Category Archives: property rights

Private conservation

Mapa antiguo de Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

There’s something missing from this otherwise very interesting and well-reported story from the Guardian about the impact of conservation efforts that see wealthy people from the First World buying up vast tracts in the Third.

[I]n the US, where the government is selling off public land, conservation is increasingly geared towards private ownership. “It is a genuine new model of conservation,” says Kim Vacariu, who works with the Wildland project in the US, which wants to secure millions of acres of land running from Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. “It is too much to rely on governments to protect the land. The only way to make [conservation] happen in time is to buy it from willing sellers.”

Conservationists with deep pockets are mostly welcomed in rich countries, such as Britain and the US, because they maintain or increase the market price of land. But in poor countries they are often met with fear and hostility.

This is hardly surprising. Foreign conservationists have a dreadful record in developing countries. First colonialists took control of countries and communities in order to expropriate their resources, then the conservationists came and did exactly the same thing – this time, in the name of saving the environment. Tens of thousands of people have been evicted in order to establish wildlife parks and other protected areas throughout the developing world. Many people have been forbidden to hunt, cut trees, quarry stone, introduce new plants or in any way threaten the animals or the ecosystem. The land they have lived on for centuries is suddenly recast as an idyllic wildlife sanctuary, with no regard for the realities of the lives of those who live there.

What’s missing is an answer to the question of who is selling the land the rich people are buying. John Vidal talks about the reasonable concerns about traditional land uses being displaced, but it’s not at all clear from the story whose land it is the locals are currently using.

It’s also, I think, a bit disingenuous to wrap in the problems with governments’ converting private land into inviolate national parks with the problems of willing sellers turning property over to willing buyers. The only thing they have in common is that large amounts of land are generally involved, and that’s not enough to tie them together.

As you might expect, I don’t share Vidal’s apparent concerns over First Worlders buying up all this land, at least not in itself. If it works here, and it demonstrably does, it should work there. But I do worry about some of the online-shopping operations he points out, some of which are probably about as legitimate as the outfits that’ll sell you the rights to name a star, or some of the cockamamier carbon-offset vendors. Private ownership in a working market system is good, but chiefly because it brings with it a sense of proprietorship. If you own your own house, you take care of it, improve it, defend it from external threats.

Absentee landlordism, though, is almost invariably a bad thing, and all the more so in this case. If you aren’t there, if you don’t know which square metre of rain forest is your square metre of rain forest, you can’t defend it, and your property will inevitably fall victim to whoever is most eager to break the rules and take advantage.

(Via Planetizen.)

Cheap shots at LEED standards

I’m a little disappointed by Daniel Brook’s Slate essay “It’s Way Too Easy Being Green,” on the supposed slackness of the U.S. Green Building Council’s “LEED” standard for environmentally sound construction. It starts promisingly, ripping the fact that a Mumbai tycoon’s private skyscraper is officially considered green, but devolves quickly into nitpicking. At heart, Brook’s criticism is that LEED standards reward people who have neither the green mentality nor the inclination to work really hard to be friendly to the environment.

The LEED checklist points system is to blame, Brook writes:

Installing a $395 bike rack is worth the same under the LEED checklist system as installing a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. Which is the cynical builder going to choose? A builder more interested in good PR than being good to the environment can even get points purely by chance. A new casino project in Philadelphia, which the city is requiring to pursue LEED certification, is located, like most downtown buildings, within a quarter-mile of a subway stop, earning a LEED point for transit accessibility. But the developer on the project, which includes a 3,200-car garage, won’t commit to running a shuttle bus between the subway stop and the casino to encourage customers to take transit. No points in that.

Well, maybe there ought to be points deductions for some of your more flagrant anti-environmental choices. But the underlying argument strikes me as practically meritless. Does it matter that bike racks are cheap and easy to install, when considering their actual environmental value? If there were nowhere to lock up my bicycle, I and maybe two dozen other people where I work couldn’t use them to get to and from work day in and day out, eight or nine months of the year. An efficient heating system brings long-term payback for the builder and/or landlord; a bike rack is really worth nothing, financially, most places. Putting a good one in (the checklist requires capacity for five per cent of the building’s occupants at peak times, plus changing and shower facilities) should be worth a point or two.

