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Keystone Pipeline and the Carbon Tax: A shotgun marriage that can work

David Zilberman photoBy Professor David Zilberman, Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC, Berkeley
This article was originally published on The Berkeley Blog.
Read the original article.


We recently learned that Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) suggested amending a bill that approves the building of the Keystone pipeline and abolishes the corn ethanol mandate. This is a very unwise proposal. If Congress needs a face-saving way to approve the Keystone pipeline, it should be done in a way that enhances the national interests rather than erode them.

I suggest an alternative amendment of a 50 cent gasoline tax (or better, an equivalent carbon tax) with the proceeds going towards infrastructure, reducing the burden of student loans, and/or reducing the burden of other taxes. In other words, keep the mandate and tax greenhouse gases.

There are interesting linkages between the Keystone pipeline, biofuel, and a carbon tax in my proposal. The Keystone pipeline that carries Canadian crude oils to the Gulf of Mexico is obviously unappealing. It provides a mechanism to move carbon-intensive petroleum and increases the profitability of producing oil from tar sands, and its existence is likely to enhance greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it is quite clear that the fuel will be utilized with or without it, and it will be shipped by means that are even ‘dirtier’ and more dangerous if it is not built. We recently witnessed a tragedy where 47 people were killed as a train full of fuel derailed in Quebec. The Keystone pipeline may decrease the likelihood of such events. Thus, from an environmental and public health perspective, the net benefit of the pipeline is questionable, even though I am quite sympathetic to those opposing it.

However it seems that if the pipeline is built to move, say, American oil produced from South Dakota to the Gulf, it probably would have been approved already. As I understand it, the legal system did not find the ‘smoking gun’ that justifies rejecting the pipeline, so the debate is political.

It seems that the U.S. environmental community and our administration are trying to impose standards on other countries that we cannot keep ourselves. We have to realize that we didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol and the world remembers.

However British Columbia, a Canadian province, is the first region in North America that established a carbon tax, and we can learn from their example. Not supporting the pipeline might offend our Canadian neighbors for years to come. This stark political reality is likely to lead to an approval. The President has threatened to veto a proposed bill to allow the pipeline and he needs a face-saving way to justify not exercising the veto that will also satisfy the environmental community. But an amendment eliminating biofuel standards is the wrong choice. A carbon tax would be a real contribution to the health of the planet.

The investment in infrastructure to produce oil from tar sands, including the Keystone pipeline, was introduced because oil producers expected high oil prices. Such investments would be curtailed if expected future prices will be reduced–here is where the carbon tax becomes important. It will produce a wedge between the price consumers pay at the pump and price that producers receive, discouraging the expansion of GHG-intensive fossil fuels, and encouraging conservation and low-carbon alternative energy.

Corn biofuel has proven itself to be a viable alternative fuel. I was among the first who was alarmed by the food price effect of biofuel, and indeed food prices rose drastically around 2008. But, to their credit, corn producers adopted technologies that increased supply, and now with the mandate, the prices of corn have stabilized. If tomorrow the corn biofuel mandate is eliminated, the price of corn will plummet and politics will require introducing a heavy subsidy to the growers, and there will be new pressure to increase the price of oil.

Corn biofuel is not ideal from a GHG perspective (it reduced GHG emissions by 20 or 30% relative to gasoline), so it does not deserve a big subsidy, but still it makes a contribution. More importantly, the mandate encourages investment in renewable fuels because it is assured a market for the product, requiring oil refineries to use the fuel and potentially reducing their profits. Now there is evidence that the corn biofuel program has been effective and no longer needs an explicit subsidy, but the mandate provides protection against the producers of fossil fuels that represent their competition. While there is evidence that subsidies for some biofuels have been excessive, performance of corn ethanol assured investors that biofuels and renewables can be viable, and after a few years of support, they can stand on their own. I don’t expect the mandate to last forever, but it should be evaluated on its own merit within a larger context, rather than hastily written into a Keystone bill.

