Green GDP Can Grow
Does Chopping Down a Tree Always Make You Richer?
The earth may spin faster on its axis due to deforestation.
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An Invaluable Environment
Statisticians are trying to adjust measures of national wealth for pollution and depleted resources. This turns out to be all but impossible.
Environmentalists have long felt cross with the way governments measure national incomes and wealth. These figures for GDP, they point out, fail to value a country's environmental assets, such as fine public parks. They treat the use of natural capital differently from that of man-made capital: a country that depletes its stock of production equipment grows poorer, while one that chops down its forests appears to grow richer. And they treat the costs of cleaning up environmental damage as an addition to national income without subtracting the environmental loss caused by the damage in the first place.
The answer might seem obvious: adjust national accounts to take account of changes in the environment. Statisticians have laboured for more than a decade to find ways to do this. In 1993 the United Nations, whose System of National Accounts provides a standardised basis for countries to record changes in their income, expenditure and wealth, published guidelines for "satellite" - or separate - accounts that try to integrate environmental and economic measures. Many environmentalists want to go further and estimate a single measure of the effect of environmental damage on economic growth. This goal of constructing a "green GDP" is an imaginative one. But increasingly, statisticians are concluding that it is unattainable.
The difficulties of creating environmental statistics that are comparable to national income and wealth statistics are serious. GDP is measured in money, but putting monetary values on environmental assets is a black art. Some assets, such as timber, may have a market value, but that value does not encompass the trees' role in harbouring rare beetles, say, or their sheer beauty. Methods for valuing such benefits are controversial. To get round these problems, the UN guidelines suggest measuring the cost of repairing environmental damage. But some kinds of damage, such as extinction, are beyond costing, and others are hard to estimate.
For economists, the average value of a good or service is usually less important than the marginal value - the cost or benefit of one more unit. Marginal value, however, is a tricky concept to bring into environmental analysis. It may be clear that the cost of wiping out an entire species of beetle would be high, but what value should be attached to the extermination of a few hundred bugs?
Putting environmental concepts into economic terms raises other difficulties as well. Geography weighs differently: a tonne of sulphur dioxide emitted in a big city may cause more harm than the same tonne emitted in a rural area, while a dollar's-worth of output counts the same wherever it is produced. And the exploitation of natural resources may not always have a cost. Is a country depleting resources if it mines a tonne of coal? All other things equal, the mining of that tonne might raise the value of the coal that remains in the ground, leaving the value of coal assets unchanged.
In addition to these conceptual problems, Steven Keuning, head of the Dutch national accounts department, points out that the entire attempt to attach cash values to environmental goods and bads is a bit nonsensical. The reason is that, had the environment been priced in the way that statisticians might value it, people would have behaved differently. The valuation exercise, he says, postulates a situation that could never have existed.
Faced with such objections, government statisticians in Europe and Canada have concentrated on a different approach, advocated by Mr Keuning and by Eurostat, the statistical arm of the European Union. The idea is to relate economic activity, measured in cash terms, to environmental magnitudes measured in physical units. So the accounts try to show, for instance, how many tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted by which sectors of an economy, and how those amounts are changing. This describes the relationship between the economy and the environment, but it does not adjust economic figures to take account of the degradation of environmental assets. It therefore does not meet the clamour of environmentalists for a measure that will change the way governments look at economic growth.
The debate on the merits of the two approaches is likely to come to a head in late May, with a meeting of the so-called London Group of rich-world government statisticians with an interest in the environment. The lobby for crafting separate environmental measures that avoid monetary valuations has been bolstered by Eurostat's copious research money, and by Mr Keuning's impressive presentational skills. The lobby for green GOP and valuation has its headquarters in the World Bank, and draws its main support from developing countries and from environmentalists.
Some statisticians, such as Anne Harrison of the OECD, would like a compromise which at least tries to attach monetary values to the depletion of natural resources, while admitting that degradation may be almost impossible to capture. Statisticians, say this school, should continue to try to value whatever they reasonably can; but they may have to accept that degradation (such as the loss of clean air or nice views) cannot be included in national accounts.
