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.
Did you know that humans eat more water than we drink? That tidbit is explained in “Eating Water,” one of four three-minute films that use data and imagery to explain scientific concepts. The films were created by the Science Museum of Minnesota as part of Science on Sphere, a project of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that aims to explain complex environmental concepts in easy-to-digest portions.
The films feature three Institute on the Environment scientists discussing their research. Kate Brauman, lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative, explains that water used to produce our food far outweighs how much we drink in “Eating Water: Agriculture and Climate Change.” Tracy Twine, co-leader of Islands in the Sun, a collaboration of IonE and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences that monitors the Twin Cities heat island, reveals that the last time CO2 levels were as concentrated as they are now, humans didn’t exist on the planet in “Hot Air: Atmosphere and Climate Change.” And Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of SMM’s Global Change Initiatives, talks about how humans are facing the greatest challenges while also possessing the greatest capacity for connection and innovation to solve those challenges in “The Human Era: A World of Changes.”
As you watch the videos, imagine they are being screened on a 68-inch globe — about the diameter of a compact car — hanging above your head. That’s how they are presented at SMM and more than 100 museums, zoos, universities and research institutions around the world.
Banner photo by Will von Dauste, courtesy of NOAA
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.
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.
Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. It holds and protects the food we eat and beverages we drink. We can’t get through a day without using plastic in some way, shape or form. And its ubiquity is part of the problem.
“Many plastics are found in single use items, and there are disposal issues,” says IonE resident fellow Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers and Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science & Engineering. Most plastics do not easily degrade and thus “can’t be discharged safely into the environment. Moreover, most plastic is not recycled, and there is serious concern about how much plastic ends up in our oceans,” he says. Continue reading
How much do trees vary in the way they suck carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make roots, trunks, branches and leaves? The answer to that question is an important one because it has a huge impact on our ability to predict how destroying or creating forests influences climate change. And the correct answer is a surprising one, according to two related studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week by University of Minnesota forest ecologist Peter Reich and colleagues in Minnesota, Arizona, Australia, China, Poland and Germany.
Conventional models used to assess the impact of forests on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere assume that the way trees use carbon to build roots, leaves and trunks is fairly constant across a range of conditions — that is, that trees everywhere devote the same fraction of new growth to each component and that components have the same durability everywhere. However, analyzing massive amounts of data gathered from around the globe, Reich and colleagues documented predictable differences in key properties of forests across north-south climate gradients. Continue reading
University of Minnesota ecologist and IonE resident fellow David Tilman has received a 2014 Balzan Prize in recognition of his outstanding scholarly contributions in ecology. The international award comes with an $800,000 prize, half of which is to support young researchers working with Tilman.
According to a release by the International Balzan Prize Foundation, Tilman received the distinction for his “huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.”
The Balzan Prize recognizes achievements in the humanities and natural sciences, as well as in advancing peace among humanity. The foundation varies the fields it recognizes each year with an eye to uplifting innovative research across disciplinary boundaries. Tilman was one of four scholars from around the world to receive the prize this year. Past recipients of the award include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Four Institute on the Environment-related research projects have been awarded a total of $2 million from MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Awards, a state-funded grant initiative. Nine IonE resident fellows from six colleges are named as principal investigators or co-investigators on projects to advance renewable energy use in rural food processing systems; produce a database of bacteria that break down chemicals in the environment; develop tools for early disease detection in fish and swine; and create new agricultural products from emerging agricultural technologies. Continue reading
Four Institute on the Environment–related research projects won grants from MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures, a state-funded grant program. Four IonE resident fellows, as well as IonE’s managing director, are named as co-investigators on projects that seek to develop holistic and integrated approaches to ensuring a sustainable, safe and resilient food system.
MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy – is a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota, administered through the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research. Funding is intended to foster discoveries in four of the state’s key and emerging industries: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatment for brain conditions. Continue reading
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.
People of color in the U.S. are exposed to 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide air pollution in the neighborhoods in which they live than are white people, according to new research from the University of Minnesota. The exposure they receive results in approximately 7,000 heart-related deaths per year.
