Since the ancient times of the Classic Greece, the squaring of the circle, represent one of the most iconic mathematical problems, for which wise men have devoted their efforts for centuries; in fact, it became part of everyday language as synonymous of a difficult situation, in which opposite interest or tendencies are involved. The squaring of the circle is the challenge of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle, by using only a finite number of steps with a compass and straightedge; nevertheless, mathematicians at that time were able to demonstrate that in fact this problem has no solution, since no square can have an equal area to a circle, even if the surface they occupy is very similar. The essential of this problem is the irrational quantity of pi, an enigmatic whim of science. Therefore, if the most rational of sciences, has such irrationalities, how can we not find them in real life? In this essay I would like to reflect on the considerations that take place when we talk about environmental decisions, and how to deal with its conditional factors when it comes to energy or infrastructure projects.
As in the mathematical problem, decision-making about environmental aspects is often encouraged to resolve conflicts of interest that challenge rationality and force those responsible to dig deeper into their brains, like the ancient sages. Allow me, for example, an approach to the Mexican case, in this country a change of criteria, has been moving the procedures on which the energy projects have been developing. Currently, all projects must have their Environmental Impact Studies approved by the General Directorate of Environmental Impact (DGIRA) in México City, through what is known as a Regional Environmental Impact Manifestation (MIA-R); before that, it was possible to resolve this matter in the states. So far, DGIRA is doing a great job at unifying criteria, many of which are significantly more stringent than those handled statewide. The government is making sure that the studies are thoroughly and adequately characterizing the environmental condition, which in my opinion is a positive remark. Although this situation forces a little more effort in the elaboration phase, it objectifies the conditional and introduces certainty into the process. However, this additional effort in the preparation of the studies seems to drag us in the opposite direction to achieving another necessary objective: minimizing the cost of the project. In a market, in which the overwhelming success of long-term energy sales auctions has shrunk the energy prices, minimizing them to world records, increasing environmental requirements (and social indeed) are causing some extraordinary tension. Then, how do we square the circle? Should we consider that there also a “Pi” of Problem Irresolvable?
Let´s try to delve a little deeper and look for the complements of this Gordian Knot1 ; from a rational approximation, the first question shall be, “What does the promoter of the project, whatever its nature is, is looking for?” Without a doubt, their main objective is to execute their project, but at what price and cost? In my experience, this is not always the case. As I have observed throughout my career, many developers, especially in the field of renewable energy, have environmental sensibility. Then it would be naïve to assume that this will always be the case, or that the respect for the environment will always be the main motivation of those who fight to bring a project of this nature to a successful conclusion. Undeniably, the cost of developing the project is another essential factor that promoters must try to minimize; however, as the saying goes, “buy cheap, buy twice”, since not all costs are manifested at the same time, a shallow environmental study may imply further efforts, such as the increase of sampling areas, or higher costs during execution, in the case of what was early documented does not correspond to the actual conditions of the site.
In this sense, here in Natura we have met our share of bombshells, while working on areas where trees and bushes stand stubbornly, where according to previous environmental studies there should be nothing. Even if the initial approval of the studies may have seemed as good news, the treatment of this inconsistences is highly expensive. Dealing with unforeseen forest areas can generate delays on the schedule and heavy costs for clear-cutting and clearing activities. Even if those surfaces weren’t initially considered for the construction, PROFEPA will pay especial attention to their treatment, so this kind of uncertainty, more than a benefit, denotes confusion, disorganization and delays. Therefore, is safe to say that a thoughtfully characterize wildlife is essential for the proper pace and execution of environmental works. Yet, not all problems derived from a superficial study have to do with the characterization of the environmental system; it is advisable to also pay attention to the proposed measures. As an example, in Mexico the tendency of crushing and scattering the accumulated wood is a dragging fashion; that in our opinion, is not environmentally necessary, – perhaps, even counterproductive- to scatter huge quantities of organic matter, in an already balanced ecosystems. As a person who is forced to eat more, not all ecosystems will appreciate the contribution.
Quite contrary, wood is a valuable resource, that shouldn’t be wasted. In fact, it could be used for creating social benefits, either as fuel, cooking, fireplaces or even as crafts. And in any case, it should be noted that the chipping process, which is not more questionable, also involves significant costs in the execution of the project, a cost that could surpass hundred thousand euros. I am convinced that investing in good environmental analyzes and paying attention to mitigation conditions and measures, will ultimately benefit developers and project owners. If all cost is considered, during every phase, planning, development, execution, and operation, whoever intendents to sell the project, could seek to optimize the initial cost, thinking about reducing the following investment. It should also be noted that an adequate Due Diligence during the purchase will reveal any deficiency and should be able to identify further over costs, that may compromise the price of the project´s sale.
In summary, although the overexertion derived from the hardening of the environmental criteria may seem as bad news, well channeled effort can lead not only to a better environmental management and an important impacts reduction, but even a decrease in the total cost during the execution and operation phase is possible. Abandoning our comfort zone, and paying more attention to this aspect, unexpected improvements can be made for the ultimate benefit of the project, the environment and the property itself. It is not that we have squared the circle, but maybe is just that the problem was not such…
Jorge Melero Camarero
Managing Director of Natura EST México