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Carbon Neutral
Jul 15, 2006, 7:13p

UPDATE: I just finished The Skeptical Environmentalist, and I must say it's an extremely persuasive book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in digging deeper into the true state of the world.

The book's biggest weakness is that it doesn't present the 500,000 year history of global temperature (from An Inconvenient Truth), so it dramatically underestimates the impact of global warming. Despite this oversight, I recommend this book to anyone who's interested in learning more about the environment. After reading this book, I feel better equipped to prioritize environmental issues relative to other global problems.

Basically, the author believes that we've been prioritizing the environment much too highly, based on his analysis of tons of environmental data (which he presents in the book). Improving environmental problems generally costs more and provides fewer benefits than spending on other issues, such as health care, residential, transportation, and occupational concerns. Ultimately, it would provide more benefit to humanity if we diverted much of the money spent on environmental issues and spent it instead on reducing malnutrition and providing water & sanitation, health care, and other services to the developing and developed worlds. This is a profound conclusion, and though it is controversial, I feel that is not well-known or fairly considered by politicians or the public at large.

If it wasn't already clear, I think that anyone who professes an educated opinion on the environment must read this book :)

(May 27, 2006)

So, I calculated my carbon production after watching An Inconvenient Truth.

It turns out that, because of all the travelling and commuting I do, I produce 34,800 pounds of carbon each year, more than twice the American avg.

Jason Ahmad and I were debating whether the economics make sense, i.e. whether spending money to become carbon neutral was the best use of economic resources. In other words, should I spend money on becoming carbon neutral or should I spend money on some other philanthropic causes which will have a greater impact on society (poverty eradication, health care, education, etc.).

So, it turns out that the cost to offset carbon is actually $12/carbon ton/year (according to Native Energy), which is invested in building wind power and converting cow methane into electricity, keeping the methane out of the atmosphere. I produce about 17 tons/year, so the cost for me is $204/yr. That's not much at all, for someone with a well-paying job and few other financial responsibilities. For the avg. American who produces 8 tons of carbon per year, that's just $100 (or the cost of about 1 month of cable TV).

Given that carbon dioxide levels appear to be directly correlated with temperature change over the past 500,000 years, and that carbon dioxide levels are 4x higher than they've ever been in the past 500,000 years, spending $200/yr seems like a reasonable thing to me. Especially since an increase in temperature of just one degree celsius could result in significant melting of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, causing flooding in major metropolitan cities such as San Francisco, Manhattan, Beijing, Shanghai, and Bombay.

Of course, everything above depends on the science of global warming and calculations of carbon reduction to be accurate, all of which I got from the movie. Assuming they are, this seems like a worthwhile way to donate money.

The best, well-researched argument against the urgency implicit in the environmental movemement was written by an ex-Greenpeace member and is called The Skeptical Environmentalist. It basically argues that, while there are certainly environmental problems, they aren't well-understood or urgent enough to warrant a high level of attention right now. Now that I've seen An Inconvenient Truth, I'm planning to go back and finish up this book (I only read 100 pages when I got it a couple years ago).

Read comments (5) - Comment

Gary - May 27, 2006, 6:13p
Check out this article at Salon on the carbon neutral market:

omar - May 28, 2006, 1:45p
my usagecame in at 12800, a little less than average. this is likely because i don't own a car (though all my flying causes the number to go way up!).

something that hit me pretty hard as i learned more about climate change came from a talk i saw by larry brilliant. he said that it's quite likely that if the climate continues to change as is, then most of bangladesh will be washed away, and all the good we thought we were doing with microfinance in that country will also be washed away. ie climate change can smash a lot of good.

jonathan - Apr 8, 2007, 8:18p
Although I haven't read this book yet (I'll take a look soon), I definitely disagree with the notion that environmental problems can be put off to a later date. I have a couple questions about his reasoning:

You say: "Improving environmental problems generally costs more and provides fewer benefits than spending on other issues..."

How does he measure benefits? Often benefits are measured over far too short a time scale, and it is inherently difficult to measure the benefit from preventing the destruction of some environmental system, because the effects of that destruction are too complex to predict accurately.

The reasoning that "environmental problems ... aren't well-understood or urgent enough to warrant a high level of attention right now" is short sighted and misleading. Although the dynamics of many of the ecosystems we are destroying are not well-understood, the general principals that loss of biodiversity and overtaxing of natural resources are harmful is definitely known. With regards to them not being urgent, many of the problems we are creating are irreversible. If we want to be at all cautious, we should act now so as to solve problems before they happen.