Because of biofuel and fracking, the monopoly power of OPEC has been reduced; this contributes to their reluctance to reduce oil production and to increase prices. When prices are low, there is no incentive to invest in production, but consumers may increase their demand, which will lead to an increase in future prices, spurring new investments in fossil fuels. A carbon tax will increase the price consumers pay, slowing their demand. Since consumers have become used to paying much higher prices for gasoline, their objection to a carbon price now will be much lower than if it was introduced during a period of high prices. Since cleaner fuel would be subject to a lesser tax (or be exempt altogether), it will give them an advantage in the market and encourage the energy sector to ‘think outside the barrel’.

If the country has to swallow the Keystone ‘pill’, we should use it as an opportunity. Some GOP lawmakers are rumored to support a carbon tax and tying it to the Keystone would provide additional political cover. So a bill approving the Keystone with a carbon tax amendment will maintain our friendly relations with Canada and benefit the environment.

The Loudest Call for Climate Action in History: Will it be Heard?

by Alexander Iscenco, Moldova, ELP 2013
Written on September 23, 2014.

September 21st, 2014 became one of the historical moments in the global action to raise awareness about climate change issues and mitigate them. On this very day the largest march calling for climate change action in human history took place. More than 675 thousand people (around 0.01% of global population) marched on the streets of New York, Barcelona, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Istanbul, Jakarta, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, Sydney… There were over 2800 climate-change-related events in 166 countries that day. This so-called People’s Climate March became the largest and loudest call for action to mitigate climate change and its negative consequences so far.

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All that was organized to push the global leaders, who are gathering on September 23rd, 2014, at the UN Headquarters in New York City for the UN Climate Summit 2014 to discuss the state of climate change nowadays, what is currently being done, and what still needs to be done in order to reduce (as avoidance is already not feasible) the economically, socially and environmentally damaging consequences of global climate change caused by anthropogenic activities. The one-day programme of the Summit includes announcements of national action and ambitions from the participating countries, forum for private sector, and then announcements of multi-stakeholder initiatives agreed upon. All in all, it is expected to be a surprisingly short event with quick discussions on such a complex and crucial issue as global climate change.

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As I am currently doing research at IÖW in Berlin, Germany, I managed to participate in the Climate March and Festival here. Approximately 10,000 Berlin residents marched in a Silent Climate Parade from the Neptune Fountain (Neptunbrunnen) towards the Brandenburg Gate, where the Parade transformed into a Festival with music, dances and climate-change-related exhibits. Different environmental organizations, both local and international, such as Avaaz and Greenpeace, put up their stands to inform people about the issue of climate change, what it leads to, and how we can mitigate it through common action.

Indeed, such an event attracted much attention of pedestrians, visitors, local residents, and mass media. Still, did it succeed in communicating the whole complexity of the issue and the urgent need for action? This is the question I keep asking myself since my participation in the Berlin Climate March.

Firstly, the general message was mostly about the problems related to climate change. Much less focus was on possible solutions for climate change mitigation. What can a person do to reduce his/her carbon footprint and at the same time maintain the same level of happiness and wellbeing (and perhaps increase it)? It would have been great to have more showcasing of solutions to climate change offered for the people by the people.

Secondly, although there were some solutions expressed, they were targeting dominantly the transport and energy sector. Indeed, these are the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting sectors (approximately 20% and 30% of the global emissions respectively), but they are not the only ones. Industrial processes (~15%), unsustainable agricultural practices (~10%), and commercial and residential activities (~10%) also contribute to the release of carbon dioxide, methane and other GHGs into the atmosphere. So, we also need to account for them in shaping up the global climate action. For instance, the Climate Festival in Berlin created quite a volume of paper and other waste that could have been avoided. Yes, much of it will probably be recycled. But that also means that energy will be used for the recycling process. And what have I pointed out about the energy sector above?

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Thirdly, the way we communicate messages about climate change and environment protection should be improved. For instance, the Berlin Climate Festival ended up as an ordinary music festival with people around selling merchandise, dancing and getting drunk. Only those participants, who already knew about the importance of climate change, kept the interest and passion for climate action till the end.

