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Posts Tagged ‘cost-benefit analysis’

Hurricanes and the social rate of discount

With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.

However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.

I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.

This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.

But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.

Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.

Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.

However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.

A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.

How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)


  1. What is meant by the social rate of discount?
  2. Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
  3. How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
  4. How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
  5. How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
  6. What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
  7. Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
  8. What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?
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A bridge to somewhere

Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.

Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.

Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.

On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.

The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.

So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?

Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.

Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.

The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.

One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.

The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.

Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)


  1. Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
  2. How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
  3. Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
  4. Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
  5. What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
  6. Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
  7. What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
  8. What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
  9. Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?
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Going nuclear

The UK government has finally given the go-ahead to build the new Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset. It will consist of two European pressurised reactors, a relatively new technology. No EPR plant has yet been completed, with the one in the most advanced stages of construction at Flamanville in France, having experienced many safety and construction problems. This is currently expected to be more than three times over budget and at least six years behind its original completion date of 2012.

The Hinkley C power station, first proposed in 2007, is currently estimated to cost £18 billion. This cost will be borne entirely by its builder, EDF, the French 85% state-owned company, and its Chinese partner, CGN. When up and running – currently estimated at 2025 – it is expected to produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity output.

On becoming Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May announced that the approval for the plant would be put on hold while further investigation of its costs, benefits, security concerns, technological issues and safeguards was conducted. This has now been completed and approval has been granted subject to new conditions. The main one is that the government “will be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to the completion of construction”. This will allow the government to prevent change of ownership during the construction phase. Thus, for example, EDF, would not be allowed to sell its share of Hinkley C to CGN, which currently has a one-third share in the project. EDF and CGN have accepted the new terms.

After Hinkley the government will have a ‘golden share’ in all future nuclear projects. “This will ensure that significant stakes cannot be sold without the Government’s knowledge or consent.”

In return for their full financing of the project, the government has guaranteed EDF and CGN a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour of electricity (in 2012 prices). This price will be borne by consumers. It will rise with inflation from now and over the first 35 years of the power station’s operation. It is expected that the Hinkley C will have a life of 60 years.

Critics point out that this guaranteed ‘strike price’ is more than double the current wholesale price of electricity and, with the price of renewables falling as technology improves, it will be an expensive way to meet the UK’s electricity needs and cut carbon emissions.

Those in favour argue that it is impossible to predict electricity prices into the distant future and that the certainty this plant will give is worth the high price by current standards.

To assess the desirability of the plant requires an assessment of its costs and benefits. In principle, this is a relatively simple process of identifying and measuring the costs and benefits, including external costs and benefits; discounting future costs and benefits to give them a present value; weighting them by their probability of occurrence; then calculating whether the net present value is positive or negative. A sensitivity analysis could also be conducted to show just how sensitive the net present value would be to changes in the value of specific costs or benefits.

In practice the process is far from simple – largely because of the huge uncertainty over specific costs and benefits. These include future wholesale electricity prices, unforeseen problems in construction and operation, and a range of political issues, such as pressure from various interest groups, and attitudes and actions of EDF and CGN and their respective governments, which will affect not only Hinkley C but other future power stations.

The articles look at the costs and benefits of this, the most expensive construction project ever in the UK, and possibly on Earth..

Hinkley Point: UK approves nuclear plant deal BBC News (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: What is it and why is it important? BBC News, John Moylan (15/9/16)
‘The case hasn’t changed’ for Hinkley Point C BBC Today Programme, Malcolm Grimston (29/7/16)
U.K. Approves EDF’s £18 Billion Hinkley Point Nuclear Project Bloomberg, Francois De Beaupuy (14/9/16)
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station gets government green light The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Simon Goodley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C: now for a deep rethink on the nuclear adventure? The Guardian, Nils Pratley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C finally gets green light as Government approves nuclear deal with EDF and China The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (15/9/16)
UK gives go-ahead for ‘revised’ £18bn Hinkley Point plant Financial Times, Andrew Ward, Jim Pickard and Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: Is the UK getting a good deal? Financial Times, Andrew Ward (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point is risk for overstretched EDF, warn critics Financial Times, Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley C must be the first of many new nuclear plants The Conversation, Simon Hogg (16/9/16)

Nuclear power in the UK National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General (12/7/16)


