Tag Archives: Leonie Joubert

Leonie Joubert on measuring the real value of the world

Dear friends,

A decent cup of coffee could set you back R24, you’ll pay about R1.62 for a glass of milk, and squeezed citrus will cost around R13 per litre. But how much should we pay for a sip of clean water. And what’s the value of a glass of fresh, unpolluted air, asks Leonie Joubert?

“Climate change is a massive failure of the markets,” sustainability consultant Steffen Johnsen’s voice cut through the unusually hot Copenhagen afternoon. He smiled wryly.

“And now we’re using markets to fix the problem!”

Johnsen is with the Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology (NORDECO) and we were in a discussion about carbon markets, the controversial idea of turning carbon pollution into a kind of currency for trading on a new fangled market in order to slow the polluting processes that got us into this mess in the first place.

He had a point. Like so many modern environmental crises, climate change is a failure of the markets because when the markets have added up the cost of anything, they’ve excluded the value of nature’s goods and services from the bottom line.

Take the atmosphere. Think of it as a massive landfill that we’ve been dumping our gaseous waste into for hundreds of years – free. If we’d had to pay a local municipality or government to take care of that “rubbish” for us, we’d have added that cost of it into our own bottom line. We’d have tweaked our household budget to include it, and maybe not bought that extra bottle of wine or maybe even chosen a cheaper car to bring down the monthly repayments.

Now, after centuries of free use, the landfill in the sky has almost reached capacity. The rubbish we’ve dumped into it is about to spill over the top. Now we want to penalise economies for using that landfill, and the market’s getting very twitchy at the thought.

Economics is a bit baffling, to be honest, and the global carbon market even has the experts’ brows furrowed at the complexity. But it raises some interesting ideas about how we’ve been using so many of nature’s goods and services gratis.

Yes, we pay for the can of coke, but we don’t pay for the value of nature’s evolutionary processes that gave us the biological diversity which culminated in sugar cane. We don’t pay for the river catchment that soaked up the rain and channelled it to the field where the cane grew. Likewise, we don’t pay for the service provided by the atmosphere which brought that very rain, nor do we pay for the waste sink it provides when it takes up all those emissions put out during the production, cooling and shipping of that coke.

If we added those “externalities” (to use an economist’s term) into the equation, the can of coke might cost more than caviar.

Now that glass of tap water feels more valuable than the pittance we pay our municipality to deliver it to our kitchen tap! And as for the breath of air I just drew as I wrote that? Priceless.

Download this article here.

© Leonie Joubert, July 2009


Leonie Joubert on Denmark’s green solutions!

The sandy parking lot outside a lanky red-brick building in the Danish village of Nakskov is stacked deep with white fibreglass shapes that look like… they look like… well, I suppose they look like misshapen catamaran hulls, upended and awaiting assembly down at the local harbour.

Turns out, they’re wind turbine blades. And they’re gigantic up close: over twice as long as our bus, and, at their deepest, taller than a man.

For the moment, they’re impotent, resting on their wheeled transport frames. But the spinning turbines on an experimental plot nearby tell of things to come. These blades are part of Denmark’s booming wind power technology exports and once they’re assembled, they’ll generate green power on some distant part of the globe.

We can’t stop to take photographs – proprietary knowledge, our guide tells us, the company doesn’t like people to take pictures (we snap away through the windows of the bus, anyway) – but this is how the port town recovered from the crippling oil crisis of the 1970s which killed the local fishing industry here.

Nakskov falls within the economically marginal municipal district of Lolland, on Denmark’s fourth largest island. To lift itself out of the economic slump of the ’70s, the municipality turned green by attracting companies who wanted to do research and development in renewable energy technologies.

Today they have one of the largest wind turbine blade exporters, and the world’s first offshore wind power plant and an experimental housing scheme that runs off hydrogen for heating and power. Biomass dumped at the local recycling plant is also burned to produce power.

Wind electricity generated here is used within the Lolland municipality, and is sold onto the national and Scandinavian grips. But some of the excess electricity is also used to produce hydrogen, an energy hungry process. This hydrogen is piped to the experimental houses (only one is on the “grid” at the moment, but they’ll have five in operation soon) where hydrogen fuel cells give the homes their electricity and heating.

Soon they’ll have a wave energy test plant in operation. And dykes – which have been built to keep the rising sea level at bay – are going to have algae production ponds built into them, where algae will be grown for biomass and fuel. The Lolland municipality markets itself to businesses as a green laboratory where companies can test out their tech and it seems to have helped the region’s economic recovery.

Across Denmark, about 20 percent of its grid is fed with wind power. It imports some hydropower from Sweden. Beyond that, most of its energy is from fossil fuels – some of which comes from burning imported South African coal.

But the gulf between a sustainable green future, and the current fossil fuel-intensive one, is made all the more real as the sky above us gets criss-crossed with the contrails of aircraft whizzing this way and that over Scandinavia.

Seems we have a long way to go before we turn the corner on our fossil fuel economy.

*Download a copy of this article.

Leonie Joubert is a freelance science journalist, columnist and author. To view more of her writing, visit www.scorched.co.za