After all the bargaining is done, greens may be disappointed with the result. The cost of environmental damage in wealthy countries may not be very large: Britain's annual output of around 160m tonnes of carbon is valued at somewhere between £10 ($16) and £30 a tonne, and £1.6 billion - 4.8 billion is modest compared with overall economic activity. And many types of environmental damage have diminished as wealth has grown. Those who think green GOP might grow slower than the dirty old kind politicians worship may be in for a surprise.
Source: The Economist 18 April 1998
by Nick Jans
Inside this stand of old-growth timber on Kosciusko Island in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the entire world seems cast in luminous shades of green. Everything - the forest floor, fallen logs, even the trunks of living trees - is carpeted in layers of moss: seedlings, clumps of devil's club and salmonberry shoulder upward, leaning toward the sun.
Overhead, massive Sitka spruces and hemlocks form a light-dappled, vaulted canopy that brings to mind the interiors of Europe's grand cathedrals. Unlike those churches, these things are alive - some more than 6 feet in diameter, 200-feet tall, a thousand years old and still growing. These are the sort of trees that tourists travel to Alaska each summer to see, to try to absorb the presence of living things so large and old that they make us seem like windblown dust.
Underfoot lies another world, even more ancient: a dark labyrinth of caves and subterranean streams carved through limestone and marble bedrock. Huge sinkholes, pits and vertical crevices called grikes riddle the forest, channeling water downward, where it may flow for miles before emerging. This landform, characterised by subsurface drainage, is known as karst.
Worldwide, karst is relatively common: it can be found in places as disparate as Greece, Borneo and Indiana. However, the version found in parts of southeastern Alaska, overlaid with temperate rain forest, forms one of the rarest and most productive biomes on the planet. The porous carbonate rock provides a combination of drainage and nutrients that results in spectacular forest growth and equally impressive runs of salmon.
Unfortunately, such natural wealth is a magnet for exploitation and abuse. Southeastern Alaska's old-growth-forest karst lands have been hammered during the past half-century, with devastating environmental results. Like virtually all of the productive karst timberlands in the Tongass National Forest, Kosciusko Island is scarred by clear-cut logging. Now the island, rated by the Karst Waters Institute as one of the top 10 endangered karst areas in the world, is being threatened by a timber sale: 14.5 million board feet there and on neighbouring Tuxekan Island.
Clear-cuts on karst create heavy erosion. Thin surface soil washes down into sinkholes and cave openings, clogging flow systems that took millennia to create. In some logged karst areas, salmon runs have declined precipitously; in others, rich forest has been replaced by choking second growth or bare patches of bedrock. For all of its astounding fertility, the karst ecosystem is eggshell fragile.
Pro-logging advocates claim that these trees, like all others, are a renewable resource, and that more than reasonable care is being taken to safeguard the environment. Furthermore, southeastern Alaska's logging industry may argue that protecting all old-growth karst from what it euphemistically calls "harvest" would deal it a crippling blow.
But the timber industry in Alaska has long been devouring these trees far faster than they grow; if its well-being depends on centuries-old forest, the logging industry is doomed anyway. Should the last big trees go with it?
The US Forest Service allows a given stand of trees, known as a "sales unit," to be clear-cut roughly once each century; once the old-growth karst ecosystem is gone, then, there is no plan to allow it to return - ever. In its place will be comparatively sterile, easily logged groves of uniform age and size, more a gigantic farm than a forest. For old-growth karst, this is less environmental stewardship than a final solution.
The Forest Service has paid considerable lip service to the value of the Tongass karst. It hosted a 1993 symposium at which the Tongass karst was declared to be of national and international significance. And it set up a management program to protect entire karst systems, not just individual caves, and enlisted local cavers to help map the resource.
But since then, business has continued as usual across the Tongass. Stands of old-growth karst timber continue to be targeted for ciearcutting; at best, cursory attempts are made to find and protect cave openings and other features. Only intervention by a local watchdog group, the Tongass Cave Project, saved sensitive karst areas on Heceta Island from large-scale damage in 1999. Confronted with data that clearly showed it was violating its own guidelines, the Forest Service restructured the sale.