  1. Summarise the arguments for going ahead with Hinkley C.
  2. Summarise the objections to Hinkley C.
  3. What categories of uncertain costs and uncertain benefits are there for the project?
  4. Is the project in EDF’s interests?
  5. How will the government’s golden share system operate?
  6. How should the discount rate be chosen for discounting future costs and benefits from a project such as Hinkley C?
  7. What factors will determine the wholesale price of electricity over the coming years? In real terms, do you think it is likely to rise or fall? Explain.
  8. If nuclear power has high fixed costs and low marginal costs, how does this affect how much nuclear power stations should be used in a situation of daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand?
  9. How could ‘smart grid’ technology smooth out peaks and troughs in electricity supply and demand? How does this affect the relative arguments about nuclear power versus renewables?
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A Brazilian legacy?

It doesn’t seem long ago that we were looking at the prospects of Brazil for hosting the Football World Cup. Now, we turn to the same economy, but this time for the Olympics. It is often the case that hosting big global sporting events can give a boost to the host nation, but is Brazil prepared for it? Did the World Cup bring the expected economic boosts? Some argue that the Olympics is just what Brazil needs, but others suggest it will only worsen the economic situation in the world’s seventh largest economy.

Brazil’s economic performance in the past year was not good. In fact, it was one of the worst performing nations of any major economy, with GDP falling by 3%. This is a very different country from the one that was awarded this biggest of sporting events. Despite these difficult times, Brazil’s government maintains that the country is ready and that the games will be ‘spectacular’.

Key to hosting a sporting event such as the Olympics is the infrastructure investment and as a key component of aggregate demand, this should be a stimulant for growth and job creation. However, with the economy still struggling, many are concerned that the infrastructure won’t be in place in time.

Other benefits from this should be the boost to growth driven by athletes and spectators coming from around the globe, buying tickets, memorabilia, accommodation, food and other items that tourists tend to buy. A multiplier effect should be seen and according to research has the potential to create significant benefits for the whole economy and not just the local regions where events take place. You can look at similar analysis in blogs written about Tokyo: 2020 Tokyo Olympics and London: The London Olympics legacy: a cost–benefit analysis and Does hosting the Olympics Games increase economic growth?

But, is this really likely to happen, especially given the somewhat lacklustre boost that the Brazil World Cup gave to the economy? The following articles consider this.

Rio 2016: Can Games bounce back from Brazil economic woes? BBC News, Bill Wilson (11/03/16)
Does hosting the Olympics actually pay off? It’s the economy, Binyamin Applebaum (5/08/14)
Rio Olympics no help to Brazil economy based on World Cup Bloomberg, Raymond Colitt (16/01/15)
The economic impact of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics Saxo Group, Trading Floor, Sverrir Sverrisson (27/08/12)
Special Interview: Cost–benefit analysis of hosting the World Cup, Olympics Al Arabiya, Ricardo Guerra (3/7/14)


  1. How might you carry out a cost–benefit analysis to decide whether to host a big sporting event?
  2. Are there any externalities that might result from hosting the Olympics? How easy is it to estimate their monetary value? Should this be taken into account by a country when making a decision?
  3. Why might there be a boost to aggregate demand prior to the Olympics?
  4. Why might there be a multiplier effect when a nation hosts the Olympics or another sporting event?
  5. Might there be benefits to Brazil’s neighbours from its hosting the Olympics?
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Integral ecology: mentally internalising externalities – and more

At the G7 conference in Bavaria on 7 and 8 June 2015, it was agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. But despite this significant objective, there were no short-term measures put in place to start on the process of achieving this goal. Nevertheless, the agreement contained commitments to further developments in carbon markets, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, incentives for the development of green energy and support for developing countries in reducing hydrofluorocarbons.

The agreement also sent a strong message to the 21st United Nations International Climate Change conference scheduled to meet in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The G7 communiqué states that binding rules would be required if the target was to be met.

The agreement should enhance transparency and accountability including through binding rules at its core to track progress towards achieving targets, which should promote increased ambition over time. This should enable all countries to follow a low-carbon and resilient development pathway in line with the global goal to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C.

But many environmentalists argue that a more fundamental approach is needed. This requires a change in the way the environment is perceived – by both individuals and politicians. The simple selfish model of consumption to maximise consumer surplus and production to maximise profit should be rejected. Instead, the environment should be internalised into decision making.