And as for proximity to subways, it’s true that most downtown buildings would pick up that point easily, but it’s a pressing concern that many builders are not, in fact, building downtown. Those that are should be acknowledged somehow.

You need to rack up 26 points like this for minimal certification, and most aren’t this easy.

I carry no brief for the green building council, and I’m not particularly qualified to say that its rating system is perfect. It’s not a fair criticism that the LEED standards don’t judge people’s attitudes well enough, though.

Why conservatives should care

Climate Progress has a two-part post on why (mostly U.S.) conservatives should care about climate change that’s worth a read.

Climate Progress’s idea of conservatism is a little simplistic — Part Two talks about the potential of emissions-reducing R&D to create jobs as if the means by which those jobs are created is immaterial, for instance, which isn’t the way my kind of conservative sees the question — but the basic argument stands. I particularly liked this line from a Republican state governor noted in the piece:

“The real inconvenient truth about climate change,” says Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, “is that some people are losing their rights and freedoms because of the actions of others — in either the quality of the air they breathe, the geography they hold dear, the insurance costs they bear or the future environment of the children they love.”

That’s just right, and should be reason enough for a lover of freedom to care about the issue regardless of anything else. The principle matters.

(Via Grist Mill.)

Undermining property rights

The Green Party of Ontario is proposing a radical change in the treatment of property rights in the province. It’s in this press release, announcing a campaign stop for party leader Frank de Jong in eastern Ontario:

Monday, August 27
1 to 3 p.m.
Hwy 509 just north of Clarendon Station
(10 km north of Hwy 7; Hwy 509 runs north
from Hwy 7, just west of Sharbot Lake

De Jong will show his support for the Ardoch Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nations’ ongoing protest against Frontenac Ventures Corp. The mining exploration company wants to test drill for uranium on the bands’ ancestral territory, which is the subject of ongoing land claim negotiations.

De Jong will call for:

  • A moratorium on uranium prospecting and mining in Ontario.
  • Modernizing of the mining act, which hasn’t been revised since 1880, to include subsurface rights with the title of land.
  • Settlement of the First Nation land claims.

The Ardoch Algonquin and Shabot Obaadjiwan have been blocking access to the land since June 29, and have vowed to remain despite an Ontario Superior Court order for them to leave.

MineDoorThe Greens are, very broadly put, opposed to mining and to nuclear power, so standing with natives trying to stop a uranium mine is a natural. In that sense, this is a pretty routine campaign stop. And for the Greens, it’s absolutely typical in that nobody, but nobody, will go to Sharbot Lake, an hour from anybody, to see what the leader of the fourth party in a three-party system has to say about anything.

That said, the second policy point is a doozy. In Ontario, as in many places, most land doesn’t come with its mineral rights — in general, if the land was ever owned by the Crown, and almost all of it was, the Crown kept the mineral rights when it granted the land to somebody decades or centuries ago and has never relinquished them. The government licenses out those rights to qualified prospectors, and with the mineral rights come rights to access land, to explore and dig and drill, and ultimately to set up a mine if an economically viable mineral deposit is found. Surface rightsholders need to be compensated for direct damage done to their property, but not much else, even though sometimes exploration can go on for years and years on a given plot while the value of the surface rights plunges nearly to zero. Who wants to buy land that a mining company might be able to kick you off of on a few months’ notice?

Proposing to change this system by handing mineral rights over to surface rightsholders is an extremely significant idea. Potentially very damaging to the mining industry in Ontario (not crippling, since a lot of the exploring happens in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the province, where the Crown still owns a lot of the land, but damaging) and also a colossal giveaway of government property to private individuals and landowning corporations. Using the Crown’s mineral rights to establish a mine someplace, after all, doesn’t come free. Mining companies pay the government big royalties on the minerals they extract.

