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Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

No one really expects governments to be consistent. I’m not talking about election times – we’ve all been watching the Conservatives doing their spring clean of the Labour closets – but about the mixed messages from different government departments, delegates, ministers and so on. Indeed, the chasm between what they say and what they do rarely fails to swallow up a few gullible casualties. But when it comes to biodiversity and our environment, the temptation to cash in on our natural resources is usually so great that we all pretty much expect it- while being told something completely different. Is it time, when we’re losing species this fast, to make a change? Our hard-learned lesson is, preserving our environment is preserving our economy. Until this is fully realised, don’t look for the promises, look for the action- if you can find it…

European Fish Week

This week is marked by European Fish Week, a rallying call to help the vast, silent, emptying oceans (sign the petition here). If you think that sounds dramatic, consider this figure – 88% of EU fish stocks are overfished. Eighty-eight per cent! And how did it get this bad? Well, a big problem is that decision makers (like the European Fisheries Ministers) don’t really listen to the scientists they hire. Fishing quotas are consistently set far above the limits recommended by scientists that would, if adhered to, prevent the stocks from further depletion. In the past, quotas for blue-tuna have been set 47% over scientific recommendations. If you’re interested in the health of our seas I’d also strongly recommend this video by respected scientist Jeremy Jackson, and this one by Silvia Earle, former chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Clearly, when it comes to the oceans, we all know who the losing side is. Sometimes, though, the economic bulldozers are hushed by the echo of the penny dropping: we are on the same side. It’s little surprise, then, that as the fishing industry flags, things start to move: a federal investigation in Canada will begin next week to study the decline of sockeye salmon stocks, when only about one million of an expected 10.6-million returned to the Fraser River. There even promises to be a contentious look at the impacts of salmon farming on these stocks.

Whaling

Whaling’s another good example of the tensions that exist between commercial interests and the conservation of the natural environment. The illegal whaling (let’s not kid ourselves) by Japan is being legally challenged by Australia (we’ll see what that does). Also, and maybe I’m being overly-optimistic here, the trial of the ‘Toyko Two’ Greenpeace activists could work to expose the whale meat trade (reaching as far away as Californian restaurants!)- perhaps a little hope for the ocean titans. Then again, there’s the news that President Obama may be looking to reverse the ban on whaling. Hmm. And what is the EU- we know their record on fishing- doing about all of this? Your guess is as good as mine.

(Image source: © Greenpeace) Read the rest of this entry »

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

Fishing nets, by jdn via Flickr

Some more evidence for the benefits of protected marine reserves brought to light by a piece appearing in Science yesterday. This follows new data presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego, and papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For example, 5 years after a network of 12 marine reserves covering 488 sq km near Los Angeles, California, was established there was a jump in fish populations (blue rockfish +50%) and biomass.

There are interesting social connections, too. Joshua Cinner of James Cook University found evidence consistent with a model of people moving to places with healthy marine reserves, likely as a source of fish.

A corresponding Nature article quoted Christopher Costello saying: “Reserves allow a win–win situation — better conservation and higher profitability for fishing”. This might partly be because, as stated in Nature, ‘Marine reserves could help to make nearby fisheries profitable by acting as nurseries for fish larvae that are later spread by ocean currents.’

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

If anyone needed a wake-up call to the perilous state of biodiversity, there aren’t many statistics that hit home as hard as half of our closest relatives being in imminent danger of extinction. The IUCN has recently reported that 48% of all primate species are critically endangered. There remain about 3,300 simakobu monkeys in Indonesia, less than 300 Cross River gorillas in Nigeria and around 110 black crested gibbons in Asia. Madagascar holds less than 100 sportive lemurs, and Vietnam less than 70 golden-headed langurs. Conservation International has released similarly gloomy news on the critical threat to 25 of the most endangered primates and how-to’s on saving them. There are around 40,000 Orang-utans left, where their habitats are being rapidly destroyed for palm-oil production.

Primate and Bush-meat Trading
A blog over at Treehugger has done a good job at researching the bush-meat and pet trades. A 2004 FAO report found the bush-meat trade a massive component of both for subsistence and commercial trade. For example, the report found estimates that around 90% of Ghanaians eat bush-meat, totalling 385,000 metric tonnes per year. In Liberia, where 105,000 metric tonnes are consumed, bush-meat trade contributes around US$42m (estimated in 1991). Bush-meat contributes 1.4% to Sierra Leone’s GDP (1996). On top of this, Animal Defenders International has estimated the primate pet trade at US$12bn a year, where Europe is one of the world’s largest markets for wildlife and wildlife products.

