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Posts Tagged ‘externalities’

A changing climate for a deal?

The Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) is under way. At the opening on November 30, 150 Heads of State gathered in Paris, most of whom addressed the conference. With representatives from 195 countries and observers from a range of organisations, the conference is set to last until 11 December. Optimism is relatively high that a legally binding and universal agreement will be reached, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C – what is generally regarded as a ‘safe’ limit.

But although it is hoped that a successor to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 will be put in place, there are many problems in getting so many countries to agree. They may all wish to reduce global warming, but there is disagreement on how it should be achieved and how the burden should be shared between countries.

There are several difficult economic issues in the negotiations. The first is the size and impact of the external costs of emissions. When a country burns fossil fuels, the benefits are almost entirely confined to residents of that county. However, the environmental costs are largely external to that country and only a relatively small fraction is borne by that country and hardly at all by the polluters themselves, unless there is a carbon tax or other form or penalty in place. The problem is that the atmosphere is a common resource and without collective action – national or international – it will be overused.

The second problem is one of distribution. Politicians may agree in principle that a solution is necessary which is equitable between nations, but there is considerable disagreement on what is meant by ‘equitable’ in this context. As the third Guardian article below puts it:

The most important hurdle could be over whether industrialised countries like the US, UK and Japan, which have contributed the most to the historical build-up of emissions, should be obliged to cut more than developing countries. India, on behalf of many poor countries, will argue that there must be “differentiation” between rich and poor; but the US wants targets that are applicable to all. A collision is inevitable.

A third problem is that of uncertainty. Although there is general agreement among scientists that human action is contributing to global warming, there is less agreement on the precise magnitude of the causal relationships. There is also uncertainty over the likely effects of specific emissions reductions. This uncertainty can then be used by governments which are unwilling to commit too much to emissions reductions.

A fourth difficulty arises from the intertemporal distribution of costs and benefits of emissions reductions. The costs are born immediately action is taken. Carbon taxes or charges, or subsidies to renewables, or caps on emissions, all involve higher energy prices and/or higher taxes. The flows of benefits (or lower costs), however, of reduced emissions are not likely to be fully experienced for a very long time. But governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, tend to have a relatively short time horizon, governed by the electoral cycle or the likelihood of staying in power. True, governments may not be solely concerned with power and many politicians may have genuine desires to tackle climate change, but their political survival is still likely to be a major determinant of their actions.

Of course, if there is strong public opinion in favour of action to reduce emissions, governments are likely to respond to this. Indeed, all the expressions of public support for action ahead of the conference from all around the world, do give some hope for a strong agreement at the Paris conference. Nevertheless, there is still widespread scepticism in many countries over the relationship between human action and climate change, and many argue that the costs of policies to tackle climate change exceed the benefits.

Game theory can shed some insights into the difficulties ahead for the negotiators. The global optimum may be for a strong agreement, binding on all countries. The Nash equilibrium, however, may be a situation where countries push for their own interests at the expense of others, with the final agreement being much more minimalistic.

There do, however, seem to be more reasons to be cheerful at this summit that at previous ones. But negotiations are likely to be hard and protracted over the coming days.

Videos and webcasts
Paris Climate Conference: The Big Picture Wall Street Journal on YouTube, Jason Bellini (30/11/15)
Why is the Paris UN climate summit important? PwC, Leo Johnson (14/10/15)
Paris climate change summit 2015: ‘the near impossible task’ Channel 4 News on YouTube, Tom Clarke (30/11/15)
COP21: Rallies mark start of Paris climate summit BBC News, David Shukman (29/11/15)
With climate at ‘breaking point’, leaders urge breakthrough in Paris Reuters, Bruce Wallace and Alister Doyle (1/12/15)
COP21: Paris conference could be climate turning point, says Obama BBC News (30/11/15)
Leaders meet to reach new agreement on climate change BBC News, David Shukman (30/11/15)
Poll: Growing Doubts Over Climate Change Causes Sky News, Thomas Moore (30/11/15)
Paris climate protesters banned but 10,000 shoes remain The Guardian (29/11/15)

