Category Archives: Latest

303 – Postdoctoral Research Fellow position available

I was lucky enough to be part of a team that won a grant in the latest round of ARC Discovery grants. We’re looking for a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the project.

The project is led by Eve McDonald Madden at the University of Queensland, and is called “Global extent of degraded farm lands and their conservation potential”. The brief summary from the funding proposal is as follow:

Globally the area of agricultural land is shrinking due to environmental degradation, market changes and social trends. In the last 15 years Australia has experienced a steep decline in total pasture lands. Restoration of degraded lands no longer used for agriculture may present a major conservation opportunity. Although expensive, restoring these areas should involve minimal social or political opposition and offer new economic opportunities and help mitigate climate change. This Project aims to map uncontested lands worldwide and assess their potential contribution to global conservation. The outcome will identify the extent and location of uncontested lands and provide a framework for deciding how best to invest in their regeneration.

I’m really looking forward to this project. I hadn’t really be aware of abandoned agricultural land until a visit to Estonia in 2006, when I saw some areas that were rapidly reverting from agriculture to forest. It turns out that there is quite a bit of this sort of thing around the world. For example, over the past 15 years, total global pasture area has declined by 62 million hectares, with only a small amount of this land being used for other agricultural purposes. It seems possible that these areas could contribute to nature conservation goals at low opportunity cost. That’s what we are going to explore, anyway.

It’s a terrific research team. Eve is just wonderful, and we’ve also got Richard Hobbs (from UWA) and Eddie Game (from The Nature Conservancy).

The job details are here: http://jobs.uq.edu.au/caw/en/job/500343/postdoctoral-research-fellow

Applicants should possess a PhD in the area of remote sensing, GIS, economics, ecology modelling or a closely related discipline.

301 – Inequality in the USA

Following the catastrophic result of the US unpopularity contest last week, one of the many suggested explanations was the level of economic inequality in the country. This made me think of the graph below, which I saw last year. It shows that, when it comes to inequality, the US is truly exceptional.

The graph shows the Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) for 115 countries, plotted against their GDP per capita (a measure of their average income). There is a very clear pattern. Above a certain level of inequality (Gini coefficient of about 37), almost all countries have really low average income levels, while above a certain level of average income (GDP per capita of $12,000), almost all countries have fairly low inequality.

 

gini

Source: http://visualizingeconomics.com/blog/2006/01/04/gdp-per-capital-vs-gini-index

 

The exception is the US, which has both high average income and high inequality. There is a lot of wealth in the US but it is concentrated into a minority of hands. As one illustration, between 2009 and 2012, 95% of income gains in the US accrued to the top 1% of income earners. Other data seems to show that their inability to share around the wealth has become worse over time. Other countries with a similar level of inequality have about one eighth as much average income.

If it is true that inequality is behind this incredible electoral result, we can perhaps draw some solace from the fact that inequality is so much less in all other wealthy countries.

On the other hand, inequality was clearly not the only factor. Already, like-minded politicians around the world are feeling empowered and emboldened to spread their noxious views throughout their societies. We can see that happening in Australia, France and The Netherlands, for example.

And there seems plenty to worry about from what could now happen in the US. The world’s most powerful country will soon be led by a deeply ignorant man of appalling values and character. Even by the low standards of politicians, he tells obvious lies to an extraordinary extent. I feel angry that so many Americans were taken in by this conman, and now the whole world will have to suffer the consequences.

The other thing I can’t stop thinking about is a certain historical parallel. Can you think of another prominent national leader from the 20th century who was elected on a promise of making his country great again? This other leader also used an ethnic minority group as a scapegoat for his society’s problems, and found a sympathetic ear from countrymen who felt they had been badly treated. He had notable authoritarian tendencies, fomented hatred and resentment, was not averse to jailing his political opponents, did not respect the rule of law or democratic institutions, and was unable ever to admit that he had made an error. He excited mobs with messages that were simple and bold but facile and dangerous. He was friendly with other authoritarian leaders (although that didn’t last). And he had a distinctive hair style.

I’m not expecting that the US will now proceed to annex Alberta as a prelude to invading all of the countries they can practically get to, but I do think there is a serious risk that voices of reason, balance, kindness and openness within the country will be repressed and perhaps even persecuted. We have to hope that good Americans will be able to moderate or even prevent the barrage of stupid and repugnant policies that will now come forth.

