Does Nature Provide Us With A Free Lunch?

The recent BCO (British Council Office) conference held in my current home town of Edinburgh hosted a spectacular debate between Bjorn Lomborg, dubbed the gadfly of global warming and Michael Pawlyn, of the London based architectural firm Explorer Architecture,  who designs biomimicry construction projects that exemplify nature´s free lunch.

The two men strongly disagree. But their actual approach to eco issues is nevertheless complementary. The key idea to Lomborg´s  theory is that it is simply not a global warming thesis. It is a list of world problems ranked in order of their priority as perceived by this Scaninavian maverick statistician. With a bit of tweaking Lomborg´s ideas could be framework for a workable solution to global warming too.

Lomborg, who says that the climate is not priority number one in terms of an economic cost/benefit analysis of solutions to world problems (ranging from Aids, malaria, potable water provision), cannot help it but litter his argument with blanks when it comes to thinking constructively about climate change.

He gets a lot of press attention because he does exactly the opposite of constructive thinking – he points out the costs of what he believes is ‘exaggerating’ the problem of climate change.  In making climate secondary to issues such as Aids, and claiming the payback is way better that way, he only gives us half the picture but makes everybody who pays attention think of the whole problem nevertheless.

Lomborg puts into plain English what we’ve failed to recognize as the weak link in our approach to development and life on the planet for the past decennia. It takes a person like Pawlyn, who departs from the assumption that sustainable economics can be virtually cost free, to take apart Bjorn’s destructive reasoning.

Check out the video in which Pawlyn cleans out the Lomborg rationale by presenting evidence the Scandinavian environmental skeptic almost tangibly chooses to ignore. A few powerful Pawlyn examples show how sustainable methods embody the less is more conondrum in ways that clasical economics just will not comprehend.

Armed with around 20 slides, Pawlyn efficiently fills in the blanks in Lomborg’s argument and points out where he’s biased by consulting a particular breed of scientists. The result? You’ll be able to see how the two complement each other. Lomborg’s framework to address global warming, putting it in a list of problems that need prioritizing, is essentially quite workable. If only because it’s a holistic approach to  problems that the Planet and the People on it as a whole (whether we manage to get our head around this or not). And Pawlyn simply corrects Lomborg’s idea of ‘Profit’.

The Planet People Profit theory is of course nothing new, but Pawlyn´s comments happen to be well-timed and they put flesh on the bones as he speaks from experiences which are pretty astonishing. These days, the ecosystem is more and more connected with the global recession, as is the concept of a freebie lunch that mother nature supposedly provides us with. World leaders preparing for Copenhagen recently were notified of the advantages of eco systems in the light of expensive carbon capturing options being reviewed as the UNEP released its report on this issue.

The incorporatation of natural systems into economic thinking is exactly what Pawlyn says Lomborg´s argument lacks.  Lomborg’s calculations of the cost of carbon are a clear example of this.

The Scandinavian statistician estimates the cost/benefit of carbon dioxide at $20/$2 per ton in his most recent book Cool It. (Since the publication he more than doubled the benefits part of the equation to around GBP 5 a ton). Pawlyn asserts that Lomborg’s calculations are essentially very basic. “There are some things that cost that, but there is a hell of a lot that doesn’t”, he said, citing a 2007 MacKinsey study looking at all the different carbon abatement options with wildly varying costs and applicability. For instance, a simple and cheap carbon abatement option like energy saving light bulbs cannot be calculated in the same way as an expensive technology such as carbon capturing and storage.

The brilliant thing about the MacKinsey study is that it divides the technologies into stuff that saves money and applications that would cost money.  That, for starters, is what Lomborg’s crude assessment totally bypasses.

The main reason no doubt is that Lomborg also completely ignores to put a monetary value on natural resources in general. Most often alluded to as ecosystem services, these are estimated at around $33 billion annually by mature, selfrespecting economists. “Call me picky but that seems like a big number to miss out on in your [carbon price] calculations. [...]” said Pawlyn. The phrase was coined over decade ago already, so it can’t really have escaped Lomborg´s attention. You can argue that the rest of the world is only now waking up to eco economics, but hey, if you write a book about why global warming is not economically the number one biggest problem we´re faced with, you´re missing out on something essential.

