One Idea from Rio+20: Investing in Green Infrastructure

Twenty years ago, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to grapple with climate change, biological diversity, and other environmental challenges. Today they are back again, but with much less fanfare. If my Twitter feed is any indication, Rio+20 is getting much less attention that the original Earth Summit.

One item that deserves attention is greater emphasis on getting business involved in protecting the environment. For example, two dozen leading businesses–from Alcoa to Xerox–teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a vision for The New Business Imperative: Valuing Natural Capital (interactive, pdf).

The report lays out the business case that natural resources have real economic value, even if they aren’t traded in markets, and that protecting them can sometimes reduce costs, maintain supplies, soften the blow of future regulation, and build goodwill with customers, communities, and workers. All kind of obvious, at one level, but nonetheless useful to see in print with examples and commitments.

One item that caught my eye is the potential for “green” infrastructure to replace “gray”:

Strong, reliable manmade (“gray”) infrastructure undergirds a healthy marketplace, and most companies depend heavily on it to operate effectively and efficiently. Yet increasingly, companies are seeing the enormous potential for “natural infrastructure” in the form of wetlands and forests, watersheds and coastal habitats to perform many of the same tasks as gray infrastructure — sometimes better and more cheaply.

For instance, investing in protection of coral reefs and mangroves can provide a stronger barrier to protect coastal operations against flooding and storm surge during extreme weather, while inland flooding can be reduced by strategic investments in catchment forests, vegetation and marshes. Forests are also crucial for maintaining usable freshwater sources, as well as for naturally regulating water flow.

Putting funds into maintaining a wetland near a processing or manufacturing plant can be a more cost- effective way of meeting regulatory requirements than building a wastewater treatment facility, as evidenced by the Dow Chemical Seadrift, Texas facility, where a 110-acre constructed wetland provides tertiary wastewater treatment of five million gallons a day. While the cost of a traditional “gray”treatment installation averages >$40 million, Dow’s up-front costs were just $1.4 million.

For companies reliant on agricultural systems, improved land management of forests and ecosystems along field edges and streams, along with the introduction of more diversified and resilient sustainable agriculture systems, can minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial fertilizers, pesticides and blue irrigation water.

To encourage such investments, where they make sense, lawmakers and regulators need to focus on performance–is the wastewater getting clean?–rather than the use of specific technologies or construction.

The World’s Most Traveled Bird?

B95, aka Moonbird, has again touched down in New Jersey. After refueling, he will head north to the Canadian arctic for at least his 20th breeding season. Remarkable for a four-ounce red knot whose normal lifespan is just four or five years and whose annual migration begins and ends way down in Tierra del Fuego.

B95 has logged at least 320,000 miles over the years, probably more. That’s enough to go to the moon and halfway back, hence his nickname.

He’s even got a biography coming out this summer.

The Greatest Insect Story Ever

A couple of regular readers (ht David and Wendy) recently noted that it’s been a while since I’ve done a “critter post”. (The one on the ivory-billed woodpecker is more of a statistics one.)

Well here’s a doozy for you. Over at NPR, Robert Krulwich recounts the greatest insect story ever.

It has everything: Giant stick insects, 12 cm long, affectionately known as tree lobsters. Driven to extinction when humans bring rats to their home in the South Pacific. But then a handful are rediscovered on a ridiculously precarious island nearby. Living under a single bush.

Well-meaning scientists collect four of the remaining 24 critters for captive breeding. Two perish. Which brings everything down to Adam and Eve at the Melbourne Zoo.

But Eve gets desperately sick. Krulwick then quotes Jane Goodall (yes, that Jane Goodall) on what happened next:

“Eve became very, very sick. Patrick [a scientist] … worked every night for a month desperately trying to cure her. … Eventually, based on gut instinct, Patrick concocted a mixture that included calcium and nectar and fed it to his patient, drop by drop, as she lay curled up in his hand.”

Thanks to that TLC, Eve recovers, and the world’s zoos start filling with new giant sticks. And what happens to Adam and Eve? Well, again according to Goodall: “they sleep at night, …, the male with three of his legs protectively over the female beside him.”

So there you have it. Giant, pair-bonding, spooning insects back from extinction. Well worth a read.

When Should You Stop Looking for a Possibly-Extinct Species?

