05.24.08

Unintended Consequences

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Pollution at 2:27 am by justakim

Trees

I was browsing one of those various stories about an organization buying some patch of forest for carbon sequestration purposes. It occurred to me that this was a very strange thought.

Start off with a straight market in emissions, a textbook example. In the market, each company has a different cost for reducing their pollution. The ones that have a harder time reducing pollution will pay the ones better suited to it, to pollute less in their stead. Pollution is decreased efficiently where those most able, do so. Total pollution goes down. Cool.

Why stop with companies? There are other places that can emit or remove your pollutant. Some energy sources are cleaner than others; buying from the cleaner sources should count for something. Why not trees? How does this work? You assume that the trees will remove pollutants. You assume that whoever owns the trees is going to cut them down anyway. Pay the tree owners to leave the trees up so they can continue to remove the pollutant.

It sounds great! Offsetting pollution and protecting trees at the same time. But something about this extension seems flimsy. Instead of reducing pollution among firms that are polluting, this would instead pay to make another place keep doing what it was doing naturally. So, the firms keep polluting and the trees keep breathing, they are just theoretically not going to get cut down or burned. This doesn’t strike me as a very effective strategy to reduce emissions.

What’s to stop someone from taking a step further. Surely some trees are better at carbon sequestration than others. Why not cut down one forest of less ‘efficient’ trees, and replant them with a nicely ordered tree farm that has more efficient trees? Trees that can be harvested. Perhaps one day the tree farms will be replaced with algae vats.

The entire line of thinking, of finding the cheapest cost ways to alter the projected path of carbon emissions seems misleading and ineffective, providing excuses not to reduce pollution and crowding out pollution reduction technology.

Cars

The result of unintended consequences (or ulterior motives) can be seen in the car market. Here’s a story where the Postal Service buys new alternative fuel vehicles.

The U.S. Postal Service purchased more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles. Gasoline consumption jumped by more than 1.5 million gallons as a result.

They replaced their Jeeps with Ford Explorers and found it hard to find the alternate fuel. Since the Explorer-based cars are less fuel efficient, consumption went up and efficiency went down. Brilliant.

A limited number of stations selling ethanol and the scarcity of vehicles burning it diminish the fuel’s appeal, according to a June 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. Three of the 26 ethanol- capable vehicles offered in 2007 were compact or mid-size cars, and the rest were large autos, pickups, SUVs or vans.

Fish

On an odder note, it seems that cleaning up pollution can sometimes have a negative impact on a species. The murk of pollution protected the stickleback from predation. An aggressive cleanup campaign in the 1960’s transformed Lake Washington from an open sewer into a clear lake.

But the lake’s recovery put at least one species in a pickle: the three-spine stickleback.

The small fish, formerly hidden in the murky depths, found itself swimming in plain view of predators like cutthroat trout.

Researchers now think the threat of predators spurred the fish into rapid evolution toward an older version of itself, evolutionarily speaking.

In the absence of pollution, the fish was suddenly made visible to its predators. The less protected were snapped up, and the ratio of fish with armor increased.

Interestingly, there are other clear lakes where the stickleback are not heavily armored, suggesting that something different is happening here. My thinking is this: In the presence of pollution, the fish favored other traits. With the sudden removal of pollution, there was no slow return to normal. All the fish who were caught unprepared were eaten and the ones with armor survived. It may not have been the best advantage, but it worked in a pinch.

Whatever the reason for the difference, it is interesting to see such an unusual and rapid effect due to cleanup. Things aren’t going to be quite like they used to be.

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