Pawlyn also argues that the way we manage carbon emissions should not necessarily be seen as competing with other world problems. Carbon management is the one exception in that it can be an income earner rather than a cost post. Lomborg on the other hand believes that if we spend more on climate change, there is less available for other world problems. The money a country like the UK spends on Third World poverty is around 0.3% of its gross domestic product (GDP). In Lomborg’s argument, that would theoretically leave 99.7% for problems including climate change. What Lomborg simply ignores (and that is exactly how the majority of people in the past decennia have been thinking) is how we manage carbon emissions with this 99.7%.
“It is not necessarily about cutting things. It’s about doing things differently”, says Pawlyn.  The London architect has himself developed technology which incorporates biomimicry. This often provides not only cost saving projects but turns the earth´s resources into cash spinners that are hard to ignore even if you are the kind of economist Lomborg is.

CSP, concentrated solar power, for instance, works by mimicking the behavior of beetles. A project Pawlyn ran in the Sahara desert that runs on this technology focuses the sun’s heat in mirrors to create steam which in turn drives turbines. It is twice as powerful as conventional photovoltaics and works very well in what you could consider as adverse circumstances. CSP needs a supply of demineralised water to keep the mirrors clean. Incidentally, that is where seawater greenhouse technology, another biomimicry-based solution develped by Pawlyn and his colleagues comes in. It creates distilled freshwater from seawater. The dual technology when combined in a project has a payback period of between six to twelve years. In one go, it generates energy, fresh water and combats desertification in areas where resources are scarce by cleverly using sunlight. All for free after a certain period!

”When we think about nature, we are inclined to think that it’s all about competition. But if you look at mature ecosystems you’re just as likely to find remarkable examples of symbiotic relationships; organisms that have evolved to hook up for mutual benefit,” says Pawlyn. Perhaps he should  apply that to his own ideas too.

Another major point Pawlyn addressed at his speech during the BCO conference is Lomborg’s assertion that climate change is exaggerated. Cool It cites IPCC figures indicating a rise in sea levels of 18 to 59 cms (something that has recently been analysed as a gross underestimation by various reputable institutions). But the book omits to include the accompanying comment by the IPCC researchers that this will be an 18-53 cm rise plus an unknown extra rise from various other factors. Sadly, Pawlyn does not specify the factors either. “It’s surprising that Bjorn ignores that, but I guess it is rather inconvenient”, he says. I would rather have had the specifics than an over-used accusation.

Pawlyn also showed the sources Lomborg consulted, which revealed a tremendous climate sceptic bias. Well known skeptics such as Indur Goklany, Richard Linzen and Patrick Michaels and Roger Pielke were quoted 21 times in the book, whereas well known climate scientists such as James Hansen, John Holdren, John Houghton, James McCarthy, Stephen Schneider and Kerry Emanuel were not quoted once.

All in all, the debate between the two environmentalists was a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the world. International climate negotiators will no doubt be involved in very similar issues. Let´s hope they don´t get bogged down in, what in less revolutionary fields would be termed semantics and which at the end of the day is just political bickering.

June 10, 2009 at 12:03 pm Leave a comment

Mapping Green Turns Out To Be More Viral Than Social Networks

image by Jurvetson

image by Jurvetson

Green living is more of an adventurous thing than a social thing. That’s why I was surprised that it has taken so long for green organizations to cluster together on a map. But hey ho, turns out that I was wrong; environmentalist mapmakers have been at it since 1992, putting green initiatives on maps.

But to give me my dues, GreenMaps.org, a New York headquartered global organization has only grown phenomenally since Google Earth released its API to the public.

Green Maps enables communities, groups, schools, companies and even individuals to map the green world around them. At the moment some 300 completed maps are listed covering all the major spots on the globe and many more are in the making.

You can look up a map by theme or location. Themes include bike lanes, green shops, gardens, energy resources, green public initiatives.