When you’ve found two of everything else.

That’s the conclusion of a fascinating, if disappointing, paper about the ivory-billed woodpecker in the latest issue of Conservation Biology. Most experts believe the “Lord God” bird was driven to extinction in the middle of the twentieth century. Occasional reports of sightings, however, have kept some hope alive. A report from Arkansas in 2004, for example, inspired detailed censuses of several areas with promising habitat. Sadly, no unambiguous evidence of IBWPs appeared.

Which raises an important question: when should you stop looking? Nicholas, J. Gotelli, Anne Chao, Robert K. Colwell, Wen-Han Hwang, and Gary R. Graves used statistics and cost-benefit analysis to derive a simple stopping rule:

We evaluated whether the census efforts at these localities were sufficient to discover an Ivory-billed Woodpecker if it had been present and derived a practical stopping rule for deciding when to abandon the search in a particular site. An efficient stopping rule that incorporates rewards of discovery and costs of additional sampling should be triggered at the smallest sample size q satisfying f1/q < c/R, where f1 is the number of singletons (species observed exactly once during a census), c is the cost of making a single observation, and R is the reward for detecting each previously undetected species (Rasmussen & Starr 1979). Because R for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extremely large relative to c, c/R is close to zero. Thus, a simple, empirical stopping rule is to stop searching when each observed species is represented by at least 2 individuals in the sample (f1= 0). The same stopping rule can be derived independently from theorems originally developed by Turing and Good for cryptographic analyses (Good 1953, 2000). Both derivations imply that when f1= 0, the probability of detecting a new species approaches zero. We applied this stopping rule to the census data for the set of species that regularly winter in bottomland forest, such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which was sedentary and occupied year-round territories.

According to that stopping rule, the search should be called off at one location (Congaree River, South Carolina) and is close to hopeless in the other three (Choctawhatchee River, Florida; Pearl River, Louisiana and Mississippi; and Pascagoula River, Mississippi).

Based on these and other data, the authors conclude that the probability that ivory-billed woodpeckers still inhabit the southeastern United States are less than 1 in 10,000.

The Best Photograph of the Year

Last week I made my nomination for the most important economic chart of the year. Now here’s my nomination for best photo:

Yes, that’s a photograph.

National Geographic’s Frans Lanting captured these camel thorn trees silhouetted against dunes welcoming the rising sun in Namib-Naukluft Park.

I love the photo for its sheer beauty and the optical illusion. My mind perceives it both as a two-dimensional painted canvas and as a three-dimensional photograph. (If you are having trouble seeing it as a photograph, pay attention to the “spots” in the distance.)

P.S. For more photos by Frans Lanting, go here.

P.P.S. You can see my much-less-impressive photos of the Namib-Naukluft dunes here.

Visiting Brazil? Skip the Amazon and Head to the Pantanal

Posting has been light in recent weeks thanks to a two-week sojourn in Brazil and a week recovering therefrom.

I mostly turned off my inner economist to get in touch with my inner Darwin. So I have only a handful of economic observations:

  • After arriving in Rio, the car that picked us up was made in China, fueled by ethanol, and just as nice as a Subaru.
  • The weakness of the dollar vs. the real was noticeable.
  • Economic growth often poses environmental challenges. That’s certainly true in Brazil. But we also encountered repeated stories of how economic growth and conservation can be complements. Jaguars, for example, can be worth more alive than dead thanks to ecotourism. And the ease of getting jobs in the formal sector has reduced hunting pressure in some areas, sparking a virtuous cycle: more deer and more jaguars.

Like many first-timers, we visited Rio, Sao Paulo (briefly), and Iguacu Falls. But the highlight was three full days in the Pantanal.

To which you might ask, “the Panta-what?”

The Pantanal. It’s one of the world’s largest wetlands, home to jaguars, giant anteaters, innumerable birds, and the world’s densest concentration of crocodilians (the Yacare Caimans pictured above).

If you are into wildlife, the Pantanal is way more fun than the Amazon. Why? Because it’s easy to see critters when savannah mixes with small forests. In the Amazon, in contrast, many of the best birds and mammals are up in the tree canopy, 100+ feet above your head. In three days in the southern Pantanal, we saw 22 species of mammals and close to 150 species of birds (including Toco Toucans), many more than on a comparable trip to the Amazon.