298 – Potential value from restoring urban drains

I remember as a child playing in the stormwater drains near my home in suburban Perth. The drains were straight, steep-sided, fenced off (to keep us out) and the banks were bare grass, but the water contained little fish, called gambusia, that we loved to catch, not caring that they were actually feral pests.

These days, there is growing interest in restoring urban drains to something approaching a natural stream, including natural vegetation on the surrounding land. In a study funded by the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, we set out to measure the benefits from restoring a particular drain in Perth.

gambusiaThe drain in question was Bannister Creek, which is really close to my childhood home and those other drains I played in.

In 1979 the creek was straightened, deepened, and made into a traditional drain. During the 1980s and 1990s, the area was urbanised, leading to loss of the wetland system and riparian vegetation, nutrient-rich runoff from lawns and gardens, runoff from industry, and increased erosion and pollution problems in the catchment. Additionally, during high-rainfall events, the increase in the volume and speed of water surging through the now straightened and steeply-banked Banister Creek main drain had become a public-safety risk.

In response, a volunteer group formed (the Bannister Creek Catchment Group), with the aim of improving the creek/drain, including a project to rehabilitate a section of it to a “living stream”. The aim was that this would provide flood-mitigation, local amenity benefits, improved water quality, and slower flow velocity.

The restoration project, from 2000 to 2002, involved giving the creek a more natural shape, with meanders, riffles, fringing sedges, gentle sloping banks, and thick vegetation on the banks.

The transformation from drain to living stream can be seen in Figure 1, which tracks the evolution of the area through time.

living1

Figure 1. Drain restoration over time.

Figure 2 shows the changes at ground level. They were pretty dramatic.

living2

Figure 2. Before and after drain restoration.

To estimate the impact of these changes we examined changes in house prices in the area. We used a statistical model to separate out the various influences on house prices, so that we could isolate the influence of the drain restoration.

This approach means that we are capturing the benefits to local residents, but not possible benefits to others, and not ecological benefits that local residents are unaware of. We expect that the measured benefits would include aspects of amenity, recreation and environmental values.

The results were really interesting, and somewhat surprising in their magnitudes. We found that the restoration project had an influence on property prices over a distance of about 200 metres from the creek. Given that the restored section of the creek was about 320 metres long, quite a large number of property values were affected.

In the first few years after project commencement, property values in the area actually fell, probably reflecting a negative attitude to the substantial earthworks that were required.

However, by 2007 the impact had become very positive. On average, the sale prices of houses in the area rose eventually by an average of 3.9 to 4.7% due directly to the restoration project. Considering only these benefits, the costs of the project were only about 25 to 50% of the benefits.

Overall, the results were very encouraging about the prospects for this type of project to deliver worthwhile benefits to the community.

Further reading

Polyakov, M., Fogarty, J., Zhang, F., Pandit, R. and Pannell, D. (2016). The value of restoring urban drains to living streams, Water Resources and Economics Journal web site ♦ IDEAS page

295 – What is a threatened species worth?


There are around 1800 species included on Australia’s national list of threatened species of fauna and flora. The most severely threatened category, “critically endangered”, includes 6 mammals, 16 birds, 8 fish, 9 reptiles, 5 frogs, 25 other animals and 148 plants.

My feeling is that the general public is more concerned about threatened species than about many other environmental issues. There is something horrifying about the thought of extinction that resonates with most people to some extent.

Nevertheless, our performance at improving the status of threatened species is generally poor, in part because of a lack of funding available to address the problems.

tassie_tigerResearchers have attempted to measure the level of public concern about threatened species in a variety of ways. Economists have most often measured it using surveys to elicit people’s willingness to pay to protect a species, or their willingness to trade-off species protection against other benefits that they care about.

The Department of the Environment (as it was then) asked us to review the existing evidence from this body of research. The results are available online here. Here is the abstract from the report:

Literature on non-market valuation (NMV) of threated species and threatened ecological communities was collated and reviewed. We reviewed 76 papers, of which seven were from Australia. There is strong evidence that the broader community does support and is willing to pay for protection and recovery of threatened species. In many cases, the estimated non-market values far exceed the expenditure that would be required to protect or recover the species. However, there are significant gaps in the literature, particularly for threatened reptiles, plants, insects and non-charismatic species. There are no NMV studies of threatened ecological communities. We identify cases where evidence about non-market values has had a notable impact on the management or funding of threatened species. There are many such cases. However, overall utilisation of NMVs in decision making about threatened species is low and there is great potential for benefits if its utilisation is increased. Barriers inhibiting such an increase include lack of awareness of economics in relevant organisations, lack of existing economics capacity in those organisations, the limited volume of existing evidence about NMVs for threatened species and ecological communities, and a lack of time and resources to undertake economic analysis. We make suggestions for future directions for research and capacity-building.