Each individual map itself is listed by means of an icon on the mainframe’s larger map. All maps use a shared visual language in the form of self explanatory icons which reveal what you are exploring. There are also icons which indicate wheelchair accessibility, child friendliness and public transport options. Mapmakers can even include video material on their map. All the data is stored on a carbon neutral server.

Greenmaps.org is a great example of how thinking globally by acting locally works in practice.  I tried looking up something for the area I live in and found all that I need in one single map. More than 100 green activities and facilities in my neighborhood are listed  (i.e.  recycling spots, second hand shops, charities, green bike shops, cycling paths, walking trails, historic spots, forests, restaurants, carpets and even wood), I have instant access to comprehensive information that makes life a lot easier.

Even though I have only just arrived in this town, I am guessing that a lot of the information is new to locals too. That’s because a lot of the initiatives have only started out recently. But mapping information also makes you look at the world in a totally different way.  The local organization that made the map benefits too because it raises its profile and is accessed by people from all over the globe.

But perhaps the greatest value of the map is that similar information about locations around the globe is listed quite lavishly. So when you’re traveling to another city, you’ll still be able to sustain a green lifestyle without too much trouble. A few years ago that was simply not possible. The instant accessibility of the maps will be hard to beat by a social network.

After completing the mapping process, a participating community or organization can have their map printed.  GreenMaps.org is one of the few green viral marketing ploys I’ve come across that is really contageous. You can buy T-shirts with slogans like “I’m a mapmaker”. They will be incredibly viral no doubt.

The only downside to the project is that there’s no map that actually outlines the effects of global warming. All the 584 maps that are currently being built by communities in 54 countries have the aim to reduce global warming. But because most projects are generated by people living and acting locally, few overview maps exist. One reason no doubt is that it is anticipated that the effects of global warmign will re-draw the world map significantly. If the IPCC’s worst case scenario comes true, vast parts of Europe and Scandinavia and coastal areas of all continents will submerge and up to 85% of the amazon could shrink.

Nevertheless, this is a future based scenario and already various effects of global warming are visible locally. So if anyone’s up for it, perhaps we can start out an initiative.  There are a few maps out there that do map potential global warming effects, the most notable of which is Google’s joint effort with the MET office, which is a pretty astounding thing. NationalGeographic’s Shell sponsored map is also rather good.

Incidentally, Nasa’s first attempt  to map carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by using space technology ended in disaster a few weeks ago when the rocket carrying the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

April 1, 2009 at 1:18 pm Leave a comment

UN Issues Information Note With Prognosis Of Practical Impact Of New Climate Regulations

image by net_efekt

The Bonn climate negotiations which went underway this weekend for a two week period are probably the most important of all the rounds that have taken place thus far. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting is tackling issues like commitment to CO2 levels and the creation of a worldwide carbon trading platform.

Perhaps more interesting than the very first days of the talks, the participants have been issued with a rather informative 16-page document,  entitled Information Note,  in which the UNFCCC makes careful guesses as to what the practicalities will boil down to of climate change policies globally.

The document is by dint of its nature geared toward the future.  Despite being rather vague on the real impact of climate change policies by national governments around the globe, the document is shocking in places. Predicting the biggest overhaul of the global economy ever,  the UNFCCC says world citizens ought to brace themselves for a new economic order which will see millions of people lose jobs and others gain jobs. The biggest ripples in the water will be made by industry and companies relocating to areas with more beneficial tariff regulations and/or taxes, the Information Note says.

The impact of environment related tariffs will not be all that different than the impact of any other tariff, but the Information Note points out that the effect of millions of job relocations will be rather tangible.  On top of that, we’ll see the introduction of “border carbon adjustments”. This means that some countries will impose a levy on imported goods equal to that which would have been imposed had they been produced domestically under more strict environmental regimes.

Alternatively, exporters might be forced to buy [carbon] offsets at the border. These are going to be massively drastic measures for a rather big number of people involved, but whether the world will be any fairer for it is very very unlikely. At the end of the day, the Information Note reveals, the impact of future environment tariffs will lead to ‘decreased market share for covered foreign producers’.  And “such schemes would leave trade and investment patterns unchanged,” the Note adds. Why the bother, you might ask.  Why not do a really good job and simply make the world a bit better whilst we’re at it??

