Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.
With the election of Joe Biden, the USA will have a president committed to tackling climate change. This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who has been publicly sceptical about the link between human action and climate change and has actively supported the coal, oil and gas industries and has rolled back environmental protection legislation and regulation.
What is more, in June 2017, he announced that the USA would withdraw from the UN Paris Accord, the international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions so as to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels with efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The USA’s withdrawal was finalised on 4 November 2020, a day after the US election. Joe Biden, however, pledged to rejoin the accord.
A growing number of countries are pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century or earlier. The EU is planning to achieve a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 so as to reach neutrality by 2050. This will involve various taxes, subsidies and public investment. Similar pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 have been made by Japan and South Korea and by 2060 by China. In the UK, legislation was passed requiring the government to reduce the UK’s net emissions 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050 and thereby achieve net zero emissions.
Constraints on action
Short-termism. One of the problems with setting targets a long time in the future is that they take away the urgency to act now. There are huge time lags between introducing policies to curb carbon emissions and their impact on the climate. The costs of such policies for business and consumers, however, are felt immediately in terms of higher taxes and/or higher prices. Thus politicians may be quick to make long-term pledges but reluctant to take firm measures today. Instead they may prefer to appease various pressure groups, such as motoring organisations, and cut fuel taxes, or, at least, not raise them. Politically, then, it may be easier to focus policy on the short term and just make pledges without action for the future.
Externalities. Various activities that cause carbon emissions, whether directly, such as heavy industry, dairy farming, aviation and shipping, or indirectly, such as oil and coal production, thereby impose environmental costs on society, both at home and abroad. These costs are negative externalities and, by their nature, are not borne by those who produce them. There are often powerful lobbies objecting to any attempt to internalise these externalities through taxes, subsidising green alternatives or regulation. Take the case of the USA. Fossil fuel producers, energy-intensive industries and farmers all claim that green policies will damage their businesses, leading to a loss of profits and jobs. These groups were courted by Donald Trump.
International competition. Countries may well be reluctant to impose green taxes or tough environmental regulation on producers, when competitors abroad do not face such constraints. Indeed, some countries are actively promoting dirty industries as part of their policies to stimulate economic recovery from the Covid-induced recession. Such countries include China, Russia and Turkey. This again was a major argument used in the Trump campaign that US industries should not be hobbled by environmental constraints but should be free to compete.
Misinformation. Politicians, knowing that taking tough environmental measures will be unpopular with large numbers of people, may well downplay the dangers of inaction. Some, such as Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil deliberately appeal to climate change deniers or say that technology will sort things out. This makes it hard for other politicians to promote green policies, knowing that they will face scepticism about the science and the efficacy of their proposed policies.
Biden’s climate change policy
Although it will be difficult to persuade some Americans of the need for tougher policies to tackle climate change, Joe Biden has already made a number of pledges. He has stated that under his administration, the USA will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and will play a leading role in the November 2021 UN COP26 climate change conference summit in Glasgow. He has also pledged a Clean Energy Revolution to put the USA on an ‘irreversible path to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050’.
But readopting the pledges under the Paris Agreement and advocating a clean energy revolution are not enough on their own. Specific measures will need to be taken. So, what can be done that is practical and likely to meet with the approval of the majority of Americans or, at least, of Biden’s supporters?
For a start, he can reintroduce many of the regulations that were overturned by the Trump administration, such as preventing oil and gas companies from flaring methane on public lands. He could introduce funding for the development of green technology. He could require public buildings to use green energy.
According to the Clean Energy Revolution, the US government will develop ‘rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be zero emissions and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles’.
One of the biggest commitments is to tackle external costs directly by enacting ‘legislation requiring polluters to bear the full cost of their climate pollution’. This may be met with considerable resistance from US corporations. It is thus politically important for Biden to stress the short-term benefits of his policies, not just the long-term ones.
Given the damage done to the economy by the spread of the pandemic, perhaps the main thing that Biden can do to persuade people of the benefits to them of his policies is to focus on green investment and green jobs. Building a green energy infrastructure of wind, solar and hydro and investing in zero-emissions vehicles and charging infrastructure will provide jobs and lead to multiplier effects throughout the economy.
- Trump Administration Removes Scientist in Charge of Assessing Climate Change
The New York Times, Christopher Flavelle, Lisa Friedman and Coral Davenport (9/11/20)
- As U.S. leaves Paris accord, climate policy hangs on election outcome
The Washington Post, Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni (5/11/20)
- Where next for US action on Climate Change?