What is more, there should be an integral ecology which brings together a wide range of disciplines, including economics, in analysing the functioning of societies and economies. Rather than being seen merely as a resource to be exploited, respect and care for the environment should be incorporated into our whole decision-making process, along with protecting societies and cultures, and rejecting economic systems that result in a growing divide between rich and poor.

In his latest encyclical, On care for our common home, Pope Francis considers integral ecology, not just in terms of a multidiciplinary approach to the environment but as an approach that integrates the objectives of social justice and care for the environment into an overarching approach to the functioning of societies and economies. And central to his message is the need to change the way human action is perceived at a personal level. Decision making should be focused on care for others and the environment not on the selfish pursuit of individual gain.

With a change in heart towards other people and the environment, what would be seen as externalities in simple economic models based on rational self-interested behaviour become internal costs or benefits. Care and compassion become the drivers for action, rather than crude self interest.

A key question, of course, is how we get here to there; how society can achieve a mass change of heart. For religious leaders, such as the Pope, the approach centres on spiritual guidance. For the secular, the approach would probably centre on education and the encouragement for people to consider others in their decision making. But, of course, there is still a major role for economic instruments, such as taxes and subsidies, rules and regulations, and public investment.

G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels by end of centuryEU Observer, Peter Teffer (8/6/15)
Integral Ecology Approach Links ‘Welfare of God’s People and God’s Creation’ Catholic Register (11/6/15)
President’s Corner Teilhard Perspective, John Grim (May 2015)
In his encyclical on climate change Pope Francis reveals himself to be a master of scientific detail Washington Post, Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein and Chris Mooney (18/6/15)
Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action in Draft of Encyclical New York Times, Jim Yardley (15/6/15)
Pope Francis letter on climate change leaked: Draft Vatican encyclical released three days early Independent, Kashmira Gander and Michael Day (15/6/15)
The Pope is finally addressing the gaping hole in the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition Independent, Michael McCarthy (15/6/15)
Pope Francis warns of destruction of Earth’s ecosystem in leaked encyclical The Guardian, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and John Hooper (16/6/15)
Explosive intervention by Pope Francis set to transform climate change debate The Observer, John Vidal (13/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Leaked Encyclical Draft Attributes Climate Change To Human Activity Huffington Post, Antonia Blumberg (15/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Integral Ecology Huffington Post, Dave Pruett (28/5/15)

Pope Francis: Climate change mostly man-made BBC News, Caroline Wyatt (18/6/15)
Pope urges action on global warming in leaked document BBC News, Chris Cook (16/6/15)


  1. What do you understand by ‘integral ecology’?
  2. Is an integrated approach to the environment and society consistent with ‘rational’ behaviour (a) in the narrow sense of ‘rational’ as used in consumer and producer theory; (b) in a broader sense of making actions consistent with goals?
  3. Can cost–benefit analysis be used in the context of an integrated and cross-disciplinary approach to the environment and society?
  4. What types of incentives would be useful in achieving the approach proposed by Pope Francis?
  5. Why do many companies publicly state that they pursue a policy of corporate responsibiliy?
  6. To what extent does it make sense to set targets for the end of this century?
  7. In what crucial ways might GDP need to be adjusted if it is to be used as a measure of the success of the approach to society, the economy and the environment as advocated by Pope Francis?
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Going to pot?

In December 2013, Uruguay passed a law permitting the growing, distribution and consumption of marijuana. The legislation comes into effect in April 2014. The state will regulate the industry to ensure good quality strains of the crop are grown and sold. It will also tax the industry.

Uruguay is the first country to legalise cannabis, but in July 2012, Colorado and Washington states in the USA passed laws permitting the sale and possession of small amounts of the drug for recreational use. (It was already legal to possess the drug for medical use.) The laws took effect a few months later. It is heavily taxed, however, especially in Washington, where it is taxed at a rate of 25% three times over: when it is sold to the processor; when the processor sells it to the retailer; and when the retailer sells it to the consumer. In Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon, medical cannabis shops will be permitted to open this year. In the Netherlands, although the sale of cannabis is still illegal, ‘coffee shops’ are permitted to sell people up to 5 grams per day.

