Archive for August, 2010

Birdwatchers use to refer to identification guides as a ‘bird book’, because they were the only kind. Nowadays they are an established literary genre; predominantly cultural books about birds and birdwatching – exploring the role of birds in peoples’ lives, and sometimes trying to unpick their appeal. As a birdwatcher I’ve read a few recently, and although nicely written, most serve little purpose. Mike McCarthy’s volume is largely similar, a pleasant account of nature through the examination of migrant songbirds, except that ‘Say goodbye to the cuckoo’ ends with a real point: that birds that migrate from Africa to Britain for the summer are declining – and fast. Their migration is a natural wonder, estimated at 16 million individuals arriving in Britain each spring (a fragment of the estimated 5 billion (yes billion) movement from Africa to Eurasia), but populations are in long term decline, many have more than halved in less than 50 years.

Did you hear a cuckoo this summer, will you ever again? I heard cuckoos two or three times this summer, which isn’t much given I used to hear them regularly from my (suburban) bedroom as a kid. I enjoy hearing them, their absence makes me feel sad. In economics terms, I have lost welfare with the loss of the cuckoo. Why are they declining – is it climate change? Given that climate is the long-term trend in the weather, and the pollution causing it persists for decades in the atmosphere, by the time we know for sure, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Who cares if an environmentalist misses a cuckoo? Maybe not many people, they prioritise other things in life, and aren’t scared by those ridiculous apocalyptical warnings about hydrocarbon addiction and climate change. Like why we are so desperate for every last drop of oil that we take greater risks searching for it, and end up obliterating seas and livelihoods with massive oil spills. Or the predictions that climate change will lead to more intense rainfall and greater damage from flooding, or where a shift in climate means the world’s most productive soils are not fed by sufficient rainfall and the wheat harvest fails.

I’m not saying these recent events are the environmental/apocalyptical predictions coming true: these are one-off events, the predictions are for trends. I’m just observing that they are good examples of what was predicted – and allow us to understand the loss of welfare involved without needing our imaginations. But why are they happening – is it climate change? Given that climate is the long-term trend in the weather, and the pollution causing it persists for decades in the atmosphere, by the time we know for sure, it will be too late to do anything about it.

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I am typing this from the balcony at the back of my family home. As it is the most secluded and the coolest part of the house surrounded by trees, this has always been my favourite part in the summer. I used to sit exactly in this spot revising for exams almost 25 years ago. How things change and don’t at the same time has inspired me to write this post…

Twenty five years ago, this neighbourhood was full of two storey houses in largish gardens with vegetable patches and empty areas where flocks of sheep used to appear from time to time. The beach down the road was just about swimmable and the sea off the islands half an hour boat ride away were definitely so. Then the city grew so much and so fast and without necessary sewage collection and treatment infrastructure it was impossible to swim in it. Public sector decision makers were too busy being politicians for a society who at least initially did not vote for good sewerage. Politicians who always found money to invest in new pavement stones (especially around the time of elections) always complained about lack of funds when it came to environmental investments. First those who could no longer enjoy the sea but could afford to travel to alternative sites did so, those who could not stayed and suffered. Over the years, public awareness increased, politicians became better educated and more responsive to political / public pressure, international funders have become more environmentally conscious. And decision makers at all levels started to incorporate the economic costs and benefits of environmental pollution into account. All this meant investment in sewerage and saving the sea from the brink of death at great expense…most likely much greater expense than would have if the city’s environmental impact was managed well from the start.

The big news in the papers at the moment is not the sea around here but almost all the rivers in the north of the country that are threatened by hydro electrical dams – 25 years ago, they were ‘just’ rivers. Some politicians have taken the environmental arguments to their illogical extreme and argue that the dams as renewable energy sources are better than fossil fuels. Sure but dams are not without their costs. These are listed in a series in one of the national dailies and include total drying out of rivers (to which water is released when the Prime Minister comes to visit!), loss of several fish, plant, invertebrate species, loss of drinking and recreational water for the locals who do not have any free or reasonably priced alternative and of course threats to the livelihood of not just local but regional populations which need flowing rivers, local flora and fauna and climate that are influenced by the rivers. Local people are protesting. In the past such protests helped create sufficient momentum to make foreign investors pull out of funding similar dams (see here for ILISU). I hope the protests work again.

Why am I writing all this?

Well it is very very hot but I am not having a nostalgic heat stroke – and believe me it is HOT over here. I am fully aware that things change. But the change need not be uncontrollable. We can list all the costs and benefits of change inducing actions or effects and can still prioritise on the basis of a comparison of these costs and benefits. If we did, we would find the money to invest in sewerage before the seas die, we would not build dams in every river valley. We would consider alternatives that are less damaging to the environment (for example efficient use and re-use of water in households and industry, more investment in wind energy which has much less effects than dams).

But sitting here reading the papers, watching the news made me realise once again that while we, environmental economists, can provide the sufficient evidence for such considered decision making, if decision makers are not willing to listen to us, we cannot do anything. Protest, as the local people do all around my mother pasture and elsewhere, is necessary. When decision makers start to ask for evidence, I’ll be there to provide it whatever the weather…in the meantime, if I find something to chain myself to in my travels for the next two weeks I’ll let you know.

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The title of this post is the slogan of a campaign run by one of the speakers at the 3rd World Environment Conference – 2010: Year of China’s Green Economy. The conference was in Beijing last week and I was there to talk about how economic analysis can help solve environmental problems. Flying to Beijing for a 3 day conference and 3 day sightseeing trip was not low carbon of me but at least my flight emissions are offset as part of eftec’s annual carbon offsetting scheme. 

 The key topics covered at the conference included low-carbon technologies in every facet of the economy but in particular renewable energy. While the topics were of global scale (and hence the ‘world’ in the title of the conference), the delegates were mostly mayors from the provinces of China (remember how big China and its provinces are and you can gather the importance of having the mayors attend a conference on the environment), state owned enterprises and private companies from the emerging green industries.

China is a place of contradictions at a greater scale than most places and the conference was no exception. There were many encouraging speeches: not only talking about why a low carbon future for China is the only choice but also how such a future can be achieved.  Amongst many other actions, the following were most poignant:

–          Government leadership is needed

–          Systems (including stakeholder awareness) need to be improved

–          Experiences with different technologies and environmental policies from around the world and within  China need to be disseminated, and

–          International cooperation is crucial.

There were indeed many international speakers present, too. The speech by Mohamed Aslam. the Minister of Environment, Transport and Housing of the Maldives, was particularly inspiring. He re-stated Maldive’s target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020 and said they did not set this target because they have the technology, know-how and finance to achieve it but because it is the right thing to do. In addition, he stated that the announcement of this target had attracted many offers of help (technical and financial) that would not have come forward otherwise. Considering that sea level rise is already affecting the Maldives (to see a short BBC documentary – click here) and will threaten the country’s existence in future, it was not surprising to see their Minister at a conference in China – the highest carbon emitter.  But his speech was genuine and refreshing rather than overtly political and stale. 

Going back to the contradictions – some presentations were less progressive…like defending the use of coal and oil…because they are cheaper and because developed countries had ‘developed first and cleaned up later and China has the right to do so’. Why countries insist on repeating each other’s mistakes I don’t understand…worse still why they think they can continue to make decisions based on financial costs and benefits alone simply escapes me!

So, being the Daisy that I am, I said a few words on the subject…when compared on the basis of market price alone coal and oil are of course cheaper than renewable energy sources…first, the former two are generally subsidised while the latter are not. Secondly, the environmental costs of the fossil fuel options and the environmental benefit of the renewables (avoided cost of fossil fuels) are not reflected in prices. If they were, the balance is almost always likely to be changed in favour of the renewables.

Environmental costs are not trivial and no country can afford to postpone them – not because of some moral responsibility to future generations but because they are real, they occur now and people are paying for them. Those present only had to step outside the conference hall to see what I meant. Beijing is mostly covered in a thick smog – a mix of dust from the advancing Gobi desert and air pollution from coal-burning power stations, industries and of course the ever increasing traffic. The price of fuel may be cheap but the cost of the effects of this air pollution on human and animal health, agricultural productivity, forest growth and so on is expensive.

Air pollution is not the only problem, floods in southern China over the last month or so have also had very high costs in terms of human lives, damage repair and loss of environmental and built assets.

There is, however, good news too. At least in Beijing, they seem to have part of the waste management pretty much under control through the good old informal sector. All litter bins have a ‘recyclable’ and ‘other waste’ component and most bins are checked every ten minutes or so by (mostly old) men or women on bikes collecting in particular plastic bottles. I didn’t check how much they got paid but clearly the price is worth the hard work and the supply of material to be recycled is – unfortunately – unending with millions of people using plastic bottles at what seems like an increasing rate.  

To finish on a positive note – the Chinese leadership is incredibly fast and efficient once they make a decision. Conferences like this one are very useful in disseminating positive experiences from the world and from within China to assist the leadership in making good policy decisions. I look forward to seeing how this conference affects the environmental policy in China in the very near future.

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