I recently published a post stating that, to adequately offset the carbon emissions, a flight to Mallorca ought to cost £4,000,000. Now it turns out – and I’m happy to say that – I was wrong… by about one million times! I won’t hide my original error – see it here – but this is very much a retraction. Being wrong every now & then is a wonderful and fundamental part of science.
My error came in a simple assumption I made about the organisation Saving Species, with whom I encourage you to offset your carbon. I made an ass out of u-&-me be by thinking that the 30-year leases with which they operate were a necessary duration of the sequestration process, when in reality, they’re not. Their system is actually as brilliant and efficient as it seems.
Now the best thing that has come about from this misguided error is that it put me in touch with Stuart Pimm, the founder of SavingSpecies – he happily corrected my math and I found myself with the opportunity to interview one of the most go-getting and innovative conservationists working today.
Beyond Stuart’s credentials as founder of SavingSpecies – through which he has helped save a number of charismatic species from extinction, discovered a number more, and aided the mitigation of global emissions and facilitated reforestation – Stuart has worked as a consultant on An Inconvenient Truth and appeared in 11th hour – two of the most impactful films on climate change ever made. He is also a teaching Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, who introduce him as “a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them.”
This is someone I was excited to talk to.
There’s a brilliant article that Stuart wrote for the British Ecological Society about the birth of Saving Species, in which he applied island-theory to forest fragmentation in Brazil and managed to convert cattle-pasture into rejuvenated forest thereby saving the Golden Lion Tamarin from extinction. It’s a beautiful story. However, when I sat down to interview him over skype, we were both keen to crack-on chatting about the way that things are now, and how unbelievably easy and affordable it is to do your part to offset carbon and save the world:
“…Not everybody finds it easy to do this, but the remarkable thing is how little it costs to offset carbon. There’s a new movie coming out, it’ll be shown worldwide on the Discovery Channel on the 2nd December, by a chap called Louie Psihoyos, called Racing Extinction. Louis said he’d like to offset his carbon, and he tried to do loads of complicated calculations. I said “Just tell me how many millions of miles you flew, how many thousands of miles you drove, how many days were you in the studio with electricity.” And we came up with a number. He said “Is that all?!” and I said “Yeah, that’s all.” So he ended up giving us more money than that, as he just felt embarrassed that it was such a small sum of money.
It basically costs, probably about £40 or £50 a year to offset an average American emissions – even if you, like me, travel a huge amount.
It’s probably an obvious question but, why don’t we do this more if it’s so easy?
Well, I really think that’s a good question, and I wish I had a better answer.
You really can do things in places that make a difference, and more really importantly, you can do it by funding people who make a difference. I basically founded SavingSpecies because I was very unhappy with the way that big conservation groups were doing things. Because they weren’t supporting the wonderful people who I meet in places like Columbia and Ecuador and Peru and Brazil and Madagascar – really passionate local people who are just good at taking care of their local problems. I just felt that we needed to have a mechanism for funding them.
The model is inspirational. One of the things I really admire about it is the way that it’s a fantastic bridge between that abstract, relatively dull enemy that is climate change & carbon, and brilliantly tangible conservation victories – like Golden Lion Tamarins, which are adorable. So, along those lines, what other tangible conservation victories are you really proud of?
Well obviously that was the first one and we’re very proud of that. We did that in a couple of ways – we didn’t pick that area because it was the Golden Lion Tamarins, we picked that area because we thought it was probably the most important place for birds. If you’re picking areas that are really rich in endangered birds then they’re going to have endangered mammals, endangered plants, endangered amphibians, so that all made good sense.
One of the things that happens when you have these isolated patches is you lose the top predators. And when you lose the top predators, all sorts of bad things happen underneath. So, Britain has lost it’s wolves, and with lots of wolves we now have plagues of red deer all across the highlands keeping the forest down. So you get all these knock-down, cascading effects.
One of the things that happened much earlier than we thought it might, is that mountain lions – Pumas – started moving across the corridor. Mountain lions came back into the isolated fragment, from which they’d been gone for a while. There’s a smaller predator called a Tayra – it’s sort of a big weasel – and it does an enormous amount of harm to birds, and to the Tamarins. And when the Pumas came back they beat the hell out of the Tayras, and so they keep the Tayra numbers down and so the Tamarins and the birds come back. So there were some really good knock-on ecological changes.
The next project we did was one in Columbia – it’s in the western Andes of Columbia, another area with exceptional numbers of species. It was an area of about 1000 square kilometres – a hundred thousand hectares – and it was about to become isolated by deforestation coming up valleys and pinching it off from the forest elsewhere in the western Andes. So we’ve been reforesting that, and it’s a place of incredible biological diversity. A couple of years ago a couple of friends of mine, including one here in North Carolina, discovered a new mammal – a new species of mammal, called the Olinguito. And the photograph of this baby Olinguito being held by somebody that went viral – well that somebody was one of our grantees. So as soon as we heard of it we thought, “well, we’re in the right kind of habitat” so we went out and we found the Olinguito.