Articles
COP-21 climate deal in Paris spells end of the fossil era The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (29/11/15)
Is there an economic case for tackling climate change? BBC News, Andrew Walker (28/11/15)
World Leaders in Paris Vow to Overcome Divisions on Climate Change Wall Street Journal, William Horobin and William Mauldin (30/11/15)
Experts discuss how to build a carbon-free energy industry The Guardian, Tim Smedley (25/11/15)
Africa could lead world on green energy, says IEA head The Guardian, Anna Leach (11/11/15)
Climate change talks: five reasons to be cheerful or fearful The Guardian, John Vidal (30/11/15)
The Paris climate change summit, explained in 4 charts The Washington Post, Philip Bump (30/11/15)
Why This Goal To Curb Climate Change ‘Is Not Ideal’ Huffington Post, Jacqueline Howard (30/11/15)
Paris climate change talks: What the different groups attending expect from these crucial meetings Independent, Tom Bawden (29/11/15)
UN Climate Change Conference: World Leaders Call For Price On CO2 Emissions Despite Uphill Battle At Paris Summit International Business Times, Maria Gallucci (30/11/15)
World Bank, six nations call for a price on carbon SBS (Australia) (1/12/15)
Uruguay makes dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energy The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (3/12/15)

Questions

  1. Why is COP21 considered to be so significant?
  2. For what reasons is there hope for a binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C?
  3. What would be the effect on global warming of the commitments made by more than 180 countries prior to the conference?
  4. What market failings contribute towards the problem of global warming?
  5. Why, if all countries want to achieve a binding agreement at the Paris conference, is it likely to be so difficult to achieve?
  6. Explain what is meant by a ‘Nash equilibrium’ and how the concept is relevant to international negotiations.
  7. Why is China investing heavily in solar power?
  8. Could Africa lead the world in green energy?
  9. Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
  10. What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?
  11. How does the structure/order of the Paris conference differ from previous COPs? Is such a structure more likely to achieve substantial results?
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End of the old fossils?

In December, most of the countries of the world will meet in Paris at the 21st annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change. COP21 ‘will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.’

When the Copenhagen conference (COP15) ended in disagreement in 2009, few people thought that the increase in renewable energy would be anything like sufficient to prevent global temperatures rising more than 2°C. But things have dramatically changed in the intervening six years.

Solar power and other renewables have increased dramatically and the technology for the cleaner burning of fossil fuels, including carbon capture and storage, has developed rapidly.

But perhaps the most important change has been the attitudes of governments. No longer is it a case of Europe and other developed countries moving in the direction of renewables, while developing countries, and, in particular, China and India, argue that their economic development requires a rapid expansion of coal-fired power stations. Now China, India and many other emerging countries are rapidly developing their renewable sectors. This is partly driven by the fall in the costs of renewables and partly by worries that climate change will directly effect them. Now the ‘pro-coal’ countries are in a minority.

And industry is realising that significant profit is to be made from the development and installation of power plants using renewable energy. This is driving both R&D and investment. As the Telegraph article, linked below, points out, in 2009 ‘the International Energy Agency (IEA) was still predicting that solar power would struggle to reach 20 gigawatts by now. Few could have foretold that it would in fact explode to 180 gigawatts – over three times Britain’s total power output – as costs plummeted, and that almost half of all new electricity installed in the US in 2013 and 2014 would come from solar’.

So is this a good news story? Will real progress be made at COP21 in Paris? The articles explore the issues.

