worth highlighting the vast benefits that Nature does, I know there are some who have misgivings about this approach. They argue that, as the need to perform these services increases, human ingenuity and technology will yield much cheaper ways to provide the services. Nature should rather be protected for an underlying moral reason, not just because it’s currently useful to us. I think we can all agree in theory, but morals don’t stand up well to the relentless economic forces driving things like logging concessions, oil palm plantations, or cattle ranching.

There’s also a problem in the system here. To illustrate, consider pollination, a commonly mentioned ‘ecosystem service’. Communities of native plants harbour insects, which can move out into crops such as coffee, and pollinate them. Therefore, patches of undisturbed forest nearby increase the yield of a coffee plantation. If you took all the pollinators away, the farmer would have to pay someone; this already happens in America, where companies (like this one) rent colonies of honeybees for pollination. That’s certainly a cost to the farmer, but it’s a profit to someone else (the bee company), and GDP goes up a bit. So, as a species, our life has become a bit tougher, yet it’s measured as an improvement in the economy. This conundrum is a starting point for the New Economics Foundation.


Written by Thomas Kluyver

13 November, 2009 at 7:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Carbon rationing for people isn’t rational, but how about carbon rationing for some of the larger buisnessess? One of the problems at the moment is that all the calls for something to be done about climate change seem to have fallen on the idea that individual people should do something, like recycle, and take fewer holidays. Which is a bit hard to do when you see massive companies leaving all their office lights on at night, and sending half their staff all over the world for conferencing.

    I do like the economic arguement. it would be great if that could be got to work on a larger scale.

    Lab Rat

    27 November, 2009 at 7:25 am

    • Sorry for the slow reply! I guess that carbon rationing for businesses is more or less the aim of emissions trading schemes. The trouble is how you assign the credits. At least in principle, assigning them to individuals is simple: like rationing in the war, everyone is allowed the same.

      The idea is that the pressure on individuals is passed on to firms, as their goods have a carbon allocation associated with them: so you might choose to buy from company X if their product ‘costs’ less of your carbon ration than company Y’s. Even if company Y’s is cheaper in monetary terms.

      Put like that, it sounds a bit more feasible: your car wouldn’t get clamped, you’d just need carbon rations to buy petrol. I still don’t see people accepting it, though. A black market for carbon; even the name works.

      Thomas Kluyver

      3 December, 2009 at 11:29 pm

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