So here’s a newly discovered mammal – it’d basically been overlooked. It’s not desperately rare but, on the other hand, if it were common we would have known about it a long time ago. So that’s sort of the poster-child of that particular project. But again we picked that project because it’s got spectacular numbers of orchids, there’s a new species of Dracula Orchid – I just love Dracula Orchids. I mean you love the name but they get the name because they’re bizarre-looking and they’re black and purple. We found a few years ago a new species of Poison Dart Frog, a glorious red and black one, so this is a place where you can go and still discover new species.
So where have you got your sights set on next?
We’re just about to fund two projects, one of them is in Ecuador, the lowland coastal forest in Ecuador again is an area of exceptional biological diversity, and it’s been very badly beaten and deforested. We’re funding a great local Ecuadorian organisation. There are two existing reserves – one in forest at about 2000m, one in forest that’s near sea-level – and we’re helping them buy and restore the intervening forest. So again we can create a large area of forest. The main interests there are that there are a bunch of frogs that are found nowhere else, and I rather suspect it’s a place with a lot of interesting bird species as well. I went over this year for about a week and added a lot of bird species to their list that they had not seen, and this was not an area where I am an expert. It’s got some interesting mammals, it’s got ocelots and things like that.
And then the other project that we’re going to fund any day, is a project in Brazil. It’s in the San Paulo state, a bit further to the south of the first project we did on the Golden Lion Tamarinds, and it involves the Black Lion Tamarin – a different species. But again it’s a fantastic group of local people who are working with the local communities to involve them in the restoration and in caring for their local environment.
That’s absolutely brilliant. So in your experience as a conservationist, what’ve you found to be the biggest challenges to conservation? And what are the best ways – in your opinion – to overcome them?
Conservation is like politics – it’s all local. You’ve got to engage local people. You know, people destroy forests, they destroy big predators like Lions because they threaten them; the first thing you have to do is understand why people do that. And the second thing is you have to work with them to find them an alternative future that’s not so damaging. And you can’t do that sitting in an air-conditioned office, inside the Washington DC beltway. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to engage with local people. So the reason we founded SavingSpecies is we wanted to empower local conservation. We wanted to empower people who you’ve never heard of in Madagascar and Columbia and Ecuador and other parts of the world where local people were doing a really great job, they’re part of the local community, they send their kids to the local schools, they’re hiring people from the local villages.
There’s a book by an economist called Jeffrey Sax, it’s called ‘The End Of Poverty.’ He asks why has developmental aid failed in Africa? He says if you look at the amount of money that’s been given to Africa for development by the US, the EU, it all only ever amounts to a few dollars per African. And the second thing is that 90% of it is spent on consultants who never go anywhere near the problem. I’ve always thought that to be a very perceptive remark. One of the tragedies that I see, working in Africa, is I often go to villages where I see small children who are probably not going to live more than a few days because they’ve got malaria. Now, what does it cost to stop malaria? It costs a couple of dollars for a bed-net. A million children a year should not die of malaria. But it’s not the amount of money, it’s the difficulty of getting that aid – those bed-nets – to the places that matter. Some of that is that you’ve actually got to go there, you’ve got to turn up and get into those villages. Some organisations do that well and some organisations never get their feet wet. It’s exactly the same with conservation.
That makes an awful lot of sense. So, talking politics and conservation, and how they may or may-not get on; in a few weeks there’s COP 21. A lot of noise is being made about that. What would you really like to see come out of it? What do you think people need?
Obviously the meeting in Copenhagen a few years back was an unmitigated disaster. I do think there’s a chance for some very serious commitments being made in Paris, and that is the sort of thing where it’s important that the politicians make those commitments. How we implement those commitments is clearly going to involve some very large-scale changes. I mean, the United States spends a staggering amount of our tax money on the military. The reason we Americans went to war in Iraq — with your nice Mr Blair— was not because their principle export was broccoli. We went because we wanted the oil. Well, the moment we start getting serious about developing alternative sources, the moment we start saying ‘No we really don’t want to invest in these oil companies’. The moment we get serious about this and the sooner we start moving towards a more sustainable economy the better. I think there could be things that come out of the COP that might move things in those directions.
What I see in China is certainly very aggressively developing wind energy and solar energy. There are some technical solutions. The adoption of solar energy in the US is incredibly poor, and that’s entirely a political solution. The energy companies are fighting alternatives as viciously as they can. Recent disclosures that companies like Exxon have known about global warming for a long time are similarly helping to generate a sense of disgust for these companies for the way they manipulated the political system. And that is something where good political leadership could make a difference.
That’s what we’re all hoping for. And then, what about on the smaller scale- the rest of us ‘normal’ people. What do you think is the best thing that we can do to save the world? Apart from flying less, or giving to SavingSpecies more-
[laughs] Just give to SavingSpecies more!
