Law, the laws of nature and ecosystem energy services: a case of wilful blindness

14 August 2013

Ecosystems services include the collection, concentration, and storage of solar energy as fossil fuels (e.g., coal, petroleum, and natural gas). These concentrated forms of energy were produced by ancient ecosystem services. However, our legal and economic systems fail to recognise the value of the ecosystem service subsidies embedded in fossil fuels. This ecosystem services price subsidy causes overuse and waste of fossil fuels in the free market: fossil fuels are consumed more quickly than they can be replaced by ecosystem services and in far larger quantities than they would be if the price of fossil fuels included the cost of solar energy collection, concentration and manufacturing of raw fossil fuels. Moreover, burning fossil fuels produces enormous environmental, human health and welfare costs and damage. Virtually no legal literature on ecosystem services, sustainable development, or sustainable energy, considers fossil fuels in this context. Without understanding stored energy as an ecosystem service, we cannot reasonably expect to manage our fossil fuel energy resources sustainably. International and domestic energy law and policy systems generally ignore this feature of fossil fuel energy, a blind spot that explains why reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels is fundamentally a political challenge. This paper will use new understandings emerging from the field of complex systems to critique existing legal decision-making models that do not adequately account for energy ecosystem services in policy design, resource allocation and project approvals. The paper proposes a new "least-social-cost" decision-making legal structure that includes ecosystem energy services.