They've got a plan for downtown

They’ve got a plan for downtown

Last night, Maison Francaise brought in some accomplished environmentalists to talk. Energy expert Max Rettig reports on what he heard. 

Two years ago, French economist Thomas Piketty published a ground-breaking book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, about wealth inequality throughout the world. In it, he touched on natural capital only briefly. On Tuesday night in Columbia’s Maison Francaise, economists, academics, and architects gathered to discuss how natural capital is changing the way we view and treat our environment and its resources.

On the panel were Claude Henry, a former physicist and current economist, and professor of Sustainable Development between Columbia and Paris’ Sciences-Po; Geoffrey Heal, a professor of public policy and corporate responsibility at Columbia Business School; Peter Kelemen is a professor and the Director of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia; and Stephen Cassell is a founding partner in Architecture Research Office, a 25-person group that is reimagining lower Manhattan’s waterfront.

Henry first spoke briefly on the issue of global energy consumption, noting that the U.S. is one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to energy usage.

Kelemen’s presentation included graphics, the first of which was a picture of a gloomy, polluted city next to a bright, environmentally-friendly city. Though he claimed the picture was a dramatization, he underlined its ominous feel as not entirely inaccurate of the future we could be steering ourselves towards. Most of his slides contained graphs detailing energy consumption by country; one showed the United States’ per-capita energy consumption in 1750, at which Kelemen noted that no one would be willing to return to such a low level. China and India, parts of the developing world, had the steepest energy consumption curves.

He continued on about “stranded assets,” meaning energy sources that we cannot access or use due to policy or other factors. For example, the world’s fossil fuel reserves are worth $27 trillion, but $20 trillion of that reserve is unusable. More digestible: The world’s fossil fuel supply represents a quarter of global gross domestic product (GDP). Kelemen discussed the per-capita costs of global warming and noted the efficacy and affordability of public sewage systems like the one London installed in the 1800s after its Great Stink, but his entire bit could be summed up in less than 10 words: “People have trouble reacting to slow-moving emergencies.”

Stephen Cassell and his firm, Architecture Research Office, are currently finding creative solutions for stormwater management in lower Manhattan, one of the areas hit worst by flooding from Hurricane Sandy. His firm began research on the ecology and environmental impact of lower Manhattan in 2007, many years before Sandy; he noted that the city footprint has increased manyfold from 1650-2010. During Hurricane Sandy, floodwater reached the original 1650 footprint. His firm is reforming the lower Manhattan landscape to increase stormwater management, particularly with a design that features floating parks and wetlands extending off the lower tip of the island to absorb excess water.

Last to speak, this time without a visual aid but just as engaging, was Geoffrey Heal. Of all the speakers on the panel, he presented the most uplifting news about the fate of our climate and natural resources: There are solutions. Electrical power is becoming cheaper and more efficient, solar power is becoming cost-competitive as well, and fossil fuels have seen a huge loss in market value—Heal joked that Michael Bloomberg could buy the world’s supply with pocket change.

Heal argues that we need to view natural resources and our environment as assets and find opportunities to invest in them. This can only happen if we change the economic incentives involved—instead of paying for the wood made from cut-down trees, we need to pay countries to invest in their forests, specifically the Brazilian Amazon. Also, Heal noted, bees are slowly dying out, but their pollination of plants allows us to eat roughly a third of the food we consume. Pollinating insects like bees are worth $14 trillion. And forests, like the Amazon?They suck up CO2 and provide oxygen. While there isn’t a market for oxygen, the absorptive abilities of trees is also valued at $14 trillion. Heal’s main lesson: If these things are so valuable, why are we destroying them?

Through apps like “The Good Guide,” which detects if a product is socially and environmentally responsible, we can put pressure on major companies to improve their supply chains. Political lobbyism is a large hurdle to jump over, but it can, and must, be done. There is good news: We can help our environment. But we have to be willing to make the effort.

Last night’s panel discussion is part of a series of events leading up to the international climate conference COP21 in Paris in December 2015.

Reshaping our city via Maison Francaise