The reason I’ve been pushing this Saving Species model is to empower people. Far too much of the news is unbelievably depressing. You know, you look at Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, he says ‘species are going extinct 1000 times faster than they should’, you may wonder where did he get that from. He got it from me. There’s a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio called the 11th Hour, I was in that – again, unrelentingly depressing. But there are a lot of things that we can do. And I think it’s that sense that there are things we can do as individuals. We can live more lightly on the landscape, we can eat sustainably harvested fish, we can eat less meat – I’m not vegetarian, but I’m thoughtful about what I eat. I’m careful how many miles I drive each year, I offset my carbon. There are a lot of things we can do as individuals. And when it comes to conservation, there are many good things going on, and we can support that. We can support them with our efforts. We can support them with what is, in fact, a very modest amount of money. I’m sitting outside the university centre here at Duke, looking at students who I am certain probably spend more in Starbucks in a month than they would need to offset their carbon for an entire year.
It seems so breathtakingly small – the amount of effort that we do really need to put in. I think there’s definitely hope there. Once we can get the word out and people change their behaviours just an amazingly little bit.
So, just as a final thing, talk me through quite how Saving Species works. Cos I made some assumptions before that were kind of wrong, so talk me through quite how carbon sequestration works.
So, if you imagine a hectare of land that’s been deforested in a warm, moist country – in Columbia or Brazil or Sierra Leone or the Western Ghats of India, some place where there’s no frosts and it rains on and off for most of the year. You can work out how fast forest grows in a place like that. And you can work out even easier how much forest will be there, because you can go to a nearby patch of forest and look at the trees. You can do this with high-school students. I remember with Bemrose School in Derby, being taught that the volume of a cylinder is πr2l, so for a tree you measure it’s length and you work out how much wood is in it. From that you can work out it’s weight and how much carbon it contains. Well, those kind of calculations, straightforward as they are, tell you that a hectare of growing forest – forest that’s coming back over an area that used to be a cattle pasture — will soak up somewhere between 5 and 10 tons of carbon each year for about 30 or 40 years. Let’s say an average of 7 tons of carbon per year.
So it’s quite a constant rate then?
In the early days, it keeps on sequestering after that but once it gets to be mature it slows down a bit.
So it’s actually better to have juvenile, growing forest than to have a mature forest?
Well, yeah but you still want to keep the mature forest.
But in terms of soaking up the carbon, the first 30, 40 years is going to do most of the work for you. Even in cold, damp places like Britain, the forest comes back. There are places that I knew when I was a kid, hiking around north Derbyshire, around the reservoirs up there that were planted in forest. Those trees 50 years later are now really quite magnificent. They haven’t grown quite as fast as 7 tons of carbon per year but they’ve still sequestered a fair bit of carbon.
So let’s take that 7 tons per hectare per year average. If you wanted to sequester your carbon, for 30 years, you would need to buy 1 hectare of land in the tropics. That will keep you going for the next 30 years. 7 tons this year, the next, the year after that.
You can ask what is the average American’s carbon emissions – we are much more profligate than the average Brit – the average American, as it happens, puts out about 7 tons of carbon a year.
That’s mathematically, wonderfully convenient!
All the US emissions, including houses and industry and cars, planes – total US emissions, works out at about 7 tons per person per year. So what this means is, if I buy a hectare of land, and trees come back onto it, that will keep me going for another 30 years. And of course I probably won’t be around in 30 years time so I’m helping offset some of my kid’s emissions as well. And that’s about what it amounts to.
And so the question is how much does it cost for us to buy a piece of land in Columbia or Ecuador. It’s often less than $1000 a hectare. Sometimes it’s more, and sometimes it costs extra money to do the reforestation, sometimes not. But a very rough estimate, is that you buy up a hectare — two acres — of tropical land and reforest it, and you’ll offset your carbon for 30 years.
Wow. So the land that you buy with Saving Species has a lease of about 30 years?
Well we hope – in fact we require that people keep the forest as a permanently protected area. And a lot of that comes from how we work with the local groups. The project in Brazil, for example, we raised the money, transferred the money to a local conservation organisation, they bought the land, and within 2 or 3 days the land was transferred to the Brazilian Park Service who manage it all. In Columbia, there is a very well-established network of private nature reserves, so that particular area is managed by a registered charity which is also a registered non-profit within the United States called Fundación COLIBRI – it manages that land. The land in Ecuador is being managed by a non-profit organisation there. So we fund these organisations. We pick organisations that have been around for a decade or more, they’re well established, they have a model for remaining on the land and continuing to engage people. So we do our due diligence, and that’s how we make our projects work.
That’s fantastic. It really is very simple as well – it’s a very elegant solution. You must be immensely proud of it.
I am., I’ve had a very successful career as a scientist, but you know what, Science for me has always been a matter of making a difference. And this is making a difference. And it’s making a difference using science to direct what we do so it’s most effective.”
I am immensely grateful to Stuart for getting in touch to correct my assumptions first of all, and then for taking the time to talk to me. I’m now even more amazed by the incredible work that he & SavingSpecies are doing, and I can’t implore you enough to offset your carbon with them & support more of this kind of work. You could even follow the lead of Louie Psihoyos, and give them a figure closer to what your gut tells you this should cost, rather than the 2 caramel-macciato’s-worth that it’ll actually set you back.