Management
Even considering- in fact, partly because of- the subsistence importance of bush-meat, this consumption is clearly unsustainable. A primary symptom of bad management of these resources is that, exacerbated by habitat loss, many of these species are threatened with extinction and still being hunted in the remainder of their natural range. But are industrialised countries doing any better? The figure below from the FAO shows fish balances across world regions:

It seems not. So what is to be done? Well, no big answers right now. But as a start, in a Nature article, Scholes and Biggs (2005) use a variety of different management scenarios to estimate an ‘intactness’ index of biodiversity. A graph of six different management approaches below show their impacts on biodiversity. The y-axis is the “average expert estimate of remaining fraction of pre-colonial population”.

In conserving biodiversity, clearly ‘protected’ is best. But for those of you who think ‘protected’ means non-use to humans, have a look here on how protective management can provide resources sustainably. Fishing around (<5km) a protected area of New England Coast provided 73% of the US catches of haddock. Without this fishery Closed Area stocks would probably be decimated.

If we want sustained development, better management of resources is needed over short-sighted consumption. There is a lot more to the issues than covered here, but there’s enough to say that management that respects the environment – even a ‘free’ environment – is far more likely to sustain our needs in the long-run. And the biggest issue of all is time. And, thankfully, the Tick has a thing or two to say about this as well.

“Time’s a-wasting and evil’s out there making hand-crafted mischief for the swap meet of villainy. And you can’t strike a good deal with evil. No matter how much you haggle. We don’t need to look for a bargain; goodness is cheap because it’s free, and free is as cheap as it gets. Cut. What was that pig about?”

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

Financial markets are treacherous. I’m not saying this because I’ve lost a lot of money to them recently- oh wait, we all have! – but because they’re pathologically antisocial yet somehow exotically enticing. They’re the new femmes fatales. No matter how many times we wine and dine them, and how many times we pay for it, they’ll keep us hooked.

The financial markets have been jittery with speculation about Greece defaulting on its debts- unsurprisingly, really, if we consider that Greece has the highest gross government debt as a percentage of GDP in Europe- somewhere around 125%. And, many ask, if Greece does default, what will happen to other countries with high debts, such as Spain and Portugal? Will they survive the same financial attacks – if interest rates rise the deficit effectively increases because of rising interest on the bonds – or will they show more ‘fiscal responsibility’.

Lecturing for Stable Economics
On Monday evening the Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz gave a talk at the London School of Economics in which he noted:

“The irony of this attack should not go unnoticed: the fact that Europe and America were brought into the current mess because of the failures of the financial system. Their deficits grew in the attempt to save the banks and the economy as a result of the financial system failure, and now the financial systems are lecturing the governments about the size of the deficits that their behaviour created…the fact is that the financial markets are again exhibiting the same kind of irrationality and short-sightedness they continually exhibited. What matters is not one side of the balance sheet, it’s both sides. Deficits are a liability, but on the other side are assets: it depends on how you spend the money. And if you spend the money well, on education, on technology and infrastructure, the returns only have to be 5-6% for the long-run national debt actually to be lowered, and the banks should understand this.”

In other words, a ‘credible’ response to tackle the Greek government’s debts does not mean cutting money from health, education, technology and the environment to pay back bond holders – it means instead that lenders understand that investment in these sectors will secure their repayment over the long run. The economic cases for more regulation and a ‘Robin Hood’ tax are also strong. But, I suppose, the markets are worried. And we’re still hooked.

The governments of Europe and America bailed out the financial sector and stimulated the economy. The deficits now need repaying, and it’s becoming clearer who’s going to pick up the tab. Our message to the banks is clear: “don’t worry, we’ll get that”. Because, honestly, we really will get that, and we really, really don’t want you to worry about it.

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

Photo by wools via Flickr

We used to get along well with oil, in a lonely sort of way. It has played a major role in the advancement of much of our civilisation, providing energy and materials. But now our progress does not have to depend on it. Emerging from the recession provides the ideal time to redirect our progress.

Black Gold
Over 4000 years ago we used asphalt, present in most crude petroleums, as a fairly benign glue to build the walls of Babylon. And the industrial revolution was a bright spark in the history of human innovation: our technological advances have revolutionised how, where- and even when- we live. It wasn’t long before Thomas Midgley, Jr. developed both leaded gasoline and CFCs, certainly in the top five recent environmental disasters. We learned to use oil to provide energy, fuelling our cars, and help in the creating of plastics, pesticides, fertilisers and solvents. But, despite our addiction, we now need to use the alternatives.

