Natural resources: confronting the full cost

Biodiversity and climate change are often kept in their separate boxes. But there’s a common thread expressed in the US military’s attention to renewable energy and a major upcoming biodiversity conference: both, in their own ways, serve as powerful reminders that the true cost of resources we consume is barely reflected in the headline price.

A front-page story in the New York Times tells of the US military’s attempts to slash its fossil fuel usage, as a Marine company in Afghanistan prepares to take renewable energy into a battle zone – solar power replacing diesel and kerosene. The aim is that turning to renewable energy will reduce demand for fossil fuels that have to be trucked in, and thereby reduce the exposure of soldiers to attacks on the fuel convoys.

“Fossil fuel accounts for 30 to 80 percent of the load in convoys into Afghanistan, bringing costs as well as risk. While the military buys gas for just over $1 a gallon, getting that gallon to some forward operating bases costs $400

…Concerns about the military’s dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a major general and the top American commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life…

…The Marines’ new goal is to make the more peripheral sites sustain themselves with the kind of renewable technology carried by Company I, since solar electricity can be generated right on the battlefield.”

The “fully burdened cost of fuel” is the catchphrase – that the gallon price at the pump is just the beginning and is dwarved by the cost of transport and protection. The tactical objective is striking, too – to make outposts and smaller bases decentralized in energy terms, not having to rely on long lines of supply that create vulnerabilities and make it more difficult to fulfil the mission at hand.

But while militaries are cottoning on to the real cost of their fossil fuel habit, what about the rest of society? In the run up to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference later this month, attention is being focused on highlighting the value of ‘ecosystem services’ upon which modern life relies on – and doesn’t pay for. A detailed piece in Environment magazine spells this out:

“The ability of nature to help filter, regulate the release of, and capture and store water allows us to wear blue jeans, drink coffee, and eat a hamburger, but we rarely think about the true origin of the products we use every day…

…Not understanding nature’s role in the products we use means we won’t conserve nature sufficiently; this in turn will compromise our ability to access products we need, or we will have to find sometimes costly alternatives for what nature could otherwise provide to us. Incorporating the full suite of costs and benefits into decision-making means evaluating all costs and benefits associated with nature, too.”

Felled rainforests and the produced timber may as count as economically productive activity – what’s been sorely missing so far is a sense of the real cost of deforestation, and the relative balance between the two. For a start, a report due out shortly by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project looks to quantify just how much nature is worth to the global economy: something in the range of $5 trillion. How’s that for a global economic shock?

The natural environment and ecosystems can be pretty resilient things, able to absorb a good deal of damage – but resilience doesn’t last infinitely. Testing the limits of our ecosystems could turn out to be a pretty expensive exercise when we squander this endowment and have to pay the full price of replacing these ecosystem services.

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