Now the Forest Service is again poised to despoil land that belongs to all of us. This summer, an expedition of Tongass Cave Project scientists and volunteers found dozens of caves, sinkholes and other karst features in the proposed timber-sales units on Kosciusko that Forest Service contractors had failed to document.
All of the bluster put forth by pro-logging forces, including timber companies, the Forest Service and Alaska's congressional delegation does not change an essential fact: Alaska's old-growth karst forest is not a renewable resource. Trees this big, old and rare are a national treasure, as are the cave systems beneath their roots. Clearcutting these lands is the equivalent of strip mining - long-term destruction for short-term gain.
A century ago, Alaska's old-growth karstlands seemed limitless. Now only isolated pockets remain, and most of these will be gone within our lifetimes unless we demand that the US Forest Service adhere both to the letter and the intent of its own karst management guidelines and to federal law, starting with Kosciusko Island. The chain saws are being sharpened.
Alaskan writer Nick Jans is a member of USA Today's board of contributors.
Source: USA Today Wednesday 15 August 2001
For much more on karst (including photos) see also:
and for more on cutting trees, see:
Bering Sea: Grand Cayman of the North
by Doug O'Harra
Researchers discover more than 100 species in Aleutians
Based on reports of coral snagged by commercial fishing in recent years, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Bob Stone figured he would find a decent number of the filter-feeding creatures anchored in deep water off Adak Island. But nothing prepared the sea-floor ecologist from Juneau for the view through the porthole during one of the first dives in a mini-sub during a 10-day expedition in July.
As the two-man submersible, Delta, cruised at a depth of 525 feet just over a mile from shore, the floodlights illuminated a thick patch of large, colorful corals stretching into the greenish gloom, all of it teeming with fish, crabs and other sea life. "It was a lush, reeflike habitat with lots of coral and sponges and rockfish," Stone said. "I've done a fair amount of diving in the Caribbean. I think my words on the tape are, 'If I didn't know any different, I would think I was in Grand Cayman.'"
On a mission to explore a few Bering Sea locales where coral had been taken as bycatch, a five-member team from Juneau's Auke Bay Laboratory and contractor Delta Oceanographics found previously unknown concentrations of corals growing at three sites on the Aleutian sea floor. "They're not really true coral reefs like you'd find in tropical waters, but they're similar in their structural complexity," Stone said. "A 'garden' is a good way to put it."
During 36 dives at 20 locations, the team observed at least 100 species of corals and sponges, including several that may be new to human eyes, Stone said. The dives ranged from 100 feet to nearly 1,200 feet, covering habitats ranging from black volcanic sand with few corals to steep rock faces flush with undersea coral trees.
The discovery of such lush habitats in Alaska raises fundamental questions about coral life history - and whether these cold-water, deep-sea creatures need special protection from commercial fishing. Several sites, including one of the gardens, contained corals and sponges that had been broken off, possibly by commercial fishing gear, Stone said.
"What caused the damage, we can't say with certainty," Stone said. "In some cases, we did see paths that were mowed 5, 6, 7 feet wide, where 90% was dead or ripped up. In other places, there were only one or two sponges that were broken. And there were certainly places where there was no damage at all."
The report of damaged coral, especially in one of the reeflike bioherms, alarmed several Alaska environmental groups. Bottom trawling should be prohibited in areas with known coral, and other protective measures should be taken immediately, said Jim Ayers, the North Pacific director for Oceana. "We need to take a different approach in the Aleutians," Ayers added. "Let's set aside all the legal arguments right now and agree that we're smart enough to realise that there's something very special about the area."
The status of coral is part of a broader issue over how commercial fishing gear affects fish habitat on the ocean floor. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in 2000 considered creating six protected areas for coral in Alaska waters but concluded that not enough was known yet about where the coral actually grows - or what type of gear causes the most significant damage, biologists David Witherell and Cathy Coon wrote. Some fishermen argued that so little was known about the coral distribution of the region that closing some areas to fishing could actually push fishing activity into areas with even more coral.