Taxing the Bad
This month the Office of National Statistics posted employment figures (the lowest in over ten years; see below) and an estimate that the UK has, behind the other G7 countries, emerged from the recession with growth of 0.1%.

The graph above, from the Office of National Statistics, shows the employment rate for September to November 2009 was 72.4%, the “lowest since winter 1996-97 and is down 0.1 on the quarter”. Average regular pay (excluding bonuses) was up 1.1% over the same period to £424/week. This was the lowest annual growth rate since records began in 2001.

The 0.1% growth of the economy has been used for two opposite viewpoints on fiscal policy: that the government should cut our budgetary deficit by slimming our net spending, and that our spending levels should be maintained in order to secure the economy’s recovery. Neither addresses our addiction to oil and fossil fuel-based consumerism. Fiscal stimulus should be ploughed into building clean and renewable energy sources, creating ‘green’ jobs and preserving our natural environment. As many have advocated, including the economist Paul Krugman, the tax system would be an effective way to transition our economy to a cleaner future that would actually help the economy and the environment. Tax the ‘bads’ (fossil fuels, aviation, environmental degradation) and nurture the ‘goods’ (employment tax credits, subsidise renewable energy).

In times of darkness and uncertainty we should turn to someone who knows better. So, I close with some help from the Tick: “Everybody was a baby once, Arthur. Oh, sure, maybe not today, or even yesterday. But once. Babies, chum: tiny, dimpled, fleshy mirrors of our us-ness, that we parents hurl into the future, like leathery footballs of hope. And you’ve got to get a good spiral on that baby, or evil will make an interception.”

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef


The West’s most viral idea is that of material utility. Somehow everyday lives have become organised around a belief that happiness is really just an aggregation of price tags. We can’t be saturated; not even the sky’s the limit. In our Lego-lives we are always looking to buy the right piece – or, more often, pieces – to fill it. Flying to a holiday destination, buying fabulous clothes, driving luxury cars and having the latest gadgets all get piled up into one big happy life. Underneath it all, far below, lays our Earth: the plants and animals that are just dying to make us happy.

The rapid increase in people’s use of the productive capacity of the biosphere is shown here. The late 1980’s saw us consuming more than the world’s biocapacity could provide. In a mirror image, the populations of many supporting organisms are declining, making them less able to cope with or expanding footprint. According to the WWF Living Planet report, we are already 30% above the planet’s biological capacity- likely to be an underestimate considering their calculations excluded aspects of consumption that did not have regenerative capacity. But, as the nef report The Consumption Explosion puts it, the average per capita levels of consumption in developing countries have changed little over many decades. “In rich countries, however, we are each consuming vastly more, yet with little or nothing to show for it in terms of greater life satisfaction.”

Trends in populations of terrestrial, marine, and freshwater vertebrate species
(both graphs from the Living Planet Index)

So what is to be done?
Well, that depends on which camp you fall into really. The debate is extremely polarised. On the one hand there are the likes of the Optimum Population Trust saying that there are just too many people on this planet. On the other, you’ve got development activists– rightly frightened by the prospect of neo-colonial population control measures – saying it’s all about the over-consumption of those living in rich countries. As is often the case when debates are polarised, the evidence suggests that this framing – where it is either population or consumption – is a false dichotomy and actually unhelpful if our goal is about living well and within environmental limits. Let me take you through the numbers.

Starting with population…
The world population is currently around 6.7 billion. Some expect this to increase exponentially, like bacteria, until resource constraints kick in. When resources become a limiting factor and waste concentration rises, the bacterial growth phase plateaus, followed by collapse with the depletion of resources. Concerned that, like bacteria, human population might be headed for a similar demise some have started to ask what human population our world’s resources can sustain. While this question is legitimate, it is also misleading in our current circumstances (and we’re leaving aside for the moment the fact that we don’t really know the answer and that it could be completely unpalatable). It is misleading because, unlike bacteria, we are not in a fixed-capacity test tube but, rather, through our actions can impact on resource availability in quite dramatic ways  It is true that we do not have infinite resources, but we can make more or less of what we’ve got.

Consumption vs. Population
So we’ve established that human populations and bacterial populations are not quite the same thing, which is a bit of a relief. We have the ability to manage our resources, and our technology is ever-progressing. Our economic system is geared to manage scarcity, acting as the middle man. Natural resources are accessed ‘freely’, processed, and then sold to the consumer. The amount of money flowing from consumers dictates how much of a resource is taken.

So let’s look at the figures on population and consumption. The WWF Living Planet report graphed the ecological footprints and population sizes by region in 1961 and 2005. Quite clearly the main driving force for a large ecological footprint is not population (though it is a factor) but consumption.

