Thursday, June 16, 2016

Parting shots

As our course wraps up, I'm curious to know which topics you enjoyed the most and the least. Which topics you'd would have like to spend more time on (or less)? What are your overall impression of the course and the field of study?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Collaboration between competitors to reduce bycatch

Here is a cool story from ScienceDaily on the benefits of networking between commercial tuna fishers.

Read the full article here from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors are a multidisciplinary team from the University of Hawaii and James Cook University.

The value of street trees

Here is a story about a the ecosystem service values of "street trees" in California.
Here is the link to the full article, published in the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, which includes discussion of management implications.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Costa Rica PES


One of the things we learn in natural resource economics is to look at problems in terms of their costs and benefits.  By asking questions about who gains and who loses (and when, and how) we can gain an important perspective on the causes of natural resource problems. 

When given access to private benefits from natural resources, people tend to take actions that promote their own well-being. This access comes in the form of our daily contact with open-access and common property resources as well as extraction and habitat conversion on private lands. We all pollute in numerous ways to promote our own benefits (comfort, convenience, standard of living), because it’s cheap and easy to do so. As individuals, the costs we pay for access to the world’s resources are low because they are shared by everyone. 

How do we change the calculus?  Let’s try everything and see what works. Education, an appeal to “do the right thing”, and legal mandates on acceptable use, all serve important roles.  Monetary incentives that affect individual costs and benefits also can be an effective tool in many situations. These incentives come in several forms, most of which we discuss in this course.
One incentive-based method that seems to be gaining favor in developing nations is PES. PES stands for Payments for Environmental Services. The basic idea of PES is to create incentives for conservation of natural resources by transferring dollars from those that benefit from conservation to those who bear the (opportunity) costs of conservation.  

In some PES arrangements government and/or NGOs pay landowners to engage in activities to conserve or restore biodiversity. This can be as simple as letting a cow pasture revert back to its natural state or setting aside lands that would otherwise be used for another purpose. 

Costa Rica is a leader in PES and a great example of the power of this approach. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Costa Rica had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.  As recently as 1987, forest cover in Costa Rica was as low as 21 percent of national territory, down from over 85 percent in the early 1900s. The principle causes of deforestation were incentives for the conversion of land to agricultural uses, such as preferable tax treatment for lands used to cultivate crops and support cattle, and heavier tax burdens for “unproductive” lands (i.e. lands not used to produce market benefits). People responded to the incentives they faced. Given the costs and benefits of land use it made sense to convert lands to other uses. 

In 1996, leaders in Costa Rica decided to try to reverse this path of biodiversity loss. The main idea was simple: reward landowners for conservation rather than rewarding them for land conversion. A series of forest laws were enacted, which gave favorable tax treatment to conservation and reforestation, banned the export of primary forest products, mandated that banks provide low-interest loans for reforestation, created a system of national parks and forest reserves and, in 1997, enacted a PES system.  

Costa Rica’s PES system involves direct payments to landowners in exchange for the adoption of land uses and management techniques that provide one or more of four services:  Greenhouse gas mitigation, provision of water or other hydrological services, conservation of biodiversity or provision of scenic beauty for recreation and tourism. Payments are provided by government. Revenues from a fuel tax (ala Pigou) are a primary source of funding. Other sources of funds include sale of carbon credits to other nations and international loans. Between 1997 and 2005, a half-million hectares of forest lands were enrolled in the program. Forest cover is now over 60 percent and rising.

While this progress is exemplary, the Costa Rican Minister of the Environment recently stated that it is getting increasingly difficult to conserve. Without a system of international carbon markets, such as that which might take place through large scale adoption of REDD and REDD+ schemes, he suggested that the Costa Rican path of conservation will soon be unsustainable.

Read more about Costa Rica’s PES experience here at PaxNatura.

Read more about PES here at UNEP and at Ecology and Society.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Few things are as simple as they seem.

It's hard to be a well-informed voter and citizen. You have to read, and you have to read a lot. You cannot read only one source and you cannot limit your reading to sources that agree with what you think you know. Read both sides. Read like crazy.

The US Clean Power Plan is a great example of why its hard to be informed.

Will it create jobs and decrease energy prices or will it destroy jobs and create higher energy prices?

Here is an academic article on the topic that suggests positive net benefits (really large positive net benefits), despite harm to employment and industries in some locations.

A larger topic here is the impact of environmental regulations on economic growth.  One side of the political spectrum will routinely claim that regulations designed to protect the environment will inhibit economic growth.  But there is mounting evidence that environmental regulations can promote economic growth through improved health and productivity.  Another topic is the impact of economic growth on the environment. One side of the political spectrum often argues for slower economic growth to benefit the environment. But, there are a lot of reasons and evidence supporting the idea  that economic growth can lead to substantial environmental improvements

It's enough to make your head explode. But the truth is that these topics are messy! What to do?

When faced with controversial topics I tend to rely on academic research published in reputable peer-reviewed journals.  I read a lot of newspapers and online popular press material, but when push comes to shove, I want to see the data, the science and the analysis. When these topics come up in social settings, a common response of mine is "I really don't know enough about that topic to have an opinion".  And that's OK, because controversial topics are controversial for a reason. Most actions will have both costs and benefits and unintended consequences. Things are rarely as simple as they initially seem.  

There is plenty of landfill space but ...

Trash and recycling are interesting topics to really dive into, because a lot of what we think we know with certainty may be a case of "it depends". For example, recent evidence is showing that recycling is not always good for the environment. The blog post before this one has more readings on this topic.

Here is another article from the Washington Post on contamination from single-stream bins.

The main takeaway seems to be that some recycling is definitely very favorable both environmentally and economically (e.g. recycling aluminum cans prevents destructive mining of virgin bauxite and helps us avoid the polluting generated in processing the ore) while the benefits of recycling other materials may depend the material and your location . Glass recycling in particular looks much less appealing on both environmental and economic grounds than other products.

On the consumer demand side, the fact that we can now recycle products with very little effort may cause us to think less about reducing waste at the source. That is, if we know that we can simply drop a "recyclable" plastic water bottle into a recycling bin, we may worry less about our consumption of single-use beverage containers and other material. This is simple economics:  when the cost of doing something decreases, we tend to do more of it.

We also recently learned that we are disposing of much more municipal solid waste that originally estimated by the US EPA. However, we are not running out of landfill space any time soon.  The problem with sending MSW to landfills is not capacity, but no one really wants to live near one. Here is a link to a summary of a recent study suggesting that living within 5 km of a landfill could cause serious health effects.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Market forces and recycling

Here is an interesting article from CBS News on the impact of low gas prices on recycling. It directly relates to the 'big picture' connections between extraction and recycling. Given that petroleum extraction and use imposes negative costs on society and recycling can be viewed as providing positive external benefits, is there a potential policy solution here? 

Here is a story from the Wall Street Journal on an unintended negative consequence of single-stream recycling (and an argument for deposit-refund systems for glass bottles).

Here is a thought-provoking article from the New York Times on the subject of recycling, which challenges much of the conventional wisdom that we take for granted. Read it all the way to the end for a policy suggestion ala Pigou.