Thursday, 5 July 2012

Environmental Economics: Conservation (Part 5)

When I was a kid, I was forced by my parents to work in the garden. As a result of this, I learned the basics of farming while at the same time grew an appreciation for nature. The forest that backs on to my property today will often be occupied by me zipping through on my ATV, polluting the peace with the noise of an internal combustion engine.  I am not much of a hunter as I am not very patient, but I have taken some courses and received a few licenses. I will say this; most hunters have a far, far better understanding of conversation than many self-titled environmentalists. Why? Their sport and livelihood depends on species conservation.  

Conservation is often in the news for the wrong reasons. For example, the seal hunt was popularized simply because the animals were cute to stick on TV and clubbing them to death simply seemed wrong. Although many types of conservation exist, the definition for discussion will be of focusing on maintenance of the natural world’s ecosystem through seeing the continual existence of key actors. Basically, conservation is a form of long term planning. Exemplifying this is the Fishing Industry. Conserving fish through capping the amount of fish that can be caught in a certain area ensures that fish can reproduce and fishermen will have fish to catch for the following year.  One of the better definitions of conservation was stated by Carl F. Jordan who stated “Biological conservation as being a philosophy of managing the environment in a manner that does not despoil, exhaust or extinguish”.

The world has been slowly looking at conserving and enacting long term plans on it. For example, 10% of the world is somehow legally protected like National Parks such as Yosmite. As modernization increases, the need to protect and ensure the survival of the world’s resources also increases. Conservation biologists study migration patterns, specie demographics, population sizes, mating rituals and habitat needs to assess conservation needs.  A report entitled “Species coextinctions and the biodiversity crisis” (2004) boldly forecasted 50% of the world’s species will be gone in the next 50 years. Although unlikely, it is important to take this prediction seriously and commit resources to conservation. Not for Profit (NPO) agencies as well as government funded researchers are working hard to ensure this prediction does not materialize.

Conservation is not  a new thought, in fact it is an ancient one. Plato, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam have all advocated for it. In fact, God ordered Moses to not farm land every seventh year. It was actually the Europeans who considered conservation a pagan activity as they embraced modern development. The US actually led the way with John Muir founding the Sierra Club in 1892, or Theodore Roosevelt establishing protected national forests. The Endangered Species Act led the way for protection plans for species across the world. In 1992 the Convention on Biological Diversity in Rio planned the Cartagena Protocol (enforceable in 2004) to protect species from modified organisms resulting from genetic engineering.   The Convention ensured that countries prepare National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans.  The Society for the Environment and the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management are two organizations professionalizing conservation.

It is estimated somewhere between 3.6m and 111.7m species exist, while only 1% of species have been studied beyond simple naming. Basically, these statistics conclude that there is a lot more work to be done. Organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are composed of a number of scientists around the world to monitor the changing environment and report these changes by quantifying it.  Interestingly, a system entitled natural capital uses accounting to set a value to an ecosystem before development. Economists and Conservations collaborate to set a certain value to an area before the concrete begins to pour. It is assessed whether a certain land has more value to the global economy as a natural ecosystem providing a steady stream of resources, or as a skyscraper.

Valuing conservation is difficult, but definitely valuable. For example honeybees provide around 10 – 18 billion dollars’ worth of services annually while the continued conservation of forests ensure that the forestry industry will always exist. Conservation is directly tied to the economy.

However, all over the world conservation methods are being attacked. The ivory stock provided by elephants is dwindling by illegal poaching. Fires such as those in Colorado wipe out entire ecosystems and cause environmental carnage. The Prime Minister of Cambodia has just allowed four companies to develop 86 400 acres of land in national protected parks. Due to environmentalists pushing for greener energy, Brazil is planning to develop 30 dams in the Amazon, which causes quite a bit more methane to be released than a traditional gas powered plant as I discussed  here . Shockingly, forest activist Jose Claudio was killed for criticizing illegal logging in Para, a state in Brazil that is suffering from mass deforestation. Greenpeace reported that deforestation in India is being driven by the demand for Palm Oil.  Adding to this is the increasingly risk of mass fires in the Amazon due to the expansion of roads, and people migrating to urban areas – while a new study published by Science claims that 10% of global carbon emissions are a result of deforestation.

However, plans are being made to promote conservation. The US Forest Service, Rwanda, Brazil and Central American groups have pledges to restore 45 million acres of native forests. Google Earth is planning on adding a live update deforestation alert system to reveal to the world how much forest is actually being destroyed. The United Kingdom has created a law ensuring all London Stock Exchange companies disclose greenhouse gas emissions by 2013, while the Western Ghats of India have been recently declared a UNESCO world heritage site as it is considered one of the world’s richest biodiversity ecosystems.

With more support globally, conservation methods such as this are rising. The antics of organizations such as PETA (mainly the American branch) or Greenpeace that make the news often takes away from the real issues at hand. Real analytical thinking regarding the data available shows that conservation is an economical idea, as resources need to be maintained for harvesting and collection if the world is to continue advancing the living standards of the common person. Often, environmental policies that restrict harvesting do not understand that conservation is not preservation. For example, if you do not cut down trees they will die after a certain period (rot from the inside) and be of no economical use.

The environment is not a museum full of dusty artifacts. It is a living ecosystem full of complex parts that must be monitored to ensure longevity. Environmental policy should reflect this reality, and allow resources to be harvested responsibly.