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University of Minnesota

A new face in the academy

April 30, 2010

Stephen Polasky.

Stephen Polasky applies his knowledge of economics to solving ecological problems.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary

Bringing economic analysis to ecological problems wins Stephen Polasky a place in the National Academy of Sciences

By Deane Morrison

If Oscar Wilde was right that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, then University of Minnesota professor Stephen Polasky is out to destroy cynicism.

An economist by training, Polasky helps people grasp the value a healthy environment holds for both their well-being and the bottom line.

His work provides tools to factor in the complete set of consequences of decisions, including environmental impacts not currently included in economic analyses. For example, coal is cheap for electric-generating companies, but it imposes additional costs on society, such as carbon, mercury, and sulfur dioxide emissions.

Last Tuesday (April 27, 2010) Polasky's efforts were recognized when he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor most scientists consider second to the Nobel Prize.

"I am thrilled to be elected," he says. "I think it is a strong vote of confidence about the importance of combining ecology and economics in decision-making."

A new kind of cost-benefit analysis

Polasky was among the first to integrate economic thinking into conservation biology. In one study, he and his coauthors found that two or three times as many species could be conserved with the same amount of money by jointly accounting for economic, as well as biological, factors. For example, one can conserve far more species by buying many tracts of land in places like Nebraska and Nevada for the same cost as buying one tract in the San Francisco Bay Area.

By bringing the value of intact ecosystems—and the costs of degrading them—into the equation, Polasky has inserted a crucial element into debates ranging from energy production to land use and habitat conservation.

In the area of biofuels, he worked with University ecologist David Tilman and other colleagues to calculate the value of alternative forms of renewable energy compared to fossil fuels, including environmental costs as well as direct production costs. The researchers found that while using more biofuel can be good for the environment, clearing land to produce it can create a "carbon debt" that could take decades or centuries to repay.

Beyond this, Polasky considers all the environmental services we get from a landscape, such as ample supplies of clean water, food production, soil retention, and wildlife habitat. One of his big goals is to find ways to give landowners incentives to change their land use or management to yield healthier landscapes that can supply more services.

"For example, suppose there were a 'carbon market' that limited the amount of carbon that could be emitted into the air and rewarded landowners for conserving carbon in either forests or soils," Polasky says.

He cites the Clean Air Act, which cut air pollution in half during a period of strong economic growth, as one example of how a policy can allow economic development while slowing or halting environmental damage.

"It goes to show that good economics and good environmental stewardship can go hand in hand," he notes.

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, College of Biological Sciences

Stephen Polasky is the Fesler Lampert Professor of Ecological/Environmental Economics in the University's Department of Applied Economics and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.