Often living for hundreds of years, Alaska deep-sea corals provide important habitat for rockfish and other species yet are slow to recover when damaged, concluded Witherell and Coon in an article presented at a 2000 conference on deep-sea corals. The corals can be tipped over or yanked free by bottom trawls, longlines and crab pots.
Over the past five years, NMFS teams have been diving from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians to document the relationship between fishing and coral, said Phil Rigby, groundfish program manager at the lab. "We knew there were corals out there, but we had no idea that they were there in such great abundance or densities," he said. "This is illuminating and exciting."
One reason is that no one had looked, Stone said. "To my knowledge, outside of the Navy, of course, nobody's ever had a submersible out in the Aleutian Islands."
Some of the corals were huge - growing 10 feet by 10 feet - providing shelter for a profusion of fish, octopi, sea stars and other undersea life. Many could not be identified by species. Stone brought home about 120 specimens and sent samples to experts at the Smithsonian Institution and other facilities for further analysis. "With all of that expertise, we should be finding out a lot," Stone said.
One of the richest communities bloomed about 360 feet down on a pinnacle that rose from 2,500-feet-deep water. Another garden of coral appeared in a very different habitat - on a broad flat bank about 180 feet down about 26 miles out, Stone said.
The scientists don't know why the corals thrived at one location versus another, though they often seemed to grow in strong currents, Stone added. "We'd say, 'Okay, it's found on steep habitat near (undersea) volcanoes,' and we'd go to steep habitat a few volcanoes down and there would be nothing," he said. "As soon as we developed a hypothesis, it would get disproved."
Rigby said the lab is planning to send another expedition next summer and hopes to eventually get funding to pay for a submersible or unmanned sub that could go thousands of feet down. Stone also wants to study the dense coral gardens in more detail. An ultimate goal will be to predict where and why they form, so commercial fishing can be managed to avoid further damage.
"We need to go deeper, and of course, we want to broaden our range," Stone said. "It could go all the way out to the very end of the chain. It could be even more spectacular as you go out."
Doug O'Harra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: www.adn.com Anchorage Daily News 25 August 2002
Land Study on Grazing Denounced
by Julie Cart
The Bush administration altered critical portions of a scientific analysis of the environmental impact of cattle grazing on public lands before announcing that it would relax regulations limiting grazing on those lands, according to scientists involved in the study. A government biologist and a hydrologist, who both retired this year from the Bureau of Land Management, said their conclusions that the proposed new rules might adversely affect water quality and wildlife, including endangered species, were excised and replaced with language justifying less stringent regulations favored by cattle ranchers.
Grazing regulations, which affect 160 million acres of public land in the Western US, set the conditions under which ranchers may use that land, and guide government managers in determining how many cattle may graze, where and for how long without harming natural resources. The original draft of the environmental analysis warned that the new rules would have a "significant adverse impact" on wildlife, but that phrase was removed. The bureau now concludes that the grazing regulations are "beneficial to animals." Eliminated from the final draft was another conclusion that read: "The Proposed Action will have a slow, long-term adverse impact on wildlife and biological diversity in general." Also removed was language saying how a number of the rule changes could adversely affect endangered species.
"This is a whitewash. They took all of our science and reversed it 180º," said Erick Campbell, a former BLM state biologist in Nevada and a 30-year bureau employee who retired this year. He was the author of sections of the report pertaining to the effect on wildlife and threatened and endangered species. "They rewrote everything," Campbell said in an interview this week. "It's a crime." Campbell and the other retired bureau scientist who criticised the rules were among more than a dozen BLM specialists who contributed to the environmental impact statement. Others who worked on the original draft could not be reached or did not return calls seeking comment. A bureau official acknowledged that changes were made in the analysis and said they were part of a standard editing and review process. Ranchers hailed the regulations as a signal of new openness from the administration. "We're hopeful that some of the provisions will strengthen the public lands grazing industry and give our members certainty in their business," said Jenni Beck of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "We are encouraged that this [environmental impact statement] demonstrates the benefits of grazing on public lands."