Nevertheless, this is the way most people assume land rights actually work, and in this day and age, perhaps they should. Maintaining a system of parallel rights — that, in fact, overbalances things in favour of prospectors, who can come and go as they please and tramp on surface-rights owners more or less at will — casts a pall over all surface rights by valuing them at next to nothing. It amounts to a subsidy for mining that isn’t extended to any other land use.

If a mineral deposit is really worth getting at, it’s probably worth buying out the people who own the property on top of it at a fair market price.

(A provincial election is scheduled for Oct. 10 in Ontario, where I live, so expect more posts than usual on the provincial political parties’ environment-related promises as the campaign gears up.)

Photo credit: Flickr/SplaTT

Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

Spare a thought for Tuvalu

The way it’s told isn’t so great, but this account of what’s happening in the tiny archipelago nation of Tuvalu indicates one of the more significant externalities associated with our enthusiasm for fossil fuels. The country is, as you probably know, in very serious danger of being swamped by higher seas as more water runs from glaciers on land into the oceans. The highest point in Tuvalu is only a few feet above sea level.

The Tuvaluan government has been vocal in urging industrialised nations to take urgent action on climate change. Enele Sopoaga, the former permanent representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations, in an earlier interview with IPS expressed extreme frustration at “the double standards of industrialised nations” for inaction on climate change while criticising other countries about human rights policies “while they are playing with the lives of island people and the Inuit” — referring to the native peoples of the Arctic Circle, whose traditional livelihoods are being destroyed by global warming.

In our system, there’s nobody for the people of Tuvalu to go after, no way for them to do it, but their lives and property are nevertheless being threatened in quite a direct way by every kilo of carbon dioxide the rest of us put out. It’s not right.

That said, I don’t have much time for the sentiment expressed here:

Although it is likely to become the first nation of environmental refugees, because Tuvalu has virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy projects there do not qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funding. CDM is a market mechanism created by the Kyoto Protocol that allows polluters in one country to earn “carbon credits” by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in another.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on CDM projects around the world, but not a penny for Tuvalu, said [scientist Sarah] Hemstock, who found this situation “appalling”.

But tradeable credits aren’t meant to be economic-development tools. They might have that effect, but that’s not the point. They’re supposed to be ways for people in richer countries to pay for easy carbon-emissions reductions in places where the locals can’t afford to. No emissions, no credits.

Which isn’t to say that the people of Tuvalu aren’t entitled to some help, but they’re also not entitled to pervert the CDM system, which is troubled enough as it is.

Equal bureaucracy for all

At first glance, a plan in San Mateo County, Calif., to speed up approvals for buildings meeting certain green standards seemed like a good idea. It’s a small way of rewarding conscientious builders with sustainable projects without shipping them public money. From the Palo Alto Daily News:

Under the proposal, a builder who chooses to employ environmentally friendly construction in San Mateo County’s unincorporated areas would have his application for a new building or major addition processed by the county’s planning department twice as fast.

It takes about six to seven weeks to complete an application for a residential or commercial building permit. A builder who goes green would have his permit processed in three weeks.

“What we’re looking to do here is to provide incentives so more individuals will build green,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Mark Church, who has asked the planning department to look at developing the program. “The public sector already has taken the lead in developing green buildings, so now is the time to provide incentives to encourage the private sector to do the same.”

But then again, why should the promise of a government bureaucracy heaving itself into action at more than it usual torpid pace be used as a reward for anything? If they can process permits in three weeks, shouldn’t they do so for everyone? What if the project isn’t particularly green, but it’s for a school or a church or a seniors’ centre or something?

An urban-planning process might favour greeniness in granting approvals, but that quality shouldn’t factor into the effectiveness of the process itself. And besides, it’s just begging for people to game the system by submitting environmentally friendly plans at permit-granting time and then — oops! — not living up to them in the actual construction.

(Via Planetizen.)