So should cannabis be legalised? People have very strong views on the subject and this can make a calm assessment of the issue more difficult. The economist’s approach to legalising cannabis involves seeking to identify and measure the costs and benefits of doing so. If the benefits exceed the costs, then it should be legalised; if not, it should remain illegal (or made illegal). The problem is that the size of the costs and benefits are not easy calculate as they involve estimates of things such as consumption levels, tax revenues, crime reduction, the effects on the consumption of other drugs, including legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

Nevertheless, various estimates of these costs and benefits have been made and provide a basis for discussion.

Possible benefits of cannabis legalisation include: increased tax revenues for the government; reduction in crime, and hence reduction in law enforcement and prison costs; encouraging people with addiction problems to seek help, as they would not fear arrest; reduction in the price, benefiting users; regulating quality of the drug; reducing the consumption of alcohol and more dangerous drugs if these are substitutes for cannabis; moral arguments concerning freedom of individuals to choose their lifestyle.

Possible costs include: increased consumption of cannabis, with attendant health and social side effects; increased consumption of other drugs if they are complements, or if cannabis is an ‘entry level’ drug to harder drugs; moral objections to drug taking.

Clearly some of these costs and benefits are easier to measure than others. Moral arguments are almost impossible to assess quantitatively, even when various underlying moral standpoints are agreed.

The following articles look at recent events and at the arguments, both economic and non-economic.

As Uruguay moves to legalise cannabis, is the ‘war on drugs’ finished? Metro (20/1/14)
Regulating the sale of marijuana: Global perspective Journalist’s Resource, John Wihbey (17/1/14)
Next Step in Uruguay: Competitive, Quality Marijuana Independent European Daily Express (IEDE) (12/1/14)
U.S. support for legalization of marijuana at an all-time HIGH Mail Online, Anna Edwards (7/1/14)
14 Ways Marijuana Legalization Could Boost The Economy Huffington Post, Harry Bradford (7/11/12)
Colorado pot legalization: 30 questions (and answers) The Denver Post, John Ingold (13/12/12)
Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce ‘Public-Health Benefits’ Forbes, Jacob Sullum (1/11/13)

Economics of Cannabis Legalization Hemp Today, Dale Gieringer (10/10/93)
Pros & Cons of Legalizing Marijuana US Liberal Politics, Deborah White
Would Marijuana Legalization Increase the Demand for Marijuana? Economics, Mike Moffatt
Time to Legalize Marijuana? – 500+ Economists Endorse Marijuana Legalization Economics, Mike Moffatt
A cost benefit analysis of cannabis legalisation Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
Licensing and regulation of the cannabis market in England and Wales: Towards a cost–benefit analysis Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Mark Bryan, Emilia Del Bono and Stephen Pudney (9/13)
What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop Experience? Rand Drug Policy Research Center, Robert J. MacCoun (7/10)

Licensing and regulating the cannabis market in England and Wales Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Stephen Pudney (15/9/13)


  1. If a country legalises cannabis, what is likely to happen to the price of cannabis? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your argument, considering the effects on both demand and supply. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant to your answer?
  2. What externalities are there from drug use?
  3. What externalities are there from making cannabis illegal?
  4. Distinguish between complementary and substitute goods for cannabis? How is the demand for these likely to be affected by legalising cannabis?
  5. Go through each of the benefits and costs of legalising cannabis and identify difficulties that might be experienced in quantifying these costs and benefits?
  6. If cannabis were legalised, how would you set about determining the optimum rate of tax on cannabis production, processing, distribution and sale?
  7. Consider the arguments for and against legalising cannabis from the perspective of (a) a free-market liberal and (b) a social democrat who sees government intervention as an important means of achieving various social goals.
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Valuing natural capital

In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)

There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.

Natural capital
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.

Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.

Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?

On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:

Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.

But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.

Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:

Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “

One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.

Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.

Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:

It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.

The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.

Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)

Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature


  1. How would you define natural capital?
  2. What are ecosystem services?
  3. Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
  4. How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
  5. How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
  6. What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
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HS2: Do the costs exceed the benefits?

HS2 has been a controversial topic for some time now. Between the disruption it would cause to countless neighbourhoods and the protests that have emerged and the debate about the cost effectiveness of the project, it’s been in the news a fair amount. The transport network in the UK needs improving, not only for businesses located here, but also to encourage more investment into the country. HS2 is one of the solutions offered.

