Biodiversity in Concord – what it means for climate control

Living by the Global Warming Solution Act would mean a substantial step towards reducing our environmental impact.  Since Concord is an affluent town and contributes well more than average CO2 emissions per capita than the average American, we have a special responsibility and make a larger impact in doing so.  We recognize that this is not the whole story; that stabilizing the climate to avoid catastrophic changes in the future will take more, in particular saving the biodiversity and natural carbon sinks of the planet.  Halting climate change may also take measures which are controversial to the environmentalist movement, such as geo-engineering or using more nuclear power, and the longer we wait to act, the more drastic those measures will need to be.  Local measures such as planting trees and stopping development will probably not be enough.

For numerous reasons, I am a big fan of biodiversity, preserving open land, stopping un-sustainable development, and learning to live with minimum environmental impact.  My question is, how much can atmospheric CO2 be affected by what we do locally, and if the answer is “small” compared with reducing and greening energy consumption, how much should it be emphasized.  As I see it, the biggest impacts on biodiversity that we can have as a town are:

  1. Preserving open space for long term – Almost 40% of the town’s area is already protected as open space (6100 acres out of 16,000 total). When there is an opportunity to save more land from development, it should be taken.  But the amount of undeveloped land which is available for permanent protection is limited.  And assuming it is already not developed the forward impact is very minor; protecting that lands potential to sink carbon is vital but does not add to the carbon sink required to bring CO2
  2. Converting developed land to conserved land – there may be some opportunities for this. The cost to take land out of circulation would be high.  The biggest opportunities here would be damaged tracts, such as the Nuclear Metals land.  Over time parcels like this could grow trees and absorb carbon.  However, the amount of CO2 absorbed per acre-year is of order 10% the amount of CO2 emissions reduction from building a solar panel array on that space.  So there is a tension between preserving land vs renewable energy that needs to be dealt with.  Where the impact to the towns character is minimal, I think we should convert damaged tracts and parking lots to solar arrays.
  3. Agricultural land – I would argue that converting agricultural land to conservation land could increase biodiversity but goes against preserving the town’s character. Much of the agricultural land is managed fairly sustainably, so I suspect there isn’t that much opportunity to have an impact here.
  4. Lowering peoples impact on residential land – this is perhaps where some impact could be had. Better lawn practices, less mowing and leaf blowing, improved grass mixtures, reduced watering.  Less clear-cut development, smaller lawns and more gardens, and the right sort of gardens to sequester CO2 – which I realized the other night that I knew very little about.   These are a variety of things which can be pursued, some individually, but are difficult to measure and regulate.  The potential savings for a typical property, whatever that is, is pretty small.  For a 1 acre property, according to the American Planning Association, converting it 50% to forest (permanently – for centuries – which is hard to guarantee) would amount to roughly 1 ton of CO2 sequestration per year.  We can accomplish many times more than this CO2 savings by flying less, driving electric, heating electric, and greening our electricity supply.

There is no disagreement, we should work both on energy consumption and efficiency, and on biodiversity.  But as I see it, the impact we can have on the former is many times higher than the latter.  This is why I think this year we should focus on the larger impact, with a solid commitment towards getting to 80% reduction by 2050.  Success would be measureable, and we could be an example for other towns to do so.  I think the town could adopt this, and that it would be difficult for opponents to persuasively argue that we shouldn’t take the climate seriously and reduce our impact.  On the other hand, including biodiversity enhancement as a primary goal would in my opinion provoke a stronger opposition from people concerned with property rights, and remind people of earlier arguments about artificial turf.  The three legged approach would be more likely to fail, and the forward momentum from the EFTF might be lost.

Posted in environment.