British Foreign Policy Group, Evie Aspinall (11/11/20)
- Media reaction: What Joe Biden’s US election victory means for climate change
Carbon Brief, Josh Gabbatiss (10/11/20)
- Joe Biden: How the president-elect plans to tackle climate change
BBC News, Matt McGrath (10/11/20)
- Biden victory ushers in ‘race to the top’ on climate change
Lexology, Baker McKenzie, David P Hackett and Ilona Millar (13/11/20)
- Climate heroes: the countries pioneering a green future
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (11/11/20)
- ‘Hypocrites and greenwash’: Greta Thunberg blasts leaders over climate crisis
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (9/11/20)
- Five post-Trump obstacles to a global green recovery
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (11/11/20)
- Biden’s climate change plans can quickly raise the bar, but can they be transformative?
The Conversation, Edward R Carr (10/11/20)
- Jana Shea/Shutterstock Climate change: Joe Biden could ride a wave of international momentum to break deadlock in US
The Conversation, Richard Beardsworth and Olaf Corry (10/11/20)
- Climate change after COVID-19: Harder to defeat politically, easier to tackle economically
VoxEU, Franziska Funke and David Klenert (17/8/20)
- Identify three specific climate change policies of Joe Biden and assess whether each one is likely to succeed.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate why a free market will lead to over production of a good which produces negative externalities.
- To what extent can education internalise the positive externalities of green consumption and production?
- What was agreed at the Paris climate change conference in December 2015 and what mechanisms were put in place to incentivise countries to meet the targets?
- Will the coronavirus pandemic have had any lasting effects on emissions? Explain.
- How may carbon trading lead to a reduction in carbon emissions? What determines the size of such reductions?
Pre-Covid 19, the climate change movement had gathered momentum with climate activist Greta Thunberg regularly in the news and people around the world striking in protest of inadequate government action on the climate crisis. However, now in a world overtaken by the pandemic, climate change is no longer at the centre and appears a more distant threat. The majority of the large climate change events due to take place this year have been delayed and policy announcements are aimed at supporting the current economic hardships. This is not surprising nor debatable, but there is a risk that, as Covid-19 dominates the news, policy and debates for a long time to come, this will overshadow any environmental initiatives that were due to be implemented.
Governments around the globe are navigating their economies through the pandemic and starting to think about the future road to recovery. However, there is an argument that it doesn’t have to be a case of ‘either or’, as there is the potential for policies to address the Covid-19 crisis and climate change at the same time. How policy makers respond now could shape the fight against climate change for the future. One of the lessons from the pandemic is that quick responses to high impact risks are vital to reduce costs. With that in mind, and given the costs of climate change, it is arguable that now is the best time to address its challenges.
Climate change and Covid
It is estimated that there was a total global loss of $3tn caused by natural disasters over the past decade. By 2050, cumulative damages from climate change are predicted to reach $8 trillion, impoverishing the world as a whole by 3% of GDP and the poorest regions by more. Climate activists argue that despite the economic consequences of climate change, the action taken by governments has been insufficient. In 2015, the then Bank of England governor, Mark Carney warned: ‘Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.’
However, since the pandemic struck all over the world, there have been positive consequences for the environment. Pollution levels started dropping fast as airlines grounded fleets, car travel came to a stop and industries shut down. With 2.6bn people living under restrictions under their country’s lockdown, there has also been an impact on the environment, not just the spread of the virus. Given that the lockdowns across the world have come at huge social and human costs, is now not the time to ensure that these improvements for the environment are not just temporary but ignite long-term changes?
Given the clear impacts and risks of Covid on peoples’ health, our ability to change our behaviour quickly has been striking. The importance of behaviour change has been brought to the centre and, arguably, it shows that we are capable of change when lives are at risk and are deemed more important than business-as-usual GDP growth. The application to climate change, however, is not as straightforward, as the costs to human lives are often viewed as a future problem.
Dr Laure de Preux, Assistant Professor of Economics at Imperial College Business School, highlights the important role that cooperation across borders plays in the face of a global crisis like Coronavirus, and how that can be applied to the fight against climate change.
The big challenges the world is facing, including the climate change crisis, can only be dealt with efficiently through international cooperation. We cannot only act individually; the benefits of our actions are multiplied if integrated into a global strategy. In the case of COVID-19, social distancing measures can only be truly effective if they are adopted at a large scale.
World leaders are aware that their economies now face one of the most severe recessions in history as a consequence of the coronavirus restrictions. Governments are going to have to dedicate huge budgets to enable the economic activity to resume again. This presents a unique challenge, but also a massive opportunity for global cooperation. The question to be asked, therefore, is that if these stimulus packages are a one-off chance to transform the economy, how should the government spend it and what should be their focus? Should the recovery policies focus on creating a greener economy?