The latest estimate for the cost of HS2 is over £40 billion. However, many suggest that the benefits HS2 will bring do not cover the full costs. Furthermore, as noted above, other concerns include the disruption that it will bring to countless households who will be living along the proposed routes. Cost benefit analysis have been carried out to determine the viability of the project, but they are invariably difficult to do. As they involve determining all of the private and social costs and benefits and putting a monetary estimate onto them, there will inevitably be factors that are over-looked, under-estimated or over-estimated. The suggestions here are that the costs have been under-estimated and the benefits over-estimated.

In September, KPMG produced a report that estimated the overall benefit to the UK economy would be a boost to growth of 0.8%, which would benefit many businesses and communities. The British Chambers of Commerce said:

Business communities in dozens of cities and towns, from many parts of the UK, remain strongly supportive of HS2.

The railway network is also approaching full capacity and this is one of the reasons why HS2 has been proposed. A government source said:

We need to do something because our railways are nearly full, but the alternative to HS2 is a patch and mend job that would cause 14 years of gridlock, hellish journeys and rail replacement buses … The three main routes to the north would be crippled and the economy would be damaged.

However, this report has faced criticism, in particular because it ignored a variety of supply-side constraints and because they argue it would be more effective to simply update the existing network. However, a new government-commissioned report has suggested that this alternative to HS2 would involve 14 years of weekend route closures and much longer journey times. However, those in favour of updating existing routes have said that this new report commissioned by the government is ‘a complete fabrication’. Hilary Wharf of the HS2 Action Alliance commented:

This government-funded report is a complete fabrication. The main alternative to HS2 involves longer trains and reduced first-class capacity to provide more standard class seats…No work is required at Euston to deliver the necessary capacity increase. Work is only required at three locations on the WCML [West Coast Main Line], and this is comparable to the work being carried out on the route at present.

The debate regarding HS2 will continue for the time being and it is just another area that is fuelling the political playing field. Whatever is done, the rail network certainly requires investment, whether it is through HS2 or upgrades to the existing routes. The following reports and articles consider the latest developments and controversy regarding HS2.

HS2 Cost and Risk model Report: A report to Government by HS2 ltd HS2 Ltd March 2012
High Speed 2 (HS2) Limited: HS2 Regional Economic Impacts KPMG September 2013
Draft Environmental Statement: Phase One: Engine for Growth HS2 May 2013
Updated Economic Case for HS2 HS2 August 2012

HS2 alternative ‘would mean years of rail disruption’ BBC News (28/10/13)
Alternative to HS2 would see Britain suffer 14 years of rail misery, says Coalition Independent, Nigel Morris (28/10/13)
HS2 alternatives could require 14 years of weekend rail closures The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (28/10/13)
Passengers ‘face 14 years of chaos if HS2 is derailed’: ‘Unattractive’ package of closures would be needed to expand capacity if Labour withdraws support Mail Online, Jason Groves (28/10/13)
HS2: Labour to examine cheaper rival plan The Telegraph, Tim Ross and Andrew Gilligan (27/10/13)
Britain’s railways have become mere outposts of other nations’ empires The Guardian, John Harris (28/10/13)
’Years of delays’ if government backs down on HS2 rail project Financial Times, Kiran Stacey and Brian Gloom (28/10/13)


  1. What is a cost-benefit analysis? Explain the steps that are involved in any cost-benefit analysis.
  2. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis for HS2. Ensure that you differentiate between costs and benefits and between private and social concepts.
  3. How can we measure the costs and benefits of HS2?
  4. Explain how HS2 is expected to boost economic growth. Use the AD/AS model to illustrate this.
  5. To what extent is there likely to be a multiplier effect from HS2? Is it likely to benefit the whole economy or just those areas where the route lies?
  6. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis for the alternative suggestion. Which do you think is likely to be more feasible? Explain your answer.
  7. How will improvements to the rail network or the investment of HS2 benefit businesses in the UK economy?
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2020 Tokyo Olympics

The 2020 Olympics has just been awarded to Tokyo, beating Madrid and Istanbul. Concerns over the safety of the games in Tokyo, with the city being perceived as relatively close to the Fukushima nuclear plant, were overcome with the help of an address by the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. So, what are the economic implications of this latest development in the sporting world?