Basically my question is: are these issues dealt with in the book? If so, how?

If you're interested in an argument as to why environmental problems are urgent, and why they are not separate from the social problems of health care, transportation, civil war, etc., please read Collapse by Jared Diamond. As the Science review said "It is probably the most important book you will ever read."

Oh, by the way, I met you at the caltech BMS visit day if you're wondering who I am.

nikhil - Apr 9, 2007, 12:06a
Hey jonathan,

Thanks for the comment. I wrote this awhile back, so I dug back in the book to get you your answers.

Skeptical Environmentalist is basically a data-dense textbook that presents numerous statistics regarding the costs and benefits of various social policies, most notably policies directed toward the environment and human health. It is one of the most rigorously researched books I've ever read, with nearly 3000 endnotes for its 350 pages, and a bibliography with roughly 2000 sources.

A good example of one area he examined is policy toward pesticides. For a variety of reasons, we live in a society that has a deep fear of chemicals and other "synthetics", especially when it comes to ingesting them. I'm not suggesting that this is unfounded, but that such health risks need to be put in perspective with other health risks. For example, Lomborg points out that "our intake of coffee is about 50 times more carcinogenic than our intake of DDT before it was banned, more than 1,200 times more carcinogenic than our present DDT intake, and more than 66 times more carcinogenic than the most dangerous present-day pesticide intake, ETU." (235) He draws this conclusion from his comparison of the relative cancer risk of the average American daily intake of various foods and synthetic pesticides. (234) How did he get the data on relative cancer risks? By examining the data on rodent exposure to such chemicals.

Based on this data, it would be more benficial to human health to reduce the carcinogenic content of coffee than reduce usage of pesticides. But is this the policy we have today? No. Many environmental organizations are focused on reducing pesticide use and increasing the availability of organics, which is all fine, but likely not the best prioritization of human energy or orientation for social policy.

Lomborg goes on to detail the economic costs of banning pesticides, where he cites another professor's estimate of $4B lost annually in the US. (246) Banning pesticides altogether would reduce yields in Denmark by 16-84% and cause a price increase of 30-120%. More expensive fruits and vegetables means lower consumption, which would lead to a substantial increase in cancer since fruits and vegetables are believed to reduce likelihood of cancer. So his point is that not only would the transition to a pesticide-free society cost a good chunk of change, it would also lead to more cancer deaths.

In general, Lomborg measures benefits based on the human life cost (changes in death rates and life expectancy). I agree, its hard to measure the long-term impact of environmental damage, but he does a good job going back into the historical data and teasing out trends (except in the case of global warming, which I described previously). Not to say that he doesn't value the environment in and of itself - he was a member of Greenpeace before he started working on this book.

Now to the topic of deforestation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the overall area covered by forest has not changed much since 1950, leveling at about 30% land area, or 4B hectares. (111) He says that globally we've lost about 20% of the original forest cover since humans started doing agriculture. (Goudie 1993) Since wood accounts for 25% of the energy consumption in the developing world as a whole and 50% in Africa, dramatically limiting cutting would have a very bad impact on development in poorer countries. He also states that "our entire consumption of wood and paper can be catered for by the tree growth of just 5% of the current forest area." (115, citing Bailey 1995) Fundamentally, Lomborg finds that "it seem hypocritical to accept that we have benefited tremendously from felling large sections of our own forests but not to allow developing countries to harvest the same advantages." (117) I couldn't agree more.

So Lomborg isn't advocating environmental destruction - in this case, he's just going to the data and pointing out that the hype around deforestation is overblown and really not something to worry too much about, given the conditions today. He's not advocating that we destroy biodiversity, but that stuff isn't as bad as we've been led to believe.

I hope these examples help to answer your questions. His arguments are intricate and rely on a ton of data. I'd be happy to discuss this more if you have some counter-data or believe that Lomborg's analysis is flawed in some way. All in all, I was impressed by the analytical process in the book.

It should be noted that the Danish Ecological Council posted a detailed rebuttal of the book, available here: . I've downloaded it but haven't gotten a chance to read it yet. And of course, Lomborg has his rebuttal to the rebuttal:

Also, I bought Collapse over a year ago and its been waiting patiently on my shelf to be read. Diamond's earlier book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel", was one of the best books I've ever read (on my top 11 list: ). Thanks for the recommendation - that should bump it higher in my queue.

jonathan - Apr 10, 2007, 4:45p
I'm not trying to troll. But in case anyone is thinking of picking up this book, or has read it and is considering its ideas, please see:

Or just read the Wikipedia article.

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