The European Union unveiled what it is calling the biggest ‘green’ stimulus package in history. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, told European Parliament members that this issue is about all nations and it is bigger than any one of them. The deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Teresa Ribera, states that there is a greater risk by not acting in this way. She argues that if the recovery is not green, then it will be nothing but a short-cut to solve the current problems rather than a true economic recovery.
It is not just in Europe where the recovery has an environment focus. Joe Biden is believed to be planning a similarly huge green stimulus package for the US. The model echoes the vast investment projects of the New Deal that helped lift America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
There are sound economic reasons why politicians see green technology as a prudent investment. Renewable energy is now often cheaper than fossil fuels in large parts of the world and the technologies are proven and can be built at scale today. The argument for renewables providing a pathway for clean future growth is based on the logic of much of manufacturing – the more you produce, the cheaper it gets. However, China does not appear to have similar plans for their recovery. China produces almost a third of the world’s emissions, as much as the USA and the EU combined. At the annual National People’s Congress, there was no indication that the big expansion of coal-fired electricity generation would be reversed, even though it is also expanding the production of renewable energy. China expanded its coal-fired power stations as a key part of its stimulus package after the 2008 financial crisis.
The UK government receives ongoing pressure from energy companies. The boss of energy giant SSE, Alistair Phillips-Davies has warned that a failure to deal with climate change could eventually have a greater economic impact than coronavirus. SSE wants the UK government to encourage private investment in renewables by giving the green light to big new projects, such as hydrogen and carbon capture plants and boosting electric vehicles. Despite the impacts of climate change not being immediately felt in comparison to Covid-19, Phillips-Davies argues that a failure to deal with climate change could lead to great long-term impacts:
While it is still too early to predict with confidence the full human, social and economic impact of coronavirus, we can say with certainty that significant investment will be needed to rebuild the UK economy in its wake.
It is clear that any pandemic-induced financial decisions made over the next 12 months will shape the global economy for the next decade. The full impact of the virus on climate change will be determined by the world’s stimulus measures adopted post-pandemic. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the energy-intensive stimulus measures that followed, particularly in China, boosted emissions. Therefore, if we are to meet the reduction in emissions target our response needs to be green, helping to shape a sustainable future. Dr Alex Koberle, of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, argues that Governments should take time to reflect, learn from past mistakes and redirect development towards a sustainable future.
Shouldn’t growth be given priority?
With 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy worldwide reckoned to be in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods (according to the International Labour Organization), is now the right time to be focusing on the climate? Industries such as airlines and car manufacturing are strategic industries, employing millions of people. Headlines of longer-term environmental targets will be given less importance than headlines of job losses. Recovery relies on the government finding ways to employ lots and lots of people. There is a close relationship between real GDP, employment and energy consumption. Therefore, any policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, unless carefully directed, could reduce economic growth and employment for both less and more developed economies. Such policies would increase the cost of conventional energy sharply.
Critics of a green energy policy for recovery argue that investing in renewable energy ignores the adverse effects of reduced investment and higher energy costs in other sectors. By governments prioritising policy to focus on the environment, they could harm the ability of most people to improve their own circumstances, especially given the terrible economic shock caused by the lockdowns.
With the majority of news in recent months providing little joy, there has been at least the positive impact on the environment. However, advocates say it not a cause for celebration and warn that any benefits are likely to be short lived. There have been some positive behavioural impacts but the true test will be what happens in the recovery phase. If the focus is returned to business as usual what happens to the targets actioned prior to Covid-19?
The immediate priority of all governments right now is to control the pandemic and to save lives. As their policy interventions have an impact and economies start to emerge from this crisis, then there is an important debate to be had about how new investments can help create a cleaner, greener recovery. We have learnt from the current pandemic that changes can be made when consequences are imminent, however, climate change is a threat that doesn’t go away, and is arguably just as urgent. Solutions to both crises can be integrated into a coherent response to propel the global economy towards sustainable growth and increased resilience.
- Are government attempts to reduce the impact of climate change beneficial or harmful to UK firms?
- What policy instruments can the government use to increase economic activity?
- How does an increase in investment affect aggregate demand?
- What are the costs and benefits of economic growth?
- Why can climate change be described as a market failure?
At the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, world political and business leaders are meeting to discuss pressing economic issues of the day. This year, one of the key themes is climate change and “how to save the planet”.
