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Archive for December, 2010

Away from the pasture for the holidays, I’ve been doing some reading…Chekhov plays. I knew he was a visionary, but I didn’t know environmental issues were his bag. So imagine my surprise when I read this little exchange in the play Uncle Vanya – Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts written in 1897!

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Sonya: ….He [Astrov] says that forests embellish the earth, they teach man to understand beauty, they inspire ideals in him. Forests alleviate a climate’s harshness. In countries with a gentle climate less energy is spent on the struggle with nature, and so man is gentler there, more delicate; people are handsome, versatile, easily aroused, their speech is refined, their movements graceful. The arts and sciences flourish among them, their philosophy isn’t gloomy, their attitude to women is fine and noble.

Voynitsky [laughing]: Bravo, bravo!…all that is charming but unconvincing, so [Astrov] my friend, you must let me go on stoking stoves with logs and building sheds with wood.

Astrov:  you can burn peat in your stove and build your sheds of stone. Well I grant you can cut down forests out of need, buy why destroy them? The forests of Russia are being wiped out by the axe, thousands of millions of trees are dying, the homes of animals and birds are being laid waste, river levels are dropping and drying up, wonderful scenery vanishes forever, and all because lazy man hasn’t the sense to bend down and pick up fuel from the ground….One has to be a mindless barbarian to burn such beauty in a stove, to destroy what we cannot create. Man is endowed with reason and creative power in order to increase what he is given, but hitherto he has not created but destroyed. There are fewer and fewer forests…rivers are drying up, game is becoming extinct, the climate is damaged and every day the earth is becoming poorer and uglier. You are looking at me ironically and thinking all I am saying isn’t serious, and…perhaps this really is just craziness, but when I go past the peasants’ woods, which I’ve saved from destruction, or when I hear the hum of my young trees, which I planted with my own hands, I know the climate is a little in my control, and if in a thousand years if man is happy, the responsibility for that will in a small way be mine. When I plant a birch and then watch it come into leaf and sway in the wind, my spirit fills with pride and I…However….I must go. All this is probably craziness after all. I bid you farewell!

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Well, farewell 2010…wishing us all more compelling arguments in favour of the environment in 2011!

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Sooner or later

“Sooner or later, we will have to recognise that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”  – Evo Morales, President of Bolivia [1]

Like that tiny voice at the back of your conscience, Bolivia* stood alone in the close of the talks in Cancun, insisting that the outcome of the negotiations simply was not enough.  Bolivia were pushing for a cut in emissions that would ensure a high probability of a maximum global temperature increase of 1ºC, while the current negotiation text was looking at a high probability of a global temperature rise of 4 ºC.  Friends of the Earth called the agreement “a slap in the face of those who suffer from climate change”.

But is it all bad news?  While Bolivia made its stand, all other countries celebrated the agreement with “rapturous applause”.  For the fist time in history, all major economies have committed to reducing their emissions, and it was acknowledged that developing countries are and will continue doing their part too. In the UK climate change secretary Chris Huhne’s words, “This is a significant turning point” [2].  The negotiation text agreed that we must keep warming below 2ºC, and emissions should ‘peak’ (the level of emissions should stop rising). The fund to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change was established, and countries agreed to implement a ‘payments for ecosystem services’ deal that sees developing countries being paid for reducing deforestation and degradation and improving conservation (REDD+). However, again, emissions targets are left up to the individual countries.

There is no doubt that this is good progress, and it is crucial that we have all countries in consensus before we move along at full speed.  It would also have been difficult to get countries to agree to more than they currently have. In a way, the UN’s response to Bolivia has been “not now”. Hopefully this becomes “not now but soon”. For the past 10 years we’ve been heralding “good start and good progress”es as we manoeuvre incrementally into place.  I found it extremely difficult to write this post because I was trying to differentiate the agreements from the ones I wrote about Copenhagen.

I suppose with the entire world trying to come to a consensus the process probably must be long and arduous.  I mean most, if not all countries agree that emissions must be reduced, but nations all want to make sure that the other nations will be doing their part, and of course most nations would like to get away with as much as possible (if you are interested in a more practical understanding of this, you should try to play Milinski’s Climate Change Game, a variant on a well-known game theory game called the Nash Bargaining Game).  We would, of course, like for them all to say that they would lower their emissions as much as they can, but there are at the end of the day trade-offs between lower greenhouse gas emissions and growth.  However with burgeoning green-sector technology, I wonder how necessary these trade-offs are.  Chris Huhne seems to think that the UK can actually profit from lowering emissions through starting a ‘third industrial revolution’ in green technology.

Perhaps by Durban we can get off the starting blocks and I won’t write the same post for it and loose further hope. For now, I still believe, sooner or later, we will fix this.  It’ll be a large gigantic learning experience, perhaps helpful for some future other catastrophe, but human civilization can and will curb emissions and bring greenhouse gas levels down to a more manageable level, and perhaps Mother Earth will tolerate us on her surface a little bit longer. Sooner or later.

* On a side, but relevant, note, we do know that Morales and his ambassador Solon do not believe in anything to do with environmental economics and hate the idea of markets such as REDD+.  But we believe that is only because they haven’t had anyone from the pasture explain it to them!

[1] Vidal, John. Bolivia’s defiant leader sets radical tone at Cancun climate talks – The Guardian, 11 December 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/11/cancun-talks-evo-morales

[2]Vidal, John and Suzanne Goldenburg. Deal is reached at Cancun summit – The Guardian, 11 December 2010- http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/11/mexico-cancun-environment-climate-summit?intcmp=239

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Spoke at a conference on Wednesday about how the herd applies our thinking on the marine environment. The seas are currently the focus of a lot of new economic developments and environmental laws, so there is plenty going on to apply economics to. This is confusing to some, and frustrating to others, but all the stakeholders seem to be working together with a grown up attitude, so the situation could be worse. Overall a similar set of principles from environmental economics are being applied in a reasonably coherent fashion.

The point was made by a marine lawyer, Tom Appleby, that sometimes scientists go into far more detail than necessary to illustrate problems. It is a fair observation of a flaw in much of the environmental movement. Laudably they want to save something in the environment. But they are too often experts in the thing they want to save, rather than being experts in the thing that is going to kill it.

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