Articles
Paris climate deal to ignite a $90 trillion energy revolution The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (28/10/15)
OP21 deal critical for low-carbon economy Japan Times, Carlos Ghosn (29/10/15)
Is Solar Without Subsidies Now Viable? Oilprice.com, Michael McDonald (22/10/15)

Policy Paper
The road to Paris and beyond Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (LSE), Rodney Boyd, Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern (August 2015)

Report
Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (October 2015)

Questions

  1. What are the drivers for a move from fossil fuels to renewables? Are they similar dirvers in both developed and developing countries?
  2. What externalities are involved in energy production (a) from fossil fuels; (b) from renewables?
  3. What policies can be adopted to internalise the externalities?
  4. What are the merits and problems of a carbon trading scheme? What determines its effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions?
  5. Why are more and more investors moving into the renewable energy sector? Could this become a speculative bubble? Explain.
  6. How might game theory help to explain the process and outcomes of international negotiations over climate change and energy use?
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A sweet tax?

Obesity is on the rise, especially in children. With all the attendant health problems, concern is growing and various policies have been proposed to try to tackle the problem. One such policy is a sugar tax. This could be either a universal tax on sugar in food products or a tax just on soft drinks, many of which are very high in sugar – typically about seven teaspoons in a can or individual bottle.

Currently the issue is being considered by the UK’s Parliamentary Health Select Committee. Jamie Oliver, the TV chef and restaurateur, argued strongly before the committee in favour of a sugar tax on fizzy drinks. He has already imposed a levy on soft drinks with added sugar in his restaurants. He maintained that it was not just the higher price from a sugar tax that would deter consumption of such drinks, but it would send out an important message that too much sugar is bad for you.

Two days later, Dr Alison Tedstone appeared before the committee. She is chief nutritionist at Public Health England. PHE has been carrying out research into obesity and ways of tackling it. It has reviewed two types of evidence: experimental data on the effects of imposing higher prices on products with added sugar; and the effects of policies pursued in other countries. She stated to the committee that ‘universally all the evidence shows that the tax does decrease consumption’ and that ‘the higher the tax increase, the greater the effect’.

The government was not planning to publish the report at this stage, but under considerable pressure agreed to its publication.

The articles look at the prospects for a sugar tax, its likely effects if one were introduced and at the politics of the situation, which are likely to result in such a tax being rejected.

Videos and audio podcasts
Can you be trusted to eat less sugar? BBC News, Hugh Pym (22/10/15)
‘Introduce sugar tax’, health officials tell government Channel 4 News, Victoria Macdonald (22/10/15)
Jamie Oliver: ‘Bold’ sugar tax to beat childhood obesity BBC News, Hugh Pym (19/10/15)
Be bold on sugar tax, Jamie Oliver says BBC News, Nick Triggle (19/10/15)
Health scientists’ links with sugar industry queried BBC News, Dominic Hughes (12/2/15)
Mexico’s soda tax is starting to change some habits, say health advocates PRI’s The World on YouTube, Jill Replogle (2/12/14)

Articles
Jeremy Hunt told sugar tax would cut childhood obesity as review Government tried to suppress is published Independent, Charlie Cooper (20/10/15)
Sugar tax could help solve Britain’s obesity crisis, expert tells MPs The Guardian, Ben Quinn (21/10/15)
Jamie Oliver ‘expects kicking’ over sugar tax The Guardian, Jessica Elgot (22/10/15)
Sugar tax, fat fines and gold coins: new ways cities are tackling obesity The Guardian, Sarah Johnson (22/10/15)
Sugar tax and offers ban ‘would work’ BBC News (22/10/15)
Public Health England tells UK government: Sugar taxes do work FoodNavigator.com, Niamh Michail (21/10/15)
Childhood Obesity Partially Down To The Coco Pops Monkey, Sugar Tax Report Claims Huffington Post, Sarah Ann Harris (21/10/15)
Health officials back a sugar tax – and want the Coco Pops monkey banned The Telegraph, Laura Donnelly (20/10/15)
Jeremy Hunt embroiled in row over sugar tax report The Telegraph, Laura Donnelly (11/10/15)
Revealed: ‘Sugar tax report’ which was suppressed by Government The Telegraph, Laura Donnelly (22/10/15)
Public Health England obesity report: the key points The Guardian, James Meikle (22/10/15)
Cameron says no to sugar tax Mail Online, Jason Groves and Daniel Martin (21/10/15)
Sugar tax: Former health minister backs levy to prevent NHS ‘obesity crisis’ Independent, Charlie Cooper (21/10/15)

