Should we put a price tag on nature? IonE resident fellow Steve Polasky, Regent’s Professor of Applied Economics, Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior, and Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota, explored that Big Question at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Following the talk, attendees participated in a lively Q&A session. Here are six things we learned:
- Vocabulary matters. There is a difference between valuing nature and putting a price tag on nature. Should ecosystem services be moved into the market? It may be too soon to tell. Should we accurately value nature? Absolutely.
- There has been a shift from old conservation to new conservation. Nature used to be appreciated based on its intrinsic value, but now it is often looked at with regard to the interaction it has with people. The current debate about ecosystems services tends to follow this same tension. Conservationist may agree about general goals, but they disagree about the emphasis and tactics.
- What’s good for nature is good for us. If we don’t factor in the full cost — including ecosystem impacts — when deciding whether to pursue a specific course of action, Polasky said, “we’re robbing nature, but we’re also robbing people.”
- There are valid arguments on each side. Some studies have shown that people are more likely to protect something when it is seen as a commodity, and that including ecosystem services in market calculations help to show how much we truly value them. However, others argue that there are moral limits to markets and that putting things into market terms removes them from the personal realm, thus changing the way we think about them. The way we use the environment to advance human benefit may not be in line with what is best for the environment.
- There are a lot of unknowns. Is there a way to objectively value nature, or does it all depend on the frames we use? Is it a balanced system? Will this be useful in the long term? These questions and more represent real discussions within this debate.
- It’s beyond economics. Economic valuation is only part of the story. Politics, individual decisions, and actions by firms and institutions all play a role in the debate over the value of ecosystem services. Just because something has economic value does not mean it makes sense politically or socially.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
Frontiers in the Environment sat down with Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiative, Wednesday for a lively panel discussion on urban development featuring Anne Hunt, the environmental policy director for the City of Saint Paul; Peter Frosch, director of strategic partnerships for Greater MSP; and Mike Greco, program director for the Resilient Communities Project at the University of Minnesota. Here are the five key things we learned:
- Cities are significant. With more than 50 percent of the global population now living in urban areas, creating a sustainable planet will require creating sustainable cities. While cities only constitute a small proportion of land on the globe, their impact on the land and on resources is significant. Moving forward, we must be intentional about our actions as we work to accommodate growing urban populations.
- We need to shift our thinking from “good enough” to “great.” Instead of comparing our cities with ones of similar size and status, we should look at how we are stacking up against the best. Thoughtful comparisons of the Twin Cities with global leaders such as Shanghai and Stockholm will reveal the places where we are lacking and will provide motivation to become great. We should be pushing ourselves to think bigger and strive for the best, rather than being comfortable with “good enough.”
- Opportunities are abundant. The Twin Cities are poised to have a big impact in urban innovations. With an extensive park system and the expansion of regional transit opportunities, Minneapolis and St. Paul already have made a name for themselves in urban development. However there is a lot more that can be done. Luckily, opportunities are everywhere, from expanding bikeways to reclaiming abandoned lots.
- Collaboration is crucial. Significant change will not happen without collaboration of relevant parties. Cities and governments should work with academia, private businesses, non-governmental organizations and foundations to share perspectives and build ideas.
- Look beyond the environment. Sustainability is typically associated with environmental quality, but it is fundamental that social and economic sustainability are included in future thinking as well. In the long run, this will help to create stronger and more resilient cities.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
This week’s Frontiers in the Environment was presented David Letterman–style by Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson and Energy Transition Lab faculty director Hari Osofsky, who is also an IonE resident fellow and Law School professor. The pair explored the “Top 10″ key areas of energy transition and the Energy Transition Lab’s role in them.
10. Treat energy as a system. Instead of seeing energy as a technological process, we
need to view it as an intertwined system involving politics, finance and social
9. Bring renewable energy to scale. Given time, technology can improve and prices can
drop. We may be underestimating the growth and potential of renewables.
8. Address the risks of unconventional energy in new energy frontiers. Oil and natural gas in the Arctic could shift the energy focus away from the contiguous United States. With new locations comes new challenges; addressing topics such as risky
procurement (for example, hydraulic fracturing and deep-water drilling) will be
important to the new energy world.