U of M Instititute on the Environment resident fellows Julian Marshall and Dylan Millet and fellow researcher Lara Clark compared U.S. Census data and nitrogen dioxide levels in cities across the country and found that, irrespective of income, nonwhites had higher average exposure to nitrogen dioxide than whites. The findings received extensive coverage in the media this past week. Continue reading
This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.
Conventional wisdom has it that farmers and conservationists don’t see eye to eye. Conservationists want to see farmers plant diverse vegetation, in addition to crops like corn and soybeans, that produces ecosystem services; farmers’ main priority is earning a living. Right?
“Farmers care just as much about the environment as anyone, but there are financial realities,” says Nick Jordan, a resident fellow with the Institute on the Environment and an agroecology professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Continue reading
What does education look like in remote mountain villages where electricity is nonexistent or unreliable? How does a developing country seeking to grow its economy, boost tourism and expand its infrastructure do so sustainably?
Earthducation Expedition 6 aims to find out — and share what it learns with teachers and students around the world. This sixth in a series of seven-continent explorations investigates the intersections between education and sustainability in Nepal, the roof of the world. Led by Aaron Doering and Charles Miller of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development with funding from the University’s Institute on the Environment, the expedition will set out April 27 for a journey to this diverse ecological powerhouse that boasts some of the most majestic geographical wonders on Earth. Continue reading
The Thinking Ahead Seminar Series: Emerging Technologies and the Environment, hosted by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs with funding from an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, explores the newest technologies from multiple disciplines inside and outside the University and their potential to help solve the most daunting environmental challenges. Continue reading
Trekking across Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Aaron Doering’s dogsled of supplies crashed through the ice. Most would see a disaster; Doering saw an opportunity to educate millions around the world.
Doering, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, and director of the Learning Technologies Media Lab, discussed online distance and adventure learning in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture – “North of Sixty: Narratives of a Changing World” earlier this month.
Faculty from across the U of M accept the challenge of addressing environmental problems through interdisciplinary work
MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (2/18/14)—Seven University of Minnesota faculty from seven different colleges have been named resident fellows of the Institute on the Environment. Representing a range of disciplines, the new fellows join 58 others conducting interdisciplinary projects that seek to understand and address environmental problems.
Fellows maintain their appointment in their own departments, but receive additional funding to pursue projects that cross disciplinary boundaries. The fellowships also help accelerate professional and leadership development. Continue reading
Pollution and contamination aren’t always as obvious as a burning river or a massive algal bloom. In fact, pathogen and heavy metal contamination can be difficult to detect – even with today’s most modern technology.
Jian-Ping Wang, an IonE resident fellow and distinguished McKnight University professor, is working to change that. Wang discussed his research using spintronic and nano magnetic technologies at his Frontiers in the Environment lecture, “Intelligent Nanotechnology for Environmental Monitoring,” Feb. 5.
YouTube is usually a one-stop shop for movie trailers, music and cat videos. But one family is using the popular website to educate viewers on earth and climate science, one video at a time.
Last March, brothers Henry and Alex Reich, along with their father, IonE resident fellow Peter Reich, created the YouTube channel MinuteEarth, featuring one- to three-minute animated videos focusing on topics ranging from fisheries management to atmospheric science. The three shared their experience at the Institute on the Environment’s first Frontiers in the Environment presentation of the semester - “Science Communication: Teach, Entertain or Inspire?” – Wednesday, Jan. 29 at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.
There you are, hunkered over your sink, hands wrist-deep in hot water, swiping suds over food-crusted dinner plates. That squishy, soapy thing that’s helping you do so many daily chores…ever wonder where its life began and where it will end?
That sponge, like everything on the planet, has a life cycle, composed of all the materials and energy that brought it to your sink and all the tasks it will help you complete until you’ve squeezed the last bit of work from it and tossed it into the trash. Continue reading
Stormwater falling on paved and other impermeable surfaces is the main source of urban runoff. That water is laden with nutrients and minerals that are detrimental to the water quality of rivers and lakes.
IonE resident fellow John Gulliver, a professor in the College of Science and Engineering, has spent more than a decade working on ways to protect water from the ravages of runoff. Continue reading