In his forthcoming book Peoplequake Fred Pearce discusses the findings of Stephen Pacala, Director of the Princeton Environmental Institute. Pacala finds that the richest 500 million people (7% of the world’s population) are responsible for 50% of global emissions. This compares with the poorest 50% emitting just 7%.

With Power Comes Responsibility
The graphs dramatically show that developed countries are far more responsible for the global environmental impact than developing countries, both historically and currently. It is no coincidence that they also wield massive global power.

Here are a couple more stats that show just how culpable consumers in rich countries are for the environmental degradation that’s occurring. According to the Global Footprint Network, Denmark’s ecological footprint is 7.2 global hectares per person, or twelve times that of Malawi. A recent nef report found that, starting a New Year, “one person in the United States will, by 4am in the morning of 2 January, already have been responsible for the equivalent in climate change causing carbon emissions that a Tanzanian would take a whole year to generate. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4 January”.

These stats aren’t license to dismiss the role of population. But, as environmental activist George Monbiot says, the problem posed by population growth is many times over eclipsed by the consumption of the rich: “economic growth this century could be 32 times as big an environmental issue as population growth”. The most urgent challenge is to make the transition to an economically viable system that manages the world’s resources in a sustainable and equitable way. And so, in the famous words of The Tick, “Hey! You in the pumps! I say to you – stop being bad!”

Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

Photo by ucumari via Flickr

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2010 is the year of the Golden Tiger. Rather fitting, you might think, considering that the United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity: with only 3,200 tigers left, and 3 out of the 9 tiger species now extinct, biologists have placed Panthera tigris at the top of their list of critically important endangered animals.

In our rather detached view of the world, it might seem fair to ask “who cares about biodiversity?” In short, biodiversity provides a resource for our sustainable development: it improves crop performance and keeps our crops ahead in the evolutionary arms race against negative pathogens, it contributes to human health and well-being; it supplies the materials for many industrial sectors, and regulates our life-support systems such as water supply, nutrient recycling, and climatic conditions.

But more than this, as humans grow in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on Earth, biodiversity loss represents the failings of our socio-economic systems. It reminds us of limits to our carrying capacity: how much we need to keep up our old habits of unsustainable consumption. Our supporting ecosystems are crumbling beneath us, and the Christmas festivities haven’t made us any lighter. Biodiversity is so important, and so quickly receding, one wonders why a biodiversity equivalent to the IPCC has not already been formed, as has been suggested by the prominent biologist Edward Wilson.

What to look out for in 2010

TEEB
The New Year also brings the second phase of the TEEB report, to be presented at COP10 of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Led by the UN Environment Programme, the study charts the value of the natural environment to humans, particularly in the economic dimension. One of their findings shows that an annual investment of US $45 billion into protected areas, many of which are at risk, could return ecosystem services worth US $5 trillion annually. Emerging from the crisis this might seem like a somewhat better investment than CDOs, but who’s going to pay? The truth is, if we leave it too late, we all will.

Environmental Markets
The TEEB study highlights the need for biological resources and ecosystem services to be accounted for on the balance sheet. The development of environmental markets promises much positive potential for a greener economy, as long as the lessons from carbon markets are heeded. Nef is aiming to be a leader in establishing such a framework to help conserve the Earth’s natural resources and improve our well-being.

Fisheries
The EU will report in March on a consultation over the Common Fisheries Policy. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the current management of fisheries. With criticisms from both environmental groups and scientists on one side, and fishermen on the other, it will be interesting to see whether they compromise on the sustainability and long-term viability of fish stocks in EU waters, using EU tax revenues to subsidise a bloated, inefficient and environmentally unsustainable industry.

Carbon Markets
With the dismal failure of the COP15 negotiations it will be more important than ever for public-private partnerships to take a lead role in the fight against climate change. With governments unable to respond quickly enough to the growing challenges of climate change, we need new innovative approaches to manifesting activity as soon as possible. For example, here at nef we are working to a new standard for climate change adaptation projects in local communities, and we will be seeking private sector support for these projects. Our aim is to challenge the dominance of voluntary offsetting and propose alternate voluntary activities that will benefit the communities that are being affected by climate change today.

Nature and Well-Being
Nature is a valuable resource for economic, ecological, and social value as well as psychological well-being. A growing body of evidence is making a compelling case for promoting nature from lip-service treatment to the centre of policy-making, a message that nef is preparing to send out this year at a time the government wields a cost-cutting axe in one hand and bankers nursery in the other.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.