7. Create 21st century utility models. Traditional energy systems reward energy
companies based on their reliability, stability, rates and capital investment. To create a
stronger system, companies need to be given credit for innovation, environmental
performance, flexibility and encouraging customers to use less energy.
6. Stop wasting energy. Conventional energy systems waste a lot of energy, particularly
from waste heat. There are a lot of opportunities to improve upon this if we can
overcome laws that hamper innovation.
5. Capture economic opportunity and use market tools. The energy transition
represents not only an environmental opportunity, but an economic one as well. For
many companies, the cost of continuing with business as usual may be higher than the
costs of taking action on climate change.
4. Think locally and act locally. Since a significant portion of the world population lives
in cities, cities must play a crucial role in the energy transition. University of
Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab is working to provide tools to help urban centers
make this shift.
3. Education, collaborate and innovate for impact. Planning for the energy transition
now will help guide its future. The Energy Transition Lab is working to help plan
Minnesota’s energy future and use this information to understand and shape the energy
future on a regional and global level.
2. Make progress in a partisan political environment. Pairing energy transition goals
with economic development goals could help create common ground for progress.
Working at a smaller scale where partisanship is less intense than at larger scales may
also provide fertile ground for moving forward on needed energy transitions.
1. Ride the wave: Capitalize on positive trends. Universities value innovation, a vital
tool to solving the challenge of an energy transition. Another bonus? Universities are
full of members of the Millennial generation, 93 percent of whom believe continued
dependence on fossil fuels has weakened the economy and stifled innovation.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
A new exhibit opening Thursday, Oct. 2, in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space pays homage to the earth art movement of the 1960s. Also called land art and earthworks, the movement, according to Wikipedia, was an “artistic protest against the perceived artificiality, plastic aesthetics and ruthless commercialization of art at the end of the 1960s in America.” The exhibit features four prize-winning artworks created in spring 2014 by student groups from the University of Minnesota Art History course “Art and the Environment” (ArtH3434).
The title of the exhibit, 3434, is both practical and intriguing. “3434 was the course number, but it also characterizes some of the works’ experimental nature. Students from all over the University, including mechanical engineering, IonE, some science disciplines, music and studio art, learned about the history of the earth art movement,” says Jane Blocker, the College of Liberal Arts professor who taught the class. “Then they emulated the collaborative style of earth art groups working around the world today by contributing their distinctive skills and abilities to create art in response to an environmental problem.” Continue reading
Our Fall 2014 Frontiers in the Environment event series kicked off last week with a lively discussion about new ways to boost food safety. Here are five things we learned from the presentation by Matteo Convertino, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor, School of Public Health; and Craig Hedberg, Professor, School of Public Health:
- Roughly 1 in 5,000 meals results in a foodborne illness. What does this tell us? We may have come a long way in research, but there is still a lot that we don’t know. Foodborne diseases are the result of dynamic interactions between the environment, agents and hosts, and this complexity provides many challenges in studying food safety.
- Computer modeling is useful for predicting outbreak sources. Traditional work on foodborne diseases focuses on surveillance, with an attempt to identify a problem and act when possible. Computer modeling may help predict threats earlier and provide a more efficient way to approach threats to food safety.
- There may another reason to eat local. Computer modeling has shown that longer supply chains make food more vulnerable to diseases. That means local foods, which rely on shorter supply chains, may be less susceptible to foodborne illness. However, consumer preferences have made changing to a more localized supply chain difficult.
- Uncertainty is good. Contrary to popular belief, uncertainty in modeling and research can be beneficial because it allows a critical exploration of the system. Fluctuations in the environment and supply chains show natural system variability. Learning from this variability will allow for better prediction, detection and attribution over time.
- Enough is not enough. As global population grows, a looming global concern is finding enough food to feed everyone. While this is critically important, it is equally essential to ensure that the food people have access to is safe from disease.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing regulations that build on actions being taken across the country to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. Nationwide by 2030, the Clean Power Plan will help cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels. The proposal also would cut pollution that leads to the formation of soot and smog by over 25 percent in 2030, according to the EPA website.