When London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, estimates suggested that it would generate a £16.5 billion contribution to GDP. With many new construction projects, there was the inevitable injection of government expenditure. This led to the creation of new jobs and thus successive employment multiplier effects were generated. This is also likely to be true for Tokyo, with current proposals suggesting that ten new permanent sites will be built to host the various sports of the Games. This will undoubtedly generate new jobs and will provide an almost certain boost to the construction industry. This, in turn, will generate further multiplier effects across a multitude of industries and across the rest of the country.

There will also be further economic effects, for example on Japanese investment and stocks and shares, with a boost in confidence and optimism. A Tokyo-based fund manager, Hiroshi Fujumonto, said:

Olympics-related stocks are yet to fully price in the decision, even though they’ve already outperformed … In the short term the entire Japanese share market will get a boost from celebratory buying and expectations for the event’s economic impact.

This was also confirmed by Shinzo Abe, when he commented after the victory was announced that ‘I want to make the Olympics a trigger for sweeping away 15 years of deflation economic shrinkage.’ The Japanese economy has been struggling for many years and this may be the much needed boost to the country’s optimism, infrastructure and economy.

As the world’s third largest economy, this economic boost is also likely to have knock-on effects on other countries across the world, though it is more likely to be the long-term impact that is important here. Just as it was with the London Olympics, the final effect and cost will only be known some years after the Olympics are held, but for now the work will start for Japan.

Olympics 2020: Tokyo wins race to host games BBC Sport (7/9/13)
Tokyo Olympics win seen boosting infrastructure, recovery Bloomberg, Yoshiaki Nohara and Satoshi Kawano (8/9/13)
Tokyo wins bid to host 2020 Olympic Games Telegraph, Ben Rumsby (8/9/13)
Tokyo chosen as ‘safe pair of hands’ to host 2020 Olympics Financial Times, Benedict Mander (8/9/13)
Japanese bid’s passion earns Tokyo the 2020 Olympic Games Guardian, Owen Gibson (7/9/13)
Olympics 2020: Why Tokyo is a ‘safe pair of hands’ to host Games BBC News, David Bond (8/9/13)


  1. What is the multiplier effect and how is it calculated?
  2. How can the overall economic benefits of the Olympic Games be estimated?
  3. Which industries in Tokyo are likely to be the ones that benefit from the Olympic Games?
  4. Outline a cost–benefit analysis of the Olympic Games.
  5. Why are share prices likely to go up in Japan based on this news? Look at both the demand and supply factors that will affect share prices.
  6. Is it possible that there will be wider multiplier effects on other countries besides Japan?
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The London Olympics legacy: a cost–benefit analysis

Did the benefits of the London Olympics outweigh the costs? The government’s UK Trade and Industry (part of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills) has just published a report, London 2012, Delivering the economic legacy, which itemises the economic benefits of the games one year on. It claims that benefits to date are some £9.9 billion.

This compares with costs, estimated to be somewhere between £8.9 billion and £9.3 billion, although this figure does not include certain other costs, such as maintenance of the stadium. Nevertheless, according to the figures, even after just a year, it would seem that the Games had ‘made a profit’ – just.

The £9.9 billion of benefits consist of £5.9 billion of additional sales, £2.5 billion of additional inward investment and £1.5 billion of Olympic-related high value opportunities won overseas. Most of these can be seen as monetary external benefits: in other words, monetary benefits arising from spin-offs from the Games. The ‘internal’ monetary benefits would be largely the revenues from the ticket sales.

In a separate report for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation, it has been estimated that the total net benefits (net gross value added (GVA)) from 2004 to 2020 will be between £28 billion and £41 billion.