Livestock graze on public land in 11 Western states, including 8 million acres in California. The vast acreage is needed to support a comparatively small number of livestock because in the arid region topsoil is thin and grass is generally sparse. About 2% of the nation's beef is produced from cattle on public lands. The new rules, published Friday by the BLM, a division of the Department of Interior, ensures ranchers expanded access to public land and requires federal land managers to conduct protracted studies before taking action to limit that access. The rules reverse a long-standing agency policy that gave BLM experts the authority to quickly determine whether livestock grazing was inflicting damage. The regulations also eliminate the agency's obligation to seek public input on some grazing decisions. Public comment will be allowed but not required.
In recent years, concerns about the condition of much Western grazing land has been heightened by drought, which has denuded pastures in the most arid areas, causing bureau managers to close some pastures and prompting ranchers to sell their herds. The new rules mark a departure from grazing regulations adopted in 1995 under President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Those regulations reflected the view of range scientists that a legacy of overgrazing in the West had degraded scarce water resources, damaged native plant communities and imperiled wildlife. Babbitt ordered the bureau to establish standards that spelled out when public lands were open for grazing, and for the first time required range specialists to assess each pasture to ensure it held enough vegetation to support wildlife and livestock. It was the first time in about 50 years that the federal government had tried sweeping overhauls of how Western ranchers operated on public lands. By 1994, studies from scientists at the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture convinced government land managers that livestock grazing was the most pervasive threat to plant and animals in the arid West.
Some conservation groups seized on the studies to mount a campaign to eliminate grazing on public land altogether, prompting a backlash that accused environmentalists of engaging in "rural cleansing" that would drive families off the land, some of whom had been there since the 19th century. This week, environmentalists were sharply critical of the new rules. "It's an explicit rollback," said Thomas Lustig, staff lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colorado. "What [Interior Secretary Gale A Norton] id was take Babbitt's regs and found parts where they could put a hurdle in to undermine the reforms."
Bureau officials said the new rules represented a step forward in improving its management of livestock grazing on federal land. Bud Cribley, the agency's manager for rangeland resources, said the report was written by a number of specialists from different offices within the BLM. When it was finished, in November 2003, the agency believed it "needed a lot of work," Cribley said. "We disagreed with the impact analysis that was originally put forward. There were definitely changes made in the area of impact analysis. We adjusted it. The draft that we published we felt adequately addressed the impacts. We felt the changes we did make were based on good science." Most of the changes came in sections analysing projected impact of the rules on fisheries, plant and animal health as well as water quality and quantity.
Bill Brookes, a former hydrologist with the bureau who assessed the regulations' effect on water resources, said in the original draft the proposed rule change was "an abrogation of [the agency's] responsibility under the Clean Water Act. Everything I wrote was totally rewritten and watered down. Everything in the report that was purported to be negative was watered down. Instead of saying, in the long term, this will create problems, it now says, in the long term, grazing is the best thing since sliced bread." Brookes said work that the bureau's original specialists required more than a year and a half to finish was changed in a matter of weeks. He and Campbell said officials in Washington said the document did not support the new rules so they called in a new team to redo it.
According to the agency officials, the new grazing regulations were meant to give land managers and ranchers more flexibility in making decisions about whether to allow grazing on a particular parcel. Though an array of conservation and environmental groups decried the new rules, Cribley said changes were minor but necessary. "We don't look at this as a significant change from the current regulations," he said. "This is fine-tuning and making adjustment in existing rules. We came out with some significant changes in the grazing rule in '95, and we have been implementing changes since that time. We needed to make corrections after almost 10 years of experience."
Source: news.yahoo.com 18 June 2005 © Los Angeles Times
I think it's obvious what actually occurred - and quite sad, really. The money spent on the report was a complete waste because, like declaring war on Iraq, the course of action to be taken was a foregone conclusion and actions to the contrary mere formalities.