Journal articles and reports
Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action Public Health England, Dr Alison Tedstone, Victoria Targett, Dr Rachel Allen and staff at PHE (22/10/15)
Effects of a fizzy drink tax on obesity rates estimated NHS CHoices (1/11/13)
Overall and income specific effect on prevalence of overweight and obesity of 20% sugar sweetened drink tax in UK: econometric and comparative risk assessment modelling study British Medical Journal, Adam D M Briggs, Oliver T Mytton, Ariane Kehlbacher, Richard Tiffin, Mike Rayner and Peter Scarborough (2013;347:f6189)
Perspectives: Time for a sugary drinks tax in the UK? Journal of Public Health, Oliver Mytton (29/5/14)
Sugar reduction: Responding to the challenge Public Health England, Dr Alison Tedstone, Ms Sally Anderson and Dr Rachel Allen and staff at PHE (June 2014)

Questions

  1. What factors are driving the current high consumption of sugar?
  2. How is the concept of price elasticity of demand relevant to the effectiveness of imposing a sugar tax?
  3. What would determine the incidence of such a tax between food and drink manufacturers and consumers?
  4. Would such a tax be progressive, regressive or neutral? Explain.
  5. What other policies could be pursued to discourage the consumption of sugar? Discuss their likely effectiveness and compare them with a sugar tax.
  6. What externalities are involved in sugar consumption? How would you set about measuring them? Should a sugar tax be set at a rate that internalises the estimated externalities?
  7. Examine the objections to imposing a sugar tax.
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The effect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions on economic growth

Is slower economic growth a cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Apparently not – at least according to two studies: one by DIW Econ, a German institute for economic research, and the other, earlier this year, by the International Energy Association (see reports below).

The IEA study found that, despite global GDP having grown by 6.4% in 2014, global emissions remained flat. The DIW Econ study found that from 2004 to 2014, OECD countries as a whole grew by 16% while cutting fossil fuel consumption by 6% and greenhouse gas emissions by 6.4%.

But what does this mean? If growth accelerated, what would happen to greenhouse gas emissions? Would they begin to rise again? Probably.

The point is that various developments, largely independent of economic growth have been reducing the greenhouse gas emissions/GDP ratio. These developments include: technological advances in energy generation; the switch to alternative fuels in many countries, thanks, in large part to lower renewable energy costs; increased energy efficiency by consumers; and a continuing move from energy-intensive manufacturing to less energy-intensive services.

So if governments forced more radical cuts in greenhouse gases, would this reduce the rate of economic growth or have no effect? For a given level of technological advancement, the initial effect would probably be a reduction in economic growth. But to the extent that this encouraged further investment in renewables and energy saving, it might even stimulate economic growth over the longer term, especially if it helped to bring lower energy prices.

A big problem in decoupling economic growth from fossil fuel usage is that developing countries, which are taking a growing share of world manufacturing, are more heavily dependent on coal than most developed countries. But even here there seems to be some hope. China, the biggest manufacturer in the developing world, is rapidly increasing its use of renewables. As the IEA press release states:

In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal.

If the world is to tackle global warming by making significant cuts in greenhouse gases, there must be a way for developing countries to continue growing while making less use of fossil fuels.

