Archive | January 2013

Want some cookies with that CO2?

logging truck

Deforestation causes tropical swamps to emit more carbon. Photo: Rainforest Action Network

More evidence that global warming and deforestation are linked: peat swamps in Indonesia that have been clear-cut for agriculture are releasing 50 percent more carbon than swamps that are still forested. And no, that isn’t because of decayed or burning waste from the clear-cutting; the carbon measured by Open University researchers in deforested swamps was older than carbon that came from swamps where the forest ecosystem was still intact, and appeared to come from much deeper in the sediment.

This would appear to contradict the conclusions of a 2011 study that suggested peat bogs were unlikely to release a great deal of carbon; however, that study specifically examined conditions in the Northern Hemisphere, rather than the humid tropics. If there is a difference with latitude, though, the high rate of tropical deforestation should raise even more concern in light of the OU findings. A lot of Indonesia’s forests are being cleared right now to make way for agriculture, including palm oil and paper plantations (see Asia Pulp & Paper and Girl Scout Cookies for two of many reasons why, though we’re making some progress there). This is not only bad news for carbon storage, but also a culprit in the rapid disappearance of iconic species like Sumatran tigers and orangutans.

Now here is a situation where carbon markets could make a huge difference. Destroying rainforest and releasing peat gases should be hurting somebody’s pocketbooks, not making them more money. As with so many environmental issues, the global/public costs (increased global warming, loss of beloved species and their less-well-known supporters, and probably pollution/runoff issues too) don’t count for much against private revenues. Not that we can chide Indonesia (or its businesses and small farmers) for this when we’re the ones consuming so much palm oil and paper. Carbon trading would be nice, but let’s face it: we’re already trading whenever we buy a candy bar.

How much is your ecosystem worth?

In 1997, a paper published in the journal Nature tried to estimate the financial value of all the services performed by Earth’s ecosystems (for instance, pollinators contribute to agricultural yields, beaches to tourism, wetlands to water quality improvement). The figure its authors (Robert Costanza of the University of Maryland in the lead) came up with was $33 trillion — roughly twice the value of the entire global economy at the time. Since its debut, the paper, “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” has been criticized at almost every level. Even its authors acknowledged that their analysis was crude and their methods questionable. But the paper was not published as an example of analytical precision. Rather, the point was to call attention to something that is too often overlooked: the economic importance of a healthy biosphere.

According to this relatively new school of thinking, we may put commodity prices on goods such as food products, game, and timber, and services such as water purification, but we fail to take into account (economically) the complex and interrelated natural systems that make the provision of these goods and services possible. For instance, we pay money for a fruit crop, but place no monetary value on the animals that pollinate the plants that produce this fruit, or the soil microbes that provide the plants with nutrients, etc. As Pavan Sukhdev says in his TED talk, “When was the last time a bee gave you an invoice?” Sukhdev believes that we treat natural systems so cavalierly because we are not confronted with their true value in terms we would understand — a problem he refers to as “the economic invisibility of nature.” He argues that we must therefore integrate the value of ecosystems into world markets. If people start to view ecosystem destruction as a bad idea financially, similar to walking into a Swarovski store and smashing all the crystal-ware with a hammer, they may be more motivated to preserve these systems.

Some environmentalists have embraced this idea. Personally, I think commoditization and consumerism are two of the basic reasons why the balance of the global ecosystem has gotten so screwed up lately, and I’m skeptical about the market’s ability to solve a problem it helped create. But I’m learning a great deal more about the “ecosystem services” school of thought now… We’ll see if pragmatism can win me over.

Stay tuned. Or whatever.