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Overall, the People’s Climate March became a significant historical moment within the global people’s movement to address and mitigate the climate change issue. People succeeded in coming together and raising their voice full of desire to reduce the negative effects of the issue now and in the future. Still, as the Berlin Climate Festival showed, the ways of communicating the climate-change-related messages need to be improved. Climate change is a multi-faceted issue that should be considered in all its complexity and from all its sides. Our call for climate action should reflect that. And I hope it will be so in the near future.

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For now, we will see what outputs the UN Climate Summit 2014 produces and whether the People’s Climate March have had any effect on them. Then we should prepare for the next important event – the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP-20, that is going to happen in Lima, Peru, in the period of December 1st – 12th, 2014. It is there the global climate agreement is expected to finally be decided upon. And it is there that our loudest call for change in history is expected to be heard.

The US-Africa Leaders Summit: Perspectives from the Congo Basin

Denis Sonwa photoBy Denis Sonwa, Cameroon, ELP 2010
This article was originally published on CIFOR Forests News Blog.
Read the original article here.


A child carries firewood near the village of Masako, Democratic Republic of Congo. A recent US-Africa summit sought to include youth perspectives in discussions about development and conservation on the continent. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR photo

A child carries firewood near the village of Masako, Democratic Republic of Congo. A recent US-Africa summit sought to include youth perspectives in discussions about development and conservation on the continent. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR photo

The recent US-Africa Leaders Summit brought attention to several initiatives that seek to improve resilience and biodiversity in Central Africa—and illuminated opportunities and challenges for future development in this region.

The theme of the summit in Washington was “Investing in the Next Generation”—and two summit sessions were of particular relevance to the next generation of communities and forests of the Congo Basin.

One session sought to address the problems of wildlife trafficking in Africa, a rampant problem that threatens the biodiversity of continent—and especially the Congo Basin, an area of critical biodiversity.

This session was an occasion for the US to underscore its efforts in trying to combat illegal trafficking, including its Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) in the Horn of Africa. The US is seeking to eventually extend the WEN to Central Africa. An important aspect of this initiative—and a fitting approach to the “next generation” theme of the summit—is the recruitment of youths as park rangers and in natural resources management.

Challenges remain to biodiversity conservation in this region, however. In Central Africa, the wildlife sector has not yet generated enough funding to ensure its effective management, security and sustainability. Moreover, criminalizing smallholders who are hunting for wildlife for sustenance—as is currently the case throughout much of Central Africa—will not help to solve the crisis of unsustainable hunting of bushmeat. Without a permanent source of income to sustain biodiversity conservation in and around protected areas, it remains difficult to effectively combat wildlife trafficking in Central Africa and to halt declining wildlife populations.

The second session of note dealt with resilience and food security in a changing climate. US efforts in this realm are rooted in the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” which aims to lift 50 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by 2022—similar to efforts by the African Union, with its own milestone of 2025.

Climate-smart agriculture was pitched as a way forward for the continent. The challenge for the Congo Basin and Central Africa in general is to find a way to mainstream agriculture in natural resource management at the national and regional scales. In the landscape planning process, agriculture needs to be seen as a business that can be sustainable. Instead of vilifying agriculture (particularly smallholder agriculture) as a driver of deforestation, stakeholders in this sector need to be involved in the planning and execution of biodiversity conservation and management initiatives.

The agricultural sector in the Congo Basin can also help to achieve both mitigation and adaptation to climate change—but efforts to do this in other parts of the continent often miss the region. On climate change resilience, the US-backed Global Resilience Partnership focuses primarily on the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, for example. Despite the recent reaffirmation of African Union that “adaptation is a priority in all actions on climate change in Africa,” climate-change responses are different in the heart of the continent. In Central Africa, besides Lake Chad (where droughts illustrate how climate change is silently impacting ecosystems), the Congo Basin is not yet a subject of high interest for continental resilience initiatives.

