Does Nature Provide Us With A Free Lunch?

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

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.


Entry filed under: Green News.

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