Algæ - Like a Breath Mint for Smokestacks
A "green" scrubber: Isaac Berzin, an MIT scientist,
by Mark Clayton
Boston - Isaac Berzin is a big fan of algæ. The tiny, single-celled plant, he says, could transform the world's energy needs and cut global warming. Overshadowed by a multibillion-dollar push into other "clean-coal" technologies, a handful of tiny companies are racing to create an even cleaner, greener process using the same slimy stuff that thrives in the world's oceans. Enter Dr Berzin, a rocket scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. About 3 years ago, while working on an experiment for growing algæ on the International Space Station, he came up with the idea for using it to clean up power-plant exhaust. If he could find the right strain of algæ, he figured he could turn the nation's greenhouse-gas-belching power plants into clean-green generators with an attached algæ farm next door. "This is a big idea," Berzin says, "a really powerful idea." And one that's taken him to the top - a rooftop. Bolted onto the exhaust stacks of a brick-and-glass 20-megawatt power plant behind MIT's campus are rows of fat, clear tubes, each with green algæ soup simmering inside. Fed a generous helping of CO2-laden emissions, courtesy of the power plant's exhaust stack, the algæ grow quickly even in the wan rays of a New England sun. The cleansed exhaust bubbles skyward, but with 40% less CO2 (a larger cut than the Kyoto treaty mandates) and another bonus: 86% less N2O.
After the CO2 is soaked up like a sponge, the algæ is harvested daily. From that harvest, a combustible vegetable oil is squeezed out: biodiesel for automobiles. Berzin hands a visitor two vials - one with algal biodiesel, a clear, slightly yellowish liquid, the other with the dried green flakes that remained. Even that dried remnant can be further reprocessed to create ethanol, also used for transportation.
Being a good Samaritan on air quality usually costs a bundle. But Berzin's pitch is one hard-nosed utility executives and climate-change skeptics might like: It can make a tidy profit. "You want to do good for the environment, of course, but we're not forcing people to do it for that reason - and that's the key," says the founder of GreenFuel Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We're showing them how they can help the environment and make money at the same time." GreenFuel has already garnered $11 million in venture capital funding and is conducting a field trial at a 1,000 megawatt power plant owned by a major southwestern power company. Next year, GreenFuel expects two to seven more such demo projects scaling up to a full production system by 2009. Even though it's early yet, and may be a long shot, "the technology is quite fascinating," says Barry Worthington, executive director of US Energy Association in Washington, which represents electric utilities, government agencies, and the oil and gas industry.
One key is selecting an algæ with a high oil density - about 50% of its weight. Because this kind of algæ also grows so fast, it can produce 15,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Just 60 gallons are produced from soybeans, which along with corn are the major biodiesel crops today. Greenfuel isn't alone in the algæ-to-oil race. Last month, Greenshift Corporation, a Mount Arlington, New Jersey, technology incubator company, licensed CO2-gobbling algæ technology that uses a screen-like algal filter. It was developed by David Bayless, a researcher at Ohio University. A prototype is capable of handling 140 cubic metres of flue gas per minute, an amount equal to the exhaust from 50 cars or a 3-megawatt power plant, Greenshift said in a statement.
For his part, Berzin calculates that just one 1,000 megawatt power plant using his system could produce more than 40 million gallons of biodiesel and 50 million gallons of ethanol a year. That would require a 2,000-acre "farm" of algæ-filled tubes near the power plant. There are nearly 1,000 power plants nationwide with enough space nearby for a few hundred to a few thousand acres to grow algæ and make a good profit, he says. Energy security advocates like the idea because algæ can reduce US dependence on foreign oil. "There's a lot of interest in algæ right now," says John Sheehan, who helped lead the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) research project into using algæ on smokestack emissions until budget cuts ended the program in 1996.
In 1990, Sheehan's NREL program calculated that just 15,000 square miles of desert (the Sonoran desert in California and Arizona is more than eight times that size) could grow enough algæ to replace nearly all of the nation's current diesel requirements. "I've had quite a few phone calls recently about it," says Mr Sheehan. "This is not an outlandish idea at all."
Source: www.csmonitor.com 11 January 2006
For pages on natural disasters - including lightning strikes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, global warming and more - as well as some great satellite and tree photos,
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