But benefits are not confined just to internal and external monetary benefits: there are also other externalities that are non-monetary. The Culture, Media & Sport report identified a number of these non-monetary externalities. The Summary Report itemises them. They include:

• The health and social benefits of more people participating in sport
• Inspiring a generation of children and young people
• A catalyst for improved elite sporting performance in the UK
• Setting new standards for sustainability
• Improved attitudes to disability and new opportunities for disabled people to participate in society
• Greater social cohesion as communities across the UK engaged with the Games
• Increased enthusiasm for volunteering
• Accelerated physical transformation of East London
• Beneficial socio-economic change in East London
• Important lessons learned for the co-ordination and delivery of other large-scale public and public/private projects

But with any cost–benefit analysis there are important caveats in interpreting the figures. First there may be monetary and non-monetary external costs. For example, will all the effects on social attitudes be positive? Might greater competitiveness in sport generate less tolerance towards non sporty people? Might people expect disabled people to do more than they are able (see)? Second, the costs generally precede the benefits. This then raises the question of what is the appropriate discount rate to reduce future benefits to a present value.

Perhaps the most serious question is that of the quantification of benefits. It is important that only benefits that can be attributed to the Games are counted and not benefits that would have occurred anyway, even if connected to the Games. For example, it is claimed in the UK Trade & Industry report that much of the Olympic park and stadium for the Winter Olympics in Russia was “designed and built by British businesses”. But was this the direct result of the London Olympics, or would this have happened anyway?

Another example is that any inward investment by any company that attended the London Olympics is counted in the £2.5 billion of additional inward investment (part of the £9.9 billion). As the London Evening Standard article below states:

In London, it credited the Games with helping seal the deal for the £1.2 billion investment in the Royal Albert Docks by Chinese developer ABP, the £1 billion investment in Croydon by Australian shopping centre developer Westfield with UK firm Hammerson and the £700 million investment in Battersea Nine Elms by Dalian Wander Group.

It is highly likely that some or all of these would have gone ahead anyway.

Then there are the £5.9 billion of additional sales. These are by companies which engaged with the Olympics. But again, many of these sales could have taken place anyway, or may have displaced other sales.

Many cost–benefit analyses (or simply ‘benefit analyses’) concern projects where there are strong vested interests in demonstrating that a project should or should not go ahead or, in this case, have gone ahead. The more powerful the vested interests, the less likely it is that the analysis can be seen as objective.

Webcasts and Podcasts
Have Olympics and Paralympics really boosted trade? Channel 4 News, Jackie Long (19/7/13)
Economy boosted by Olympics Sky Sports News, Amy Lewis (19/7/13)
Olympic investment boost to last decade – Cable BBC News (19/7/13)
Did the UK gain from the Olympics? BBC Today Programme (19/7/13)

Government announces almost £10bn economic boost from London 2012 Specification Online (19/7/13)
Olympic Legacy Boosted Economy By £10bn, Government Insists The Huffington Post (19/7/13)
Olympics are delivering economic gold but volunteering legacy is at risk The Telegraph, Tim Ross (19/7/13)
Vince Cable: Case for HS2 still being made The Telegraph, Christopher Hope and Tim Ross (19/7/13)
Olympic legacy ‘gave London a £4bn windfall’ London Evening Standard, Nicholas Cecil and Matthew Beard (19/7/13)
London 2012 Olympics ‘have boosted UK economy by £9.9bn’ BBC News (19/7/13)
The great Olympic stimulus BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (19/7/13)
London Olympics still costing the taxpayer one year on Sky Sports (19/7/13)
Mayor missed long-term London Olympic jobs targets, says report BBC News, Tim Donovan (19/7/13)
Olympics legacy: Have the London 2012 Games helped Team GB develop a winning habit? Independent, Robin Scott-Elliot (19/7/13)
London 2012 added up to more than pounds and pence The Guardian, Zoe Williams (19/7/13)

Government Reports
London 2012 – Delivering the economic legacy UK Trade & Investment (19/7/13)
London 2012: Delivering the economic legacy UK Trade & Investment (19/7/13)
Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation: Summary Report Department for Culture, Media & Sport (July 2013)
Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation: Economy Evidence Base Department for Culture, Media & Sport (July 2013)


  1. Distinguish between gross and net benefits; monetary and non-monetary externalities; direct costs (or benefits) and external costs (or benefits).
  2. How should the discount rate be chosen for a cost–benefit analysis?
  3. Give some examples of monetary and non-monetary external costs of the Games.
  4. What are the arguments for and against including non-monetary externalities in a cost–benefit analysis?
  5. Why might the £9.9 billion figure for the monetary benefits of the Games up to the present time be questioned?
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