Archive for the ‘Environmental Valuation’ Category

GAO Grapples With Climate Change’s Impact on Infrastructure

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

While the extractive industries and their political handmaidens continue to press the notion that climate change is nothing but a hoax, the actual scientific evidence that it is real continues to mount as inexorably as arctic ice melts and temperatures rise around the globe. Those greedy scientists who invented The Great Climate Change Hoax to get rich off grant money are now telling us that even the ice on Mount Everest which provides a water basin for more 1.5 billion people is melting.

As the “controversy” grinds on, the General Accounting Office and the National Research Council are not sitting idly by, waiting for the last skeptic to be won over. According to a newly released GAO report,  the U.S. already spends billions of dollars every year on infrastructure, but much of that infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, wastewater systems, even NASA centers are vulnerable to climate change. By way of example, the GAO points out that within 15 years segments of Louisiana State Highway 1—providing the only road access to a port servicing 18 percent of the nation’s oil supply – will be inundated by tides an average of 30 times annually due to sea level rise, effectively the port.

The report criticizes national and state decision makers for failing to systematically consider climate change in infrastructure planning. Replacing aging bridges and highways is an expensive and time-consuming task made no easier by piling climate change on top. But such planning is both essential and doable.  The GAO points by way of example to Milwaukee’s efforts to manage the risk of greatly increased rainfall by enhancing its natural systems’ abilities (including local wetlands) to absorb runoff.

The GAO report makes numerous recommendations, including the establishment of an executive agency to work with other state and federal agencies to identify and mitigate future disruptions and provided guidance on how agencies should address such disruption. Amidst all the hand-wringing and sleight-of-hand political distractions surrounding climate change, the report makes for refreshingly direct and level-headed reading. You can find the whole thing here.

How Much For That Nature In The Window?

I was pleased to see not one, but two articles in the past two days on one of my favorite topics: environmental valuation!

The first story was in CBC News, calling attention to recent research by the David Suzuki Foundation and Pacific Parklands Foundation. Their study found that the “natural capital” in British Columbia’s lower mainland region was worth an estimated $5.4 billion per year (or about $2,462 per person, per year, for those living in the area). The benefits from the region’s “ecosystem services” with the highest values turned out to be climate regulation, water supply, and flood protection/water regulation.

Original photo by Tim Marchant. Some rights reserved.

Now, what is “natural capital”? And what are “benefit values” of “ecosystem services”? The study broadly defines natural capital as “the earth’s land, water, atmosphere and resources.” It’s this capital that provides the “ecosystem services,” which then provide beneficial outcomes to people and the planet. For example, wetlands are natural capital. The services wetlands offer are the storage and regulation of water. The benefits are flood control and water supply, and the value is…whatever an economist determines as the monetary worth of  those services and benefits. Obviously, how one makes that determination is going to vary from economist to economist, and there is a spectrum of complexity on which any method of valuation may fall (e.g. a more simple method may only include concrete natural resources such as water or timber, while more complex systems of valuation may try to account for the joy that you experience when you walk in a park).

So why bother trying to put a price tag on nature’s bounty? Nature is providing us with stuff – good stuff – for free. All the time. We hardly even notice most of the benefits, let alone acknowledge nature for the favors. However, every day costs & benefits are being weighed for the purpose of major policy decisions. Because the wetlands are just sitting there, not charging us a thing (but still providing us with $$$$$$$ in clean water!), they are typically far undervalued by decision makers.

Therefore, the most practical application of ecosystem valuation is in policymaking. The website ecosytemvaluation.org has answered our “why?” in five succinct bullet points:

  • To justify and decide how to allocate public spending on conservation, preservation, or restoration initiatives.
  • To consider the public’s values, and encourage public participation and support for environmental initiatives.
  • To compare the benefits of different projects or programs.
  • To prioritize conservation or restoration projects.
  • To maximize the environmental benefits per dollar spent.

As one of our nation’s foremost environmental regulators, the EPA understandably has an Ecosystem Services Research Program, but the program itself mostly focuses on the services aspect, and looks to outside economists to help assign value.

One organization with no shortage of economic insights? The World Bank. The second story I came across today was a NY Times blog post highlighting remarks from the president of the World Bank, who announced the launch of a new partnership, the Global Partnership for Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services Valuation and Wealth Accounting, and called for the world’s “‘natural capital’ to be included on nations’ books when they do their accounting.” The World Bank! If they can get on board, what a good example they could set. You can see past research papers on environmental valuation the World Bank has compiled and commissioned in the “Environmental Economics” portion of their website, but we hope to see more targeted guidance as their new partnership moves forward.

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Again, there are as many approaches to ecosystem valuation as there are ecosystems. Here is a great compilation of links to a variety of related websites and organizations that are tackling the topic.

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