Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day One Part Two (All about Coal and Grass)

So, lunch time here at the conference, just saw a very interesting presentation about how bad people are at consuming less. But!  First I want to update about the end of the day yesterday.

One of the talks I was looking forward to seeing the most was also one of the shortest.
With the provocative title of "No More Coal: The business case of ending an industry", it was presented by Gil Friend, of Natural Logic.  He was apparently prepared to give an hour, but only had fifteen minutes, and so didn't bother with slides, and just read things off his phone.

For all that, his presentation was pretty good, as he clearly knew the material backwards and forwards.

Mr. Friend posited the idea that if we look at the global subsidies for the coal industry, they may amount to something like 200 billion US dollars (there are apparently not good data, so it's a ball park figure).  However, the industry only has a worth of approximately 150 billion US.  Which means that we, as a species, sink 50 billion dollars a year into an industry that ultimately is causing us a lot of problems, and which isn't even economically viable without subsidies.   Thus, he suggests we could do several things.  The most radical is to use that same subsidy money to buy out the mines, and shut them down.  This strikes me as phenomenally unlikely.  Another, potentially more viable option would be to simply end all subsidies, period.  This would do a couple of things:  it would drastically drive up the cost of coal, drive many mines out of business, and potentially level the playing field in the energy sector, giving renewables an opening to grab some market share.

However, and maybe he didn't discuss this because of time issues, it would also have the impact of driving up energy prices.  Many, many parts of the country use coal to generate electricity.  A drastic increase in price or decrease in availability would impact electricity production in ugly ways.  This would have the net effect of reducing consumption, but probably not in a way that would be beneficial to society, at least in the near term.

The next talk was also a fifteen minute number, delivered by Mark Simmons, from the SITES initiative talk.  He recycled some material, particularly about his desire to live in Middle Earth, rather than some ultra urbanized future.  In something of a recurring theme at this convention, he opened by talking about the carbon storage capacity of grasslands (which is only surpassed by wetlands), but then shifted gears to talk about other ecosystem services, and restoration projects.  In particular, he pointed out how much more durable and resistant to drought lawns made up of a mix of local grasses are than imported turf grasses.  He also discussed a restoration project here in Austin, bringing back some of the blackland prairie that has almost disappeared from the Texas landscape.  Perhaps the most interesting part, for me, were the slides showing the superior performance here in Texas of a mix of local grasses to the sedums typically used for green roof installations.  This wasn't too surprising, given some of the green roof literature I've seen, showing that a suite of local species often perform better than the generic sedum mix widely used, but it was nice to see none the less.

It was not, shall we say, a presentation that invoked deep thinking, but showed how relatively simple it can be to address a lot of the issues that we face as an increasingly urban species.

Later this evening, I'll post some updates about today's events, which so far are shaping up to be excellent. 


  1. We get to be fellow Texans for the moment! Enjoy Austin. It's pretty, isn't it? Aspects remind me of Italy, whereas parts of Houston evoke...well, I'll be polite in your domain. I hope that the conference concludes nicely.

  2. Oh, but I like it when people are not polite.

    But I know it's in your nature. It is quite nice here, even as dry as it has been. I suspect I could very well live in this city quite comfortably.