In Minnesota, power plants are responsible for 33 percent of the carbon pollution that is endangering our health and driving climate change. Although the nation has set responsible limits on mercury, arsenic and soot pollution, there are no limits on carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants.
Dr. Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 administrator and Great Lakes national program manager, will discuss a series of executive actions designed to reduce carbon pollution, prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change and lead international efforts to address global climate change.
Where: R-380 Learning & Environmental Sciences
When: Friday, Sept. 26, 10-11 am.
See calendar for more IonE-sponsored events.
Banner photo: Minnesota’s Elk River Power Plant on a very cold morning, by AI (Flickr/Creative Commons)
The Boreas Leadership Program is gearing up for its fall programming. Boreas is a co-curricular leadership development opportunity at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. We invite all U of M graduate and professional students to participate in Boreas programming, which helps students catalyze environmental solutions. The program is idealistic in its aim of helping emerging leaders at the U develop into the world-changers they want to be and world-changers society needs.
The program is also pragmatic in its approach; leadership skills workshops are a core part of the programming. A schedule of workshops is offered each semester in four areas: communications and media, public skills, integrative leadership, and systems thinking and tools. Continue reading
This fall, the Institute on the Environment is refreshing our popular Frontiers in the Environment series. We’ll ask some Big Questions and host solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.
Each week, we’ll ask a pressing question such as, “Can we build a more resilient food distribution system?” Researchers and other experts from IonE and the greater University and Twin Cities’ communities will dive into the topic, sharing cutting-edge insights to move us closer to the answer. Continue reading
Keep your brain limber this summer by learning about cutting-edge solutions to the planet’s environmental grand challenges. During your down time, we invite you to watch video recordings of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment series, a forum for experts from the University of Minnesota and other institutions to informally share their work on a wide-range of cutting-edge issues, wrapped up with a lively Q&A.
Imagine yourself living in a foreign country where the native language is different from your own. Perhaps you have relocated with your family, or maybe your family is thousands of miles away and most people are strangers to you. What would you say about yourself to the people in this new country or to your family far away?
Dozens of Latino immigrants to western Minnesota are being asked this very question — and invited to display that message to the world.
“Estar en el Prairie,” the current installation in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space, is a montage of immigrants photographed in their work, home or school environment, holding a written message about themselves and their lives.
“I’m happy to experience a new world and meet people with their own universes,” and “Far from home with new horizons” are two of the messages. One newcomer chose to write that he prefers working in Minnesota to California.
The project was led by students at the University of Minnesota Morris. Come see the images and the stories they have to tell now through the end of summer.
Commons Meeting & Art Space
R350 Learning & Environmental Sciences Building
1954 Buford Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108
Photo: Nic McPhee
For many Minnesotans, “tropical” connotes vacation, beaches, pineapples and suntans. With the help of an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network (TC-Tropics for short) hopes to expand this view to include the great diversity of tropical environments beyond the beach.
Why the Tropics?
Tropical regions occur between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, the area of the earth surrounding the equator. The tropics contain the greatest levels of biodiversity in the world, including charismatic animals such as the orangutan and numerous species that have not yet been discovered by humans. Equatorial regions are home to beautiful coral reefs, forests that are critically important to global climate, and billions of people who live in remote rural areas, cities and everywhere in between. In other words, the tropics are a varied and vital part of the planet.
When you think about the primary sources of water pollution, you probably imagine a factory pipe or perhaps massive livestock farms. But would you believe that your quiet neighborhood could be degrading water quality locally and downstream?
That was the topic of the season finale of Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture series on Wednesday, May 7, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
In “A Watershed Approach to Understanding Urban Eutrophication,” Sarah Hobbie, an IonE resident fellow and professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, discussed how nutrients from lawns, pets and boulevard trees contribute to excessive algal growth in urban water bodies.
Environmentalists in the United States have long pushed for reductions in carbon emissions. Now, it seems the era of carbon regulation may be upon us.