It’s issues like these that will have a big impact on the developing nations’ commitment to the environment. As I wrote in a comment (which has yet to be published) on GlobalWarmingIsReal it’s hardly a question whether a 25 percent reduction from 2000 levels by developing countries would be enough (it won’t be). But, the negotiators for the Third World are struggling with how, with these tools, they can achieve reductions at all.

Let’s hope that the richer nations realise this. Let’s hope that people understand that since polluting industries are a historic legacy of the industrialised world, the main responsibility toward the environment falls on the developed nations. In order to persuade developing countries to act, the richer countries have to show they’re completely serious about deep and rapid cuts in their own emissions.

March 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm Leave a comment

Today’s Earth Hour!

clipped from www.flickr.com

Earth Hour Wallpaper by smsanch.
blog it
Don’t forget – Earth Hour! This annual Vote for Mother Earth is gaining in popularity. Edinburgh Castle has switched off the lights.
clipped from www.globalwarmingisreal.com
March 28th, at 8:30PM, is your chance, no matter where you are in the world, to “vote for the Earth” by turning off your lights for one hour (and your television, computer, etc.)
Started in Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour began when 2.2 million homes and businesses turned off their lights for one hour. Last year the movement grew, sending a global message of sustainability. Landmarks all over the world including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Rome’s Colosseum, the Sydney Opera House and the Coca Cola billboard in Times Square all stood in darkness and solidarity for one hour.
blog it

March 28, 2009 at 9:43 pm Leave a comment

Rent Out Roof Space To Your Energy Company

All across the US, homeowners are getting paid by their energy utility to have solar panels installed. That’s because power companies have an urgent need for roof space. They’re in a race against the clock to replace ever greater portions of the regular energy supply by power sourced from renewables.
image courtesy Phylevn

image courtesy Phylevn

The trend began with deals between energy companies and various large companies and local municipalities to install solar panels on large premises in return for a fee. One example is ProLogis, a large distributor in California, getting solar energy from systems installed and run by outside energy companies. The first such deal was when General Motors got solar panels installed on the roofs of its Spain production facilities. (more…)

March 23, 2009 at 10:08 pm Leave a comment

Solar WiFi Comes To Businesses

It sounds iffy; running your company’s network on a WiFi connection that is entirely powered by solar energy. But a Mountainview, CA firm says it provides a 100% uptime solution. And it reports a mad dash for its products by companies in the range of 50 to 200 employees.

Mesh WiFi firm Meraki started shipping its Meraki Solar December 4th, after a year long delay because it needed to improve its battery technology.

The delay lands both the firm and customers in a slightly awkward situation. The worldwide run on solar power equipment seemed overly justified when oil prices spiked. Now that the price of oil is in the 40 dollar bracket, what should solar be priced at? Meraki has found a creative way around this stumbling block. Customers can bring their own panels! They’re selling solar Wifi solutions for apartment blocks or businesses and small communities at $749 a piece for a bring-your-own-panel model up to $1,499 for areas with shorter days or less light which require a battery.

(more…)

March 15, 2009 at 10:13 pm Leave a comment

Should We Make A Global Solar Energy Grid?

The Europeans are serious about deploying nanotechnology to wean countries off  fossil fuels in the next century.

And the good news is that there´s considerable interest from countries around the globe  in  a round-the-clock solar grid.  The logic being that because the sun consistently shines on some part of the planet, we might as well make the most of  this constant source of energy.

The ground tone at the recent European Science Foundation conference about Nanotechnology for Sustainable Energy left me with little to guess about; Europe is ready to accelerate development of nano technologies.

The conference focused on solar energy rather than on other sustainable energy sources such as wind. Solar is highly compatible with  nanotechnology not least because solar energy conversion holds the greatest promise as a durable replacement of fossil fuels. (more…)

March 2, 2009 at 2:37 am Leave a comment

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