This is partly due to lack of information on the vulnerability of communities and forests in this region: Meteorological and hydrological stations inherited from the colonial period are now obsolete, for example, and less research is taking place in Central Africa than in other parts of Africa. Gradual information/outputs from the Cofcca and Cobam projects are helping to correct this, though, filling information gaps and revealing that this part of the continent also deserves attention for adaptation to climate change.

The summit, true to its name, put the future generation at the center of the discussion. Institutions such as the University of California-Berkeley received youths participating in the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in the lead-up to the summit. But as CIFOR researchers and colleagues of the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) found recently, at the local level, youths are not included in the decision-making process in rural areas. Actions to rectify this are under way, though: Recognizing that youths are the next frontier of forest management, an entire session at the Global Landscapes Forum, a side event to the UNFCCC COP in Warsaw last year, was dedicated to youths. On achieving food security and climate change resilience in Central Africa, the potential of youths must not be left untapped.

At its heart, though, the summit was an occasion to reflect on US-Africa relations and how they relate to environmental issues in the Congo Basin. The CARPE initiative as well as US facilitation of the CBFP constituted milestones in the cooperation between the US and Central African states in the environmental sector.

Alongside interest in wildlife trafficking, adaptation to climate change and food security (particularly climate-smart agriculture) constitutes untapped opportunities to alleviate the vulnerabilities of forests and communities in the heart of Africa.

Land-sparing or Land-sharing? The future of farming

by Claudia Havranek, United Kingdom, ELP 2014
Written on August 7, 2014.

We are currently faced with a global food crisis: nearly one in eight people are starving, and approximately two billion people are lacking micronutrients. The severity of this crisis is set to increase, as food demand is predicted to double by 2050 from a predicted population rise to 9 billion, as well as changes in demand.

Alongside the food crisis, we are also faced with the threat of an anthropogenically induced 6th mass extinction. Throughout the world, species ranges are contracting, leading to local extinctions, associated with a loss of ecosystem function and community resilience. Economically and ecologically, loss of biodiversity has implications for both the sustainability and yield of food production.

Threats to biodiversity, especially of habitat loss and pollution, are linked to farming and so solutions for conservation must not ignore the need for food production. With 38.2% of land committed to agriculture, there are two proposed strategies for the management of agricultural land: land-sparing and land-sharing. Land-sparing involves managing land for farming and nature separately, and is often associated with intensive farming methods. Land-sharing involves the use of wildlife-friendly farming to share farmland with nature.

Identifying the conditions under which land-sharing and land-sparing maximizes the yield-conservation trade-off, as well as understanding the logistical consequences of the implementation of each strategy may be crucial to solutions to both malnourishment and extinction rates. However, as is often the case, there is no unanimous solution.

Insufficient research on yield-conservation tradeoffs limits the extent to which policies may sensibly be based on this data. From the information we do have however, the more beneficial conservation and yield trade-off from land-sparing is countered with lower crop resilience. Land-sharing appears to offer a more long-term solution to improving food production and maintaining biodiversity. Despite lower yield from land-sharing, increased sustainability and resilience may make biodiversity and yield more secure in the long term.

However, drawing firm conclusions, and assuming an antagonism between land-sparing and land-sharing fails to address the real-world complexity. A continuum combining biodiversity conservation and agriculture with land-sparing at one extreme and land-sharing at the other may reflect the changes in biodiversity across different agricultural intensities better, as well as providing the opportunity to tailor management techniques specifically to both biotic and abiotic features of a landscape.

Priorities currently lie in getting food to the malnourished, through improving distribution chains, or improving yield for those least well off, rather than simply increasing global production. Potential for improvements in global food security is therefore at the level of smallholder farming, rather than large-scale intensive farming. At this level, creating sustainable ecosystem-based agriculture for subsistence farmers through land-sharing is likely to have the greatest impact, supported by successful examples in Ethiopia, Brazil and the Philippines where management methods were initially intended for conservation. The benefits of land-sharing for global food security on a logistical level may therefore result in the implementation of this strategy, supported by the limited biological data available.

