A Win-Win Solution to Environmental Problems

At the April 13, 2006 Session “Climate Change – What Happens in a Warmer Rockies?” at the Colorado College “State of the Rockies Conference”, there was a very informative talk by Auden Schendler, Director of Environmental Affairs at the Aspen Skiing Company. He reported on a number of technical changes that have been applied at the ski areas owned by this company to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide. What was enlightening in his talk, however, were the benefits in all types of air quality that resulted, and that these changes saved money!

Such win-win solutions to environmental problems should be a goal of policymakers. Such a framework fits with the “vulnerability” perspective that has been advocated on the Climate Science weblog.

The newspaper High Country News in its March 6, 2006 issue had an article (subscription required) entitled “Save Our Snow” by Michelle Nijhuis. This article is headlined ” Can Aspen and other Western towns put a dent in a global problem?”, and reports on a variety of ways to reduce negative effects of environmental footprints. However, the article perpetuates the concept that the currency to use to document the negative effects is the amount of CO2 reduction. In other words, the focus should first be on greenhouse gas emission reductions with the other environmental benefits being a beneficiary of these reductions. This will be quite a challenge for Aspen, as the news report states that, with respect to the Aspen greenhouse gas inventory of emissions,

“But the inventory contained bad news, too. It showed that, despite its progressive measures, Aspen’s per-capita emissions in 2004 were almost twice the national average. The town’s commercial and private air traffic, which accounts for a whooping 41 percent of the total emissions, topped the list of contributors.”

The use of the greenhouse gas emissions is a useful “environmental currency”, however, only as long as it is provides the benefits needed to reduce the risk to critical environmental and/or social resources. It thus needs to be part of a win-win strategy in which there are a diversity of benefits. Energy efficiency and energy independence, for example, are examples in which every stakeholder benefits. Greenhouse gas emission reduction, as the “currency”, is a blunt instrument if there are more effective ways to reduce the risks to societal and environmental resources.

My recommendations are as follows:

1. The first step is to assess the societal and environmental resources that are important.

2, Then determine the threats to these vulnerabilities and what are the thresholds that once breached result in damage.

3. Create metrics to quantitatively monitor their variability and change over time, in order to assess whether thresholds are being approached. Model sensitivity studies, built around each resource, should be used to determine critical social and environmental metrics that need to be monitored. Model predictions can be included in this assessment, but only when they have shown skill in forecasting these critical social and environmental metrics.

4. In terms of policy actions, segment them into win-win options and others which involve economic cost. This information will be very useful when policy decisions need to be made.

With these recommendations, greenhouse gas emission reductions, relative to other “currencies”, can be evaluated with respect to their value to provide reductions in risk to essential social and environmental resources. In this framework, greenhouse emission reductions are only useful if they provide real benefit with respect to these resources. If a policy decision is made for other reasons, but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, this is clearly an example of a win-win situation.

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