May 29, 2009

A Sticky Problem

I enjoyed this morning's NYT editorial 'Forests and the Planet' about the House climate bill including pollution offsets, and jumped in with both feet. It mentioned how environmental groups (NYT says they were ‘European,’ that could be; I don’t remember) standing in the way of the proposed Kyoto Protocol’s proposal to allow offset payments by nations if they didn’t meet carbon reduction levels. Excluding that from Kyoto contributed to rampant deforestation, a Pennsylvania of rain forest every year, which then can't sequester as much as 20% of global carbon pollution. It may have even been the first time I heard the phrase about the perfect being the enemy of the good, because that’s what this obstruction was. It stuck in people’s craw that a polluter, the developed world, could just keep on keeping on and write a check and ‘get off’ without doing their fair share.

I’m the first to admit I can be a vindictive, petty prick; I really do want to see companies suffer if they’ve knowingly skirted legalities, suppressed science to increase profits, and lied about it all through slick marketing campaigns, and I want to see traditionally dirty industries cleaned up. That said, if I can see the benefit of allowing nations and companies to pay their way out of decreasing their emissions, why didn’t the Europeans? We all Most of us want companies and nations to run cleaner, but if we can’t quite get there, doesn’t denying the option of paying for some other positive measure smack of the worst kind of petty hair-splitting? The active word here is ‘pay.’ One way or another, money will be diverted from the bottom line to anti-pollution efforts. Further, as long as a company or country is paying these fines, it leaves the door open to influencing them further. What I’m trying to say is, as far as the editorial is concerned, count me in. I think we should definitely support this kind of measure, if not as an end goal at least as a step in the right direction.

The problem, as always, arises once we consider the economics. The editorial uses the example of an acre of rainforest being worth $250 when converted to crops but $2,000 when used as a carbon sink. What happens after ten or so years of slowing deforestation, though, when the drumbeat of impending global warming doom has dulled and the prices of mahogany and bananas have risen 1,000%? Then will forest acreage be worth more than $2,000? What if it’s on a waterway, offering easy access to growing populations (we’ll be pushing 8 billion by that point) in need of food, work, and escape from crushing megalopoli? I’m not backing out of my support for the idea, just pointing out that if we are lucky enough to implement it, we’ll need to stay very diligent, taking action to minimize the decrease in its impact as long as it will be useful. Some things we'll have to do will include:
  • Devalue some forest products (wood, especially exotic woods)
  • Value sustainable products (fair trade coffee and other sustainable agriculture, ecotourism, medicine research, carbon sink service)
  • Implement a policing system to ensure compliance (You think getting Pakistan to fight the Taliban was expensive? Try getting Indonesia or Brazil to crack down on every illegal logger. That $2,000 per acre could disappear pretty quickly.)
  • Implement a carbon-negative economy before the value of carbon sinks drops enough to make sense to mow them down again.

Again, having the safety valve of paying fines if standards can’t or won’t be met is a needed step, and I applaud Congress for including it (even if it is due to a backroom deal with lobbyists - not that it is, I just wouldn’t be surprised). But it’s only the beginning of a very long, very complex fight.


Anonymous 100years said...

James, I still have a piece of paper the president of our company gave me about 18 years ago on which he had written "The Best is the Enemy of the Good"... I never forget this term, it's kind of something I live by at work! Often times we try to make everything just perfect, and deprive others of much time that things could have been good... Sometimes/Most of the time, a good fix executed quickly is MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE overall than a perfect fix that is delayed so long that a period of "badness" is extended...

in short, THE BEST (sic PERFECT) IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD may be my favorite all time saying!!

7:47 AM  

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