Despite the complexity of this issue, the outlook is not altogether gloomy: as has been here discussed, the apparent conflict between conservation and yield may not be as contradictory as they initially appear. In a world driven by economics and political decisions, the fact that we are addressing the possibility of integrating food security and conservation, may it be through land-sharing, land-sparing or something in between, is reason enough to feel optimistic.

Public Health, Pesticides and Poverty in Senegal with Dr. Mountaga Dia

by Victoria Pilbeam, Australia, ELP 2014
Written on July 15, 2014.


a Senegalese farmer sprays pesticides without wearing any protective clothing

a Senegalese farmer sprays pesticides without wearing any protective clothing

At over 6 feet tall stands a participant whom many of the ELP participants refer to affectionately as “Docteur,” Dr. Mountaga Dia a trained doctor and public health specialist from the West African country of Senegal. I recently sat down with Dr. Dia and in a mixture of English and French we discussed his work, his background, his interest in taking part in the ELP and how he sees the connections between health and the environment.

When describing how he came to work in Public Health, Dr. Dia is pragmatic and contextualizes his own career path within the relative poverty of Senegal. As the fifth of ten children, in a family of modest means, Dr. Dia states matter of factly, “I knew that I was going to have to work to support myself and my family,” and it was this desire for financial security which initially motivated him to study medicine. However, it was the 1994 arrival of International Monetary Fund and World Bank Structural Adjustments Program in Senegal that pushed Dr. Dia to focus on improving Public Health in disadvantaged rural communities.

This program, by devaluing local currencies, led to a sharp increase in the prices of import goods like medicine and milk, which are crucial to health outcomes. As a medical student having then completed his thesis working with rural Senegalese community health centers on low birth weight, Dr. Dia was well placed to foresee the consequences of this policy, and 20 years later he still becomes visibly aggravated as we discuss its imposition. It was in response to this that Dr. Dia joined SIGGI (a word which literally translates to “rectification”) in 1994, an initiative supported by Enda Tiers Monde and Terre des Homme which sought to build capacity among largely untrained rural community health workers in Senegal. Dr. Dia described the yearlong process, “We met in a local primary school every Wednesday and there we would train them how to [give] basic medicines like paracetamol, aspirin, betadine and eventually injectibles. Then we would also provide supervision”.

Dr. Dia engaging in community health work in Senegal on behalf of Enda Tiers monde

Dr. Dia engaging in community health work in Senegal on behalf of Enda Tiers monde

It was this strong background in community health mobilization that led him to his current work in pesticides. In particular, Dr. Dia cites one 2002 Senegalese study as being catalytic, “Enda [Tiers Monde], with GEF [Global Environment Facility] and FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization], did a small study with toxicologists on the level of pesticides in local market foods and they found results that were way out there, so much so that they were too afraid to publish. After that, they realized there was a serious problem and Enda asked me to work on it”. From there, Dr. Dia helped run a series of studies on how people use pesticides in Senegal, “we asked: how do you use pesticides? How do you measure them out? Because many people just use old Nescafe tins or water bottles. When do you use them? Do you wear protective clothes? Do your wife and children help?” From this platform, Dr. Dia was able to help shape a regional plan for pesticides management that includes prevention, water monitoring and creating a network of communities along the Senegal River. However, due to the lack of funds, implementation has stalled. Dr. Dia remains hopeful about this project however, and now through his position at the University of Bambey, he is trying to create networks to support this project and has had increasing international interest.

This interest in creating networks for sustainable change is largely what drew him to ELP. Dr. Dia posits, “We are here to build a network and especially in my area, environment and health, there has not been enough of this.” Given this, Dr. Dia questions the logic of some academics who choose to address health or environment to the exclusion of the other. “These days, having an interest in environment is the obligatory pathway if you want to work in health. As we do studies, we find that more and more, there are clear links between the environment and health.” Keenly interested in getting as much knowledge out of every session, Dr. Dia is often spotted filming key ELP sessions on his phone.

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