But implementing these complex regulations is complicated and takes place at both the federal and state levels. This was the topic of Fresh Energy science policy director J. Drake Hamilton’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture last Wednesday, April 30 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
In “Adventures on the Frontiers of Carbon Reduction,” Hamilton emphasized the need to educate the public on new and existing policies impacting carbon emissions for broader public involvement.
When you think about Scandinavia, you probably think of its cold climate, warm people and high quality of life. But you may want to add “sustainable business model” to that list.
Robert Strand, assistant professor of leadership and sustainability at the Copenhagen Business School and director of the Nordic Network for Sustainability, delivered his Frontiers in the Environment lecture about the Scandinavian approach to sustainability in the private sector on April 23 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
In “Scandinavia: Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Strand discussed why large corporations are earning a bad reputation among members of the general public.
Our world is more connected than ever. It’s now easy to live in the United States, buy airfare to Europe, send money to Africa and eat food from Asia. And while this global connectivity comes with a slew of benefits, it also opens the door to the spread of disease and potential for worldwide epidemics.
Robert Wallace, visiting scholar with the Institute for Global Studies, discussed the need to rethink how we define “disease hot spots” from locations where outbreaks originate to global centers of capital that drive disease-causing practices in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture on April 16.
In his talk “Global Capital and Disease Hot Spots,” Wallace presented the concept of One Health, a new public health approach focusing on the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.
Mining near sensitive ecosystems is one of the hottest natural resource debates, pitting economic and environmental values against each other. As the controversy surrounding mining in Minnesota continues, opponents may want to take a few notes from one of the nation’s largest, successful anti-mining campaigns to date.
Mike Clark, former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, shared his experience fighting the New World mining project outside the nation’s largest national park in the 1980s and 1990s in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture Wednesday, April 9 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
In “Yellowstone: More Valuable Than Gold,” Clark discussed what makes the park and surrounding landscape so valuable and why that usually leads to conflict.
We’ve all heard about the many challenges the world faces. How do we develop the people to make solutions happen? The Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program works with students across the University of Minnesota to help them develop the skills, networks and ways of working to change the world. You’ll get a full report of what Boreas has been up to and hear more about the opportunities and challenges of developing world changers in graduate education.
In a world with a growing population, limited resources and a changing climate to boot, it’s natural to ask, “Where are the leaders who are going to solve these problems?”
Well, a lot of them are in graduate school where they’re preparing to take on some of the world’s greatest challenges. So, are they getting the skills they need?
Kate Knuth, director of the Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program, discussed how the program is helping students build on their graduate school experience in her Frontiers in the Environment lecture “Developing World Changers in Graduate Education” on April 2 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
Students from across the University of Minnesota will vie for top honors in the 3rd annual Sustainability Symposium this Friday, April 11, 1:30-5:00 p.m. at Institute on the Environment.
Undergraduate, graduate and professional students from such diverse programs as civil and mechanical engineering, psychology, architecture, music, finance, chemistry, animal science and more will present past and current projects, describing how their work supports or advances sustainability goals.
This year’s Sustainability Symposium kicks off with a keynote address from Chuck Bennett, former vice president of Earth & community care at Aveda Corporation. Bennett, whose career spans more than two decades of corporate citizenship advocacy, will talk about “leading from every chair,” the idea that everyone–no matter their level of expertise or chosen discipline–has important contributions and must be willing to engage in developing sustainability solutions if we are to be successful.
For more information about the event, visit www.susteducation.umn.edu/symposium2014.
Photo: poster competition, Sustainability Symposium 2013, courtesy of Madeline Geifer
Satellite imagery of the Upper Midwest at night shows a massive cluster of light in western North Dakota, easily dwarfing the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee or even Chicago.
The source of this apparent high plains metropolis isn’t a city at all, but rather the Bakken shale oil field, where producers are flaring as much as 266,000 million cubic feet of natural gas each day.
This abundance of natural gas — mostly composed of methane — was the topic of First Green Partners co-president Doug Cameron’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture last Wednesday, Mar. 26 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
In “Methane: Black Hat or White Hat in the Green Economy,” Cameron discussed the pros and cons of the abundant fuel source and why environmentalists shouldn’t be so quick to discount methane as a “quick fix.”