Article
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t slow global economic growth — report The Guardian, Bruce Watson (26/9/15)

Reports
Turning point: Decoupling Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Economic Growth DIW Econ, Lars Handrich, Claudia Kemfert, Anselm Mattes, Ferdinand Pavel, Thure Traber (September 2015)
World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (June 2015)

Questions

  1. What are the possible causal relationships between cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of economic growth?
  2. What incentive mechanisms can governments or other agencies adopt to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without reducing economic growth?
  3. Can a cap and trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme help to achieve a given level of emissions reduction at minimum cost to economic growth? Explain.
  4. How might the developed world support developing countries in moving to a low carbon technology?
  5. What factors lie behind the falling costs of renewable energy? Are these the same factors that lie behind the falling cost of oil?
  6. What political problems might hinder the greater production of renewable energy?
  7. How might an economist set about determining a socially optimal amount of fossil fuel production? What conceptual and philosophical problems might there be in agreeing what is meant by a social optimum?
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China in facts and figures

The second largest economy in the world, with a record expansion to its current economic status: China. With a phenomenal population, massive migration to the cities and incredible infrastructure development, China has fast become a key economic player, with environmental and pollution problems to match.

The price of China’s economic development may be too high for some people. Increases in incomes, growth and employment may be good news, but is the cost too high? Do economic growth and progress mean poor health and if so, is this a price worth paying

Another big topic within China is the impact on inequality. With growth accelerating in urban areas, population movement from the rural to the urban has been a common feature across China, but this has also created greater inequality. This population movement has separated families and played a role in creating barriers of access to health and education.

The following article from the BBC considers a range of indicators within China and you may also want to review some earlier blog postings on the Sloman News Site which analyse the Chinese economy.

Cement and pig consumption reveal China’s huge changes BBC News (21/9/15)

Questions

  1. What are the key drivers of China’s development?
  2. What are the costs and benefits of rural-urban migration?
  3. To what extent do you think there may be a trade-off between quality and quantity when it comes to infrastructure projects? Or is Chinese labour simply more efficient relative to countries such as the UK?
  4. How should we measure economic development? If access to education and health care is limited in the more rural areas, but widely available in the larger cities, does this suggest a country that is developing?
  5. What are the main externalities that China must tackle? Are they domestic issues or global ones? What about the solutions?
  6. If a key driver of Chinese growth and development is government investment in infrastructure projects, is this true and sustainable growth or do you think it might slowly disappear if the government doesn’t continue to invest?
  7. Do you think the relative success of China can be replicated in other emerging nations and in particular in nations within Africa?
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Fossil fuel externalities only partially reflected in energy taxes

According to a recent IMF Survey Magazine article, Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies, world-wide energy subsidies in 2015 account for $5.3 trillion or 6.5% of global GDP. The article summarises findings of an IMF working paper (see link below), which provides estimates by country, product (e.g. coal and oil) and component (e.g. global warming, local air pollution and congestion) in an Excel file

The working paper argues that energy subsidies are both larger and more pervasive than previously thought. According to the IMF Survey Magazine:

Eliminating global energy subsidies could reduce deaths related to fossil-fuel emissions by over 50 percent and fossil-fuel related carbon emissions by over 20 percent. The revenue gain from eliminating energy subsidies is projected to be $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP) in 2015. This offers huge potential for reducing other taxes or strengthening revenue bases in countries where large informal sector constrains broader fiscal instruments.

In interpreting the findings it is important to understand how the term ‘subsidies’ is being used. According to the report, most of the $5.3 trillion “arises from countries setting energy taxes below levels that fully reflect the environmental damage associated with energy consumption.”

In other words, the term subsidy is being used whenever taxes do not fully account for the negative externalities associated with extracting and burning fossil fuels. Perhaps a better term would be ‘under-taxing’ rather than ‘subsidising’. Nevertheless the scale of not internalising externalities is huge. As Lord Nicholas Stern (author of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) says:

“The failure to reflect the real costs of fossil fuels in prices and policies means that the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world are being threatened by climate change and local air pollution.”