Further reading

Pandit, R., Subroy, V., Garnett, S.T., Zander, K.K. and Pannell, D. 2015. A review of non-market valuation studies of threatened species and ecological communities. Report to the National Environmental Science Programme, Department of the Environment, Canberra. 18 December 2015. Full report here.

Richardson, L. and Loomis, J. (2009). The total economic value of threatened, endangered and rare species: An updated meta-analysis, Ecological Economics 68(5), 1535-1548. IDEAS page

294 – Slovakia

Most people outside eastern Europe know little about Slovakia, and it’s not a noted tourist destination for the English-speaking world. But after spending two weeks there in June-July 2016, I’d recommend it highly as a great place to visit and explore.

I knew little about the place before selecting it, almost at random, as a place that would be interesting to go to. It turned out to be a great choice.

The Slovakian people have lived through multiple dramatic events and drastic changes over the past century. Here’s an extremely brief summary.

Before the First World War, the area we now call Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After 1918, the state of Czechoslovakia was formed, and was reasonably prosperous for a while, but then the country became a puppet state of Nazi Germany. After World War II, Czechoslovakia had a few years of independence, but in 1948 the Communist Party staged a coup and Czechoslovakia became a Soviet-controlled satellite state. In 1968 the country entered a period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring, but this was brutally put down when they were invaded by the Soviet Union and three communist neighbours. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the communist government in Czechoslovakia resigned and there was a completely non-violent transition out of communism and into democracy and a market economy. Initially the Czechs and Slovaks stuck together in Czechoslovakia as one country, but in 1992 the Slovak parliament declared that Slovakia should become an independent state. It joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009.

What a roller coaster ride! Imagine the eventful life of a Slovakian who was born in, say, 1930 and is still alive.

After all that, it is quite remarkable to see what a stable, safe and prosperous place it is today. We observed clean, attractive towns, modern shops, well-maintained housing, new cars on the streets and people who are clearly doing pretty well. Their GDP per capita was 76% of the EU average in 2014.

Of course, the story is not all happy. The country’s treatment of its Roma minority seems quite disgraceful. Many Slovakians are disillusioned with the quality of their government (but who isn’t?) and they do seem to have more corruption scandals than you would hope. Amongst the new office buildings and shops, there are ugly and neglected old Soviet buildings. And many city people still live in large apartment blocks, presumably from the Soviet era, which look rather sterile, at least from the outside.

We spent 5 days in the capital Bratislava, which is right next to the Austrian border. If you ever visit Vienna, I suggest also making the short journey to Bratislava for at least a day trip. I can recommend going by boat, along the River Danube. Central Bratislava has lots of great old buildings and a big castle, and its setting on the Danube is fantastic.

slovakia2We enjoyed a relatively relaxing time in Bratislava, but the best part of the visit was yet to come. We caught a train to Poprad-Tatry, near the High Tatras Mountains in northern Slovakia, and then on to Stary Smokovec, part way up the mountains.

The scenery throughout the journey was just spectacular, with rivers, valleys, green fields, castles, hills and mountains. What an incredibly beautiful place!

slovakia3We spent 10 days in Stary Smokovec, resting, exploring and enjoying the region. It’s really cheap and convenient to get around on a small electric train. The main towns all have ski lifts, cable cars or funiculars to get you up the steep mountain sides. We tried out almost all of these and had a fantastic time, marveling at the views, walking along mountain paths, enjoying the local food and observing the locals.

Once we got out of Bratislava, we found that most things are really cheap compared to what we’re used to. Train travel within the country is an absolute bargain.

The area we stayed in had lots of tourists, almost all of them from within Slovakia, plus a few from neighbouring countries Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. We didn’t come across any other English-speaking tourinsts the whole time we were in the High Tatras. There must be some, but clearly not many.

Despite that, we managed to get by speaking only English, as there were enough people with a bit of English around, particularly among the younger generation. Innovative sign language can be remarkably effective too.

Pauline and I agreed that the High Tatras area is right up there with the best places we have ever visited. We’ve been talking about how and when we might make a return visit.