For those into such things, my wife and I have a travel blog here and posted photos here. No jaguar photos, though. We heard them call at night and saw their tracks. But we didn’t see any (we did see an Ocelot). Clearly we will have to go back.

Avoiding Road Kill in Ghana

In Washington’s economic circles, the only animals we usually have to worry about are hawks and doves. (And the occasional raccoon or vole.)

If you’re doing development research in Ghana, however, things are more complicated.  Zipping from village to village on her motorcycle, my friend Liz has become intimately familiar with the behavior — often stochastic — of different animals when confronted with a moto rider:

Goats are the ideal animal to encounter on the road in Northern Ghana. Street smart and properly aware of their place in the road hierarchy, they will run away and off the road at the approach of a vehicle. …

While goats are the ideal animal to encounter on the road, sheep are bane of Ghanaian drivers. Dismally stupid, they will invariably run directly into traffic. … The difference in behavior between sheep and goats makes distinguishing the two a key survival skill in Tamale. Remember: tail up, goat; tail down, sheep.
If only it were that easy to distinguish the real budget hawks and doves.
 
 

Incentives and Property Rights, Dead Raccoon Edition

It seems like only yesterday that I met Rocky. Probably because it was yesterday.

Our smallest cat Caramel was staring intently upward. Following his gaze, I spied Rocky tucked between two branches high in the silver maple near our deck.

Rocky didn’t look well. Raccoons aren’t usually out and about at 3:00 on a sunny afternoon. Lounging in the sun isn’t their thing.

Esther and I thought about calling the animal control authorities–rabies is not unheard of around here–but decided to wait until morning to see if Rocky looked better. No point harassing (or worse) the poor guy if he’s just an eccentric raccoon who wanted some sun.

A higher authority came calling overnight, though, and Esther found Rocky motionless under our deck.

Wild animals are one of my domestic responsibilities, so it fell to me to go poke Rocky with a stick to check his status. Result: deceased.

So what do you do with a dead raccoon?

This is precisely the sort of question at which the web excels. Sure enough, “dead raccoon” generates more than 30,000 hits on Google. But they boil down to only three flavors of advice: (1) Do it yourself, (2) Make it someone else’s problem, or (3) Turn it into a media sensation by claiming you’ve discovered a monster.

#3 wasn’t really an option – Rocky was clearly a raccoon — so I tried the nice version of #2, calling Montgomery County Animal Control to see if they handle deceased raccoons. No dice. If the deceased is on your property, it’s your responsibility – bag him and put in the trash was the advice. If he were on a county road, however, that would be a different matter. Then the county would pick him up.

Fair enough. Property rights ought to convey responsibilities as well as ownership. I’m good with that. But I couldn’t miss the implied incentive. If I were so inclined, I could simply pick Rocky up, suitably attired in latex gloves etc. (me, not him), and deposit him by the curb. I suspect such littering is a popular strategy. People do respond to incentives after all. See, e.g., Stacey Robinsmith’s dead raccoon trilogy.

Being a respecter of property rights and embracer of responsibility, however, I went with option #1. Here are some tips if you ever find yourself in a similar circumstance:

  • Fortune favors the swift. Rigor mortis is your friend. Just trust me on this.
  • Raccoons have claws; use extra bags. Several cheery folks recommended putting Rocky in a trash bag. Well, his claws sliced right through that when I placed him inside. I ended up going with a full-on Babushka doll solution – five nested bags. That might have been a teensy bit excessive. But I suspect the garbage collectors will appreciate it.
  • Burial would, of course, be a more natural solution. But given the number of dogs, cats, and other critters that roam the neighborhood and dig better than I do, that seemed like a bad idea with Rocky’s suspicious cause of death.
RIP Rocky.

Panda Prices Plummet

In another sign of deflationary pressures, the Washington Post’s Michael Ruane reports that panda prices have plummeted:

The National Zoo has reached an agreement with China to extend for five years the stay of Washington’s beloved black and white bears at a dramatically reduced cost. …

The old $1 million-a year, 10-year lease expired Dec. 6.

Update: Sarah Brumfield (AP via Washington Times) reports the new price is $500,000 per year, half the previous level.