But, while not taxing external costs account for more than 80% of the underpricing of fossil fuel energy, some three-quarters of these external costs relate to local environmental damage, rather than international damage such as global warming. Thus charging for these external costs would benefit primarily the local population, as well as generating revenues, and thus provides a strong argument for governments raising energy prices through increased taxes or reduced subsidies.

So which countries are the major culprits in ‘subsidising’ fossil fuels? What specific measures does the IMF recommend to tackle the problem and what countries are addressing the problem and in what ways? The working paper and articles address these questions.

Articles
Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies IMF Survey Magazine (17/7/15)
G20 countries pay over $1,000 per citizen in fossil fuel subsidies, says IMF The Guardian, Damian Carrington (4/8/15)
Fossil fuels subsidised by $10m a minute, says IMF The Guardian, Damian Carrington (18/5/15)

Working Paper
How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies? IMF Working Paper, David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears, and Baoping Shang (May 2015)

Questions

  1. Explain how energy subsidies are defined in the IMF working paper.
  2. What measurement problems are there in calculating the size of the ‘subsidies’?
  3. Draw a diagram to show how the under taxing of fossil fuel usage leads to a greater than socially optimum level of consumption of fossil fuels.
  4. What specific policies are pursued by the four biggest fossil fuel subsidising countries?
  5. What political problems are there in persuading countries to reduce fossil fuel subsidies/increase fossil fuel taxes.
  6. Is there a relatively high or low income elasticity of demand for energy? What are the implications of this for different income groups of policies to hold down energy prices?
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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.

Articles
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)

Videos
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)

Questions

  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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A windfall for electricity producers?

When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.

If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.

Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:

The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.

The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.

The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.

However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.

Video
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)

Articles
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)

Report
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
  2. Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
  3. What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
  4. If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
  5. What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
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Frozen’s Elsa and Anna save the whale. Or do they? A festive cautionary tale

Since the Global Financial Crisis, and especially since 2010, there has been a significant decline in the volume of commercial freight carried by aircraft. Whilst regional and national economies have been hit by fiscal problems, credit snarl-ups and twitchy consumer demand, increases in the price of crude oil (until recently) have compounded air freight cost increases, leading to substitution towards the main alternatives.

Whilst some multinational businesses have shifted production back ‘on-shore’, there has been unprecedented growth in sea freight. In the latter case there are, of course, both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. As the world’s seas and oceans become more and more congested, one of the distinct losers is a large species which shares the water with commercial maritime transport: the whale.

A recent ‘Sharing the Planet’ documentary on BBC Radio 4, highlighted the plight of whales in the world’s open waters. Since the imposition of controls upon the whaling industry, whale numbers had stabilised and even increased. However, the past five years has seen the most significant threat coming from the eerily clinical-sounding ‘ship strike’: that is, unintended incidents of ships hitting and either injuring or killing whales. In particular, the Blue Whale and the Right Whale have been most affected – the Right Whale was almost driven to extinction by ship strikes in the North Atlantic region.

International action is driving a regulatory approach which aims to intervene, for example, to impose speed restrictions in known waters where whales congregate. But this isn’t a universal solution. Even where it is applied, enforcement is tricky and there is industry resistance as already slow shipping freight delivery times are further extended, thus challenging producers under pressure to respond rapidly to changing consumer demand in the world of ecommerce.

But where is the link to the movie Frozen? Well, this year’s top-selling range of toys are tie-ins to Disney’s wintery animated blockbuster. Excess demand for some of the tie-in merchandising has led to short supply in toy stores and carefully planned production and shipping plans junked. Panicked creation of extra capacity in off-shore production has had to be complemented by the contracting of air freighting options – the lead times are too long to get last-minute products to distributors and retailers in time. Whilst someone has to bear the increased financial cost, the whale might therefore become – at least temporarily – a beneficiary.

But the message is clear: globalised production and distribution involve a complex web of trade-offs. Where negative externalities hit those without a global voice, this adds weight to the continued efforts towards sustainability and the full costing of production and exchange. Whales are a ‘flagship species’ in diverse ecological systems. The planet cannot afford to lose them. And so, whilst your gift purchases this festive season may have been made possible by products having been air-freighted rather than being sent by yet another ship, don't rest on your laurels. Consider this variant on a traditional injunction: whales are for life, and not just for Christmas.

Guest post by Simon Blake, University of Warwick

Books and articles
Nature in the Balance: The Economics of Biodiversity Oxford Dieter Helm and Cameron Hepburn (eds) (2014)
Frozen dolls sell out Express Sarah Ann Harris (9/12/14)
Biodiversity Finance and Economics Tread Softly November 2014

Information
EU Business and Biodiversity Platform EC Environment DG
Whales & Dolphins (cetaceans) World Wildlife Fund

Questions

  1. Why might UK-based businesses be concerned with the plight of whales in the world’s seas and oceans?
  2. In what ways might shipping firms – and the manufacturers who contract their services – be regarded as ‘good’ businesses?
  3. Using the concept of externalities, how would you account for the impacts of global commerce upon whales?
  4. How could you conduct a scientific evaluation of the trade-offs involved?
  5. Can damage to one species by the actions of business ever be offset by ‘making good’ through corporate action elsewhere?
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Do GDP figures capture the benefits of internet innovation?

GDP figures are often a poor measure of a country’s economic well-being. By focusing on production, they may not capture the contribution of a range of social and environmental factors to people’s living standards, including the various negative and positive externalities from production and consumption themselves. A case in point is internet innovation: an issue considered in the first linked article below by the eminent economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

The effects of innovations that directly lead to an increase in output are relatively easy to measure. Many innovations, however, may allow those with power to consolidate that power, resulting in less competition and a possible decline in welfare. If, for example, companies such as Amazon, invest in online retailing and gain a first-mover advantage, they may be able to use this power to drive out competitors. In other words, innovations may not simply lower the cost of production and hence prices: they may even lead to an increase in prices.

Then there are innovations, such as faster broadband, that result in higher quality. While higher quality in one sphere may lead to higher output elsewhere, in many cases it is just improving the experience of consumers without being reflected in a way that can be easily measured.

Some innovations may be judged as socially harmful. Thus improved gaming functionality and realism may encourage people to spend more time online. The social and health implications of this may be considered as undesirable and resulting in a reduction in well-being. Of course, many gamers would disagree!

The point is that technological innovations often result in a change in tastes. These changes in tastes may involve negative externalities, themselves very hard to quantify. Consequently, resulting changes to GDP may be a very poor indicator of changes in social well-being.

The articles below consider some of these issues. The Stiglitz article gives an example of innovation in financial services. Although highly profitable for many working in the sector – at least until the crash of 2008/9 – according to the author, these innovations led to both lower GDP growth and a net contribution to social welfare that was negative.

The benefits of internet innovation are hard to spot in GDP statistics The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (10/3/14)
Economist argues for happiness over GDP Yale Daily News, Joyce Guo (19/2/14)
‘GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History’ by Diane Coyle and ‘The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World’ by Zachary Karabell Washington Post, Tyler Cowen (21/2/14)
Emerging Markets: Income Returns To Innovation (GDP Per Capita Vs. Innovation Index) Seeking Alphz, Jon Harrison (4/3/14)

Questions

  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. What factors affecting the welfare of society are not measured in GDP?
  3. What alternative indicators are there to GDP as a measure of living standards?
  4. How would you set about measuring the effects on living standards of a technological revolution, such as the ability to access 4G on the move on laptops and smartphones (e.g. on trains)?
  5. How should the net benefits of installing more ATMs (cash machines) be calculated?
  6. Revisit the blog Time to leave GDP behind? and answer question 8.
  7. Referring to the Jon Harrison article, how would you construct an innovation index? How is innovation related too GDP per capita?
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