Biodiversity, Climate, Poverty: A Solution for One is No Solution

Last night I had the inspirational experience of seeing and hearing about resourceful people around the globe who were, often against steep odds, successfully addressing local poverty, the loss of precious species and habitats, and the threat from looming climate change. They weren’t pitting human and environmental priorities against each other; they were treating those issues as intertwined necessities and finding ways to manage all the needs in concert.

Unfortunately, none of those people was from the U.S. And although I did take some cheer from their efforts, I was also left with a bitter reminder of how the U.S.’s refusal to enact climate legislation or to sign the biodiversity treaty threatens to undermine the good efforts of those intrepid groups.

On Monday evening, the United Nations Development Programme and a host of public and private partners convened a special policy forum and awards dinner at the American Museum of Natural History in anticipation of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals Summit, which will assess the progress made over the past decade toward alleviating the worst poverty and hardship on the planet. The awards dinner celebrated the 25 winners of this year’s Equator Prize—Cambodian monks, Brazilian agro-farmers, Ecuadoran ecotourism promoters, Nigerian broadcasters, Kenyan water stewards and many more—recognized for their outstanding contributions to biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation through grassroots efforts.

“Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Climate Change: Scaling Up Local Solutions to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals” was the topic taken up by the panelists, as ably moderated by Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth blogger and long-time environmental reporter for the New York Times. They included Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity; Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change; Ángel Gurría, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; Leonardo B. Rosario, executive director of the Trowel Development Foundation (and one of this year’s Equator Prize winners); Erik Solheim, Norway’s minister of the environment and international development; and Pavan Sukhdev, director of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.

Two major messages resonated across the speakers’ statements. The first was that the problems of protecting biodiversity, preventing the build-up of climate-changing carbon dioxide and promoting economic advancement for the poor were all intertwined and therefore called for coordinated, common solutions rather than piecemeal ones divided along traditional environment/development lines.

The second was that, as the Equator Prize winners demonstrated, local communities in threatened environments can often come up with optimal solutions on their own (news to gladden the heart of conservatives)—but that to achieve the needed scale for real environmental and economic progress, those solutions needed to figure much more prominently into the major development strategies of nations and other funding institutions. Too often, they simply aren’t visible to planners.

As I listened to the panel, the idea of formulating strategies for jointly helping the environment and economic development around the world made perfect sense, but something bothered me. Here in the U.S., where climate change policies have stalled, some commentators (such as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, or perhaps even Andy Revkin himself) had suggested that the best way forward may be to cast the climate challenge more purely as a matter of energy reform, and to largely distance it from its environmental and climate-science roots. In effect, runs their argument, the U.S. public wants cleaner, cheaper, more reliable energy but has more mixed views on environmental goals, so why not remove the latter from the discussion? The danger, of course, is that the U.S. might then commit itself to energy policies deliberately isolated from any climate or biodiversity (or economic development) considerations, but maybe any policy reform would be better than none.

After the forum, I had a chance to ask Ángel Gurría of the OECD whether it would be problematic for the U.S. to take such an approach. Gurría emphasized that any sound policy needed to take a broad view of not just energy or the environment but all the applicable technological and economic issues, including the availability of renewables, financial competitiveness and unemployment. Nevertheless, he said, “You really need to start by putting a price on carbon,” because the existence of that cost will immediately discourage some CO2 emissions while generating revenue that can help to offset the deep deficits nations are running. Moreover, not only might some of that revenue directly fund the development of alternative energy, but the economic certainty of a carbon price could inspire confidence among investors to privately fund their own ventures into nuclear, wind or solar. In short, Gurría says, “It would be naïve to look only at the environment and it would be shortsighted to look only at energy.”

As an example of a terrible policy resulting from an energy-exclusive view, Gurría cited past proposals for U.S. biofuels policy, which he said would have set the cost for avoided a ton of CO2 equivalents at around $1,000, in contrast to the E.U. permit-trading scheme that arrived at a cost under $50. “This was enormously inefficient, but it was done in the name of energy independence,” he said. Such crowd-pleasing labels, he explained, could lead to “anything goes” attitudes; he warned against them because can cause expensive distortions of the markets “and you don’t fight the real enemy.”

I asked Gurría then if it was correct to consider a good carbon price to be a necessary condition for arriving at a policy that is both economically and environmentally sound but not a sufficient one, and he agreed, citing the “urgency” for the U.S. to adopt such integrated approaches—not just on energy and climate, but on water management, non-carbon air pollutants, waste disposal and other issues. “If the U.S. doesn’t do these things, nobody else will. People will be looking at the U.S. and asking, ‘Have they done it?’” he said. “If the U.S. doesn’t preach by example, we’re going to be in trouble.”

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8 Responses to Biodiversity, Climate, Poverty: A Solution for One is No Solution

  1. Steve Silberman says:

    Really nice post, John. Thanks.

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  2. Andy Revkin says:

    A thoughtful reaction to the panels, but I think you have my reasoning on splitting energy from the broader climate agenda backward. I actually think efforts to develop a “comprehensive” climate bill and treaty have held back far cheaper actions that could help conserve earth’s biological riches. Why restrict a forest’s value to its carbon tonnage? Why wait for an elusive global deal among 192 disparate parties as a help to biodiversity when you can act promptly on things like tiger conservation now — for a bargain basement price?
    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/saving-wild-tigers-cheaply-with-apples-help/

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  5. A great article, John. We will post it and tweet it on the official UNDP facebook and twitter accounts. With all the best wishes, Stanislav

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    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, Stanislav.
      (It’s a small world, people. Stanislav and I study karate together, but he didn’t know I was a science writer and I didn’t know he worked for UNDP until we ran across one another at the event.)

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