The approaches of leaders to the climate crisis, however, differ enormously. At the one extreme there are those who deny that emissions have caused climate change, or who reluctantly acknowledge climate change but think that governments need to do nothing and that technological advances in green energy and transport will be sufficient to curb global warming. This has been the approach of President Trump, President Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. They may claim to support the general goals of reducing greenhouse gases, but are keen to protect their coal and oil industries and, in the case of Brazil, to continue cutting down the Amazon rain forest to support mining, ranching and the growing of crops.
At his speech at the WEF, President Trump said that he supported the initiative to plant one trillion trees worldwide to act as a carbon sink. However, he gave no details of just what the nature of the support would be. Would there be subsidies or tax breaks, for example, for landowners to plant trees? In the meantime, his administration has relaxed regulations to curb air and water pollution. And he has withdrawn the USA from the Paris climate agreement.
Other leaders, urged on by activists, such as Greta Thunberg, have talked about tougher action to tackle emissions. Countries such as Canada, Norway and the EU countries have adopted a number of initiatives. Policies range from taxing emissions, capping/regulating emissions with penalities for those breaching the limits, tradable permits, subsidising green alternatives, setting local emissions targets with incentives for meeting them, investing in green infrastructure such as roadside charging points for electric vehicles, making environmental education part of a national curriculum, investing in public transport, and so on. But, say, activists, only large-scale measures that truly recognise the scale of the climate emergency will be sufficient.
The year starts with climate being addressed at Davos; it ends with the annual Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year it will be in Glasgow. There is much hope pinned on this conference, given the growing realisation of the effects of climate change, from bush fires in Australia, to floods in Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia, to more extreme hurricanes/typhoons, to rapidly melting glaciers and retreating sea ice, to rising sea levels, to crop failures and the displacement of humans and the destruction of wildlife and habitat.
COP25 in Madrid made little progress; it is hoped that COP26 will be much more successful. Sir David Attenborough has warned that the world faces a ‘climate crisis moment’. He hopes that the world will be ready to take much stronger action at COP26.
But there remains the fundamental economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. As long as the atmosphere and other parts of the environment are free to ‘use’ to pollute, and as long as the costs of doing so are borne largely by people other than the direct polluters, the market will fail to provide a solution. Australia’s bush fires can be directly attributed to climate change and climate change is exacerbated by coal-fired power stations. But Australia’s use of coal as a power source is only a tiny contributor to global climate change. Presumably, the Australian government would rather get a ‘free ride’ off other countries’ policies to cut emissions rather than bearing the economic cost of reducing coal-fired generation itself for little gain in terms of reduced global emissions.
However, people are not entirely selfish. Many are willing to make personal sacrifices to lead a more environmentally sustainable life. Many people, for example, are choosing electricity tariffs that are slightly higher but where the electricity is generated with zero carbon emissions. Firms have shown a readiness to respond to demands from their consumers for more sustainable products.
- Five essential steps to take right now to tackle climate change
World Economic Forum, Robin Pomeroy (17/1/20)
- Davos: Trump decries climate ‘prophets of doom’ with Thunberg in audience
BBC News (21/1/20)
- Greta Thunberg clashes with US treasury secretary in Davos
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (23/1/20)
- Australia, your country is burning – dangerous climate change is here with you now
The Conversation, Michael E Mann (10/1/20)
- Climate change: What different countries are doing around the globe to tackle the crisis
Independent, Zoe Tidman (20/9/19)
- How we can combat climate change
Washington Post (2/1/19)
- Sir David Attenborough warns of climate ‘crisis moment’
BBC News, David Shukman (16/1/20)
- Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help
BBC News (14/1/20)
- Ten facts about the economics of climate change and climate policy
Brookings, Ryan Nunn, Jimmy O’Donnell, Jay Shambaugh, Lawrence H. Goulder, Charles D Kolstad and Xianling Long (23/10/19)
- The Federal Reserve Considers the Economics of Climate Change in 2020
Lawfare, Rachel Westrate (16/1/20)
- Bernie Sanders’ economic adviser says Australia’s bushfires are a climate change ‘wake-up call’
The Guardian, Ben Butler (7/1/20)
- Carbon pricing: What the research says
Journalist’s Resource, Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, Clark Merrefield (17/1/20)
- European Parliament backs Green Deal
Resource Media, Imogen Benson (17/1/20)
- Tackling climate change
Committee on Climate change
- Tragedy of the Commons: A Drama That Our Planet Is Not Enjoying
Felix, Xiuchen Xu (9/12/19)
- Draw a diagