Rebuilding Infrastructure

Ricardo Bayon wrote an article for the Ecosystem Marketplace this week making the completely sane point that we should rebuild ‘green’ infrastructure while we rebuild ‘grey’ infrastructure (the built environment).

Totally sensible, completely defensible.

I would also ask the next question. How do we develop a plan? Americans certainly have a huge list of built infrastructure needs – roads, bridges, utility systems – all reaching the end of their lifespan.

Less obvious, but just an important, is the need to rebuild/conserve/restore or natural infrastructure. One of the problems, however, with politically defending restoration of natural infrastructure, is the lack of a ‘database’ of what needs to be done. With bridges and roads, we have detailed data on existing conditions, rebuilding needs, and cost estimates. For natural infrastructure, there is no such list.

I was pleased to see in a report John Holdren (the White House Science Advisor) just sent to President Obama a call for such a system -they named it ECOINFORMA. Unfortunately, the description failed to take advantage of the jobs potential of such a project if it made use of regional/local information gatherers (biologist, engineers, etc.) It also needs to be less ‘coarse’ than they propose. But, all in all, a wonderful idea.

My compliments to Ricardo Bayon for starting the discussion. Perhaps we can bring others to the task.

Knowledge Creation in EcoServices Markets

I was in Annapolis last Friday in an interesting meeting with Eric Sprague. He was helping me catch up with the Bay Bank, Chesapeake Fund, etc.  During the conversation we began to discuss the various ecosystem service efforts/projects/markets that are evolving. Both Eric and I realize that there is a significant amount of activity going on in various regions with varying degress of interaction/communication. This naturally leads to differences in approach as well as certain evolving questions.

As we spoke, it occurred to me we were discussing a very common behavior in the process of creating knowledge. Thomas Kuhn has written extensively on the evolution of scientific thought, creation, and knowledge. What we are doing as ‘workers in a nascent vision’ is critically important to developing sound, sustainable knowledge about ecosystem services and ecosystem service economies. The regional ‘nodes’, the interaction, the arguments, and the chaos are all profoundly valuable. Particularly given the ecological complexity and diversity we all encounter in our various regions, those differences create perspectives that inspire creativity.

The next time a conference call makes you question your sanity, think of it as a step to new knowledge.

USDA Announces New Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2008–Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer today announced the intention to establish a new USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and the creation of a federal government-wide Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board to assist the Secretary of Agriculture in the development of new technical guidelines and science-based methods to assess environmental service benefits which will in turn promote markets for ecosystem services including carbon trading to mitigate climate change.

“Our Nation’s farms, ranches and forests provide goods and services that are vital to society – natural assets we call “ecosystem services,” said Schafer. “The Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets will enable America’s agriculture producers to better compete, trade their services around the world, and make significant contributions to help improve the environment.”

Agriculture producers provide many ecosystem services which have historically been viewed as free benefits to society – clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and scenic landscapes. Lacking a formal structure to market these services, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are not generally compensated for providing these critical public benefits. Market-based approaches to conservation are proven to be a cost-effective method to achieve environmental goals and sustain working and natural landscapes. Without financial incentives, these ecosystem services may be lost as privately-owned lands are sold or converted to development.

Secretary Shafer intends to name Sally Collins Director of the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets (OESM). Organizationally, OESM will be located within the Office of the Secretary providing direct access to the Secretary. Collins will assume this position after serving as Associate Chief of the USDA Forest Service for the past 8 years, where she pioneered concepts for ecosystem services and markets as part of that agency’s sustainable land management mission.

OESM will provide administrative and technical assistance to the Secretary in developing the uniform guidelines and tools needed to create and expand markets for these vital ecosystem services and will support the work of the Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board. As directed by the authorizing legislation the first ecosystem services to be examined will be carbon sequestration. The Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and the Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board will be established to implement actions authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board will be comprised of the Secretaries of Interior, Energy, Commerce, Transportation, and Defense; the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors; the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology ; the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and, the Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Secretary of Agriculture will Chair the Board. The Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Administrator of Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs will serve as vice-chairs.

Nominations will be sought in the near future for a federally chartered public Advisory Committee to advise the Board. The Advisory Committee will include farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners, Tribal representatives, as well as representatives from State natural resource and environmental agencies, agriculture departments, and conservation and environmental organizations.

2008 EPA Report on the Environment

EPA today released the “2008 Report on the Environment: Highlights of National Trends” (2008 ROE HD), which provides the American people with an important resource for better understanding trends in our nation’s health and environment. The report is intended for a general audience and summarizes highlights of the more comprehensive “EPA’s 2008 Report on the Environment,” which was released in May, and provided the scientific and technical information. Together the two reports present national environmental trends and inform EPA’s strategic planning process with the best available, scientifically sound information.

EPA also launched a new Web site that allows the user to search the full technical report for specific trends in air, water, and land.

The 2008 ROE HD, ROE and searchable eROE:

An Interesting Discussion

Over the past couple of days I’ve had several discussions with Rhode Island USDA NRCS about their development of a Rapid Watershed Assessment (RWA). The RWA gives NRCS, farmers, and conservation organizations the ability to prioritize conservation actions, determine the best economies for those conservation actions, and adaptively manage conservation and farm systems.

Part of the discussion involved a desire by NRCS to integrate the many different conservation and environmental plans/databases/information systems….and the difficulty with realizing that goal. I think part of the problem with any of these cooperative visions for information and data is the unknown cost of such complex tasks. Most conservation organizations and governmental departments have few funds for this kind of complex development…and it is expensive.

One of the opportunities that arise from ecosystem service markets, and the financial assets they create, is the potential for cash to finance these assessment, valuation, and monitoring systems. Within a bit of forethought, we can develop planning and assessment tools that allow for valuation, monitoring, and brokering of ecosystem services.

Agricultural Ecosystems: Facts and Trends

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and IUCN have recently released this valuable overview of global agricultural practices and the potential of sustainable practices.

From one section:

As wealth increases so does per capita calorie intake. The demand for a more diverse diet that includes animal protein such as meat and milk products requires more land to produce. What role do consumers play when choosing their diet? Do consumers need to be encouraged to have a vegetarian diet?

Meat consumption in China has more than doubled in the last 20 years and it is projected to double again by 2030.

Consumer concerns about food safety, the origin of produce and environmental impacts are also driving improvements in food quality throughout the global agri-food value chain.

Diet changes in richer countries towards increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables contribute to generating less calories per hectare. For instance China is gradually abandoning field crops – such as cereals – to produce vegetables and fruit; it has now become the world’s largest producer of vegetables and apples.

Producing meat, milk, sugar, oils and vegetables typically requires more water than producing cereals. Average water use also differs greatly between feed-based meat production and grazing systems.

Food production to satisfy a person’s daily dietary needs takes about 3,000 liters of water – a little more than one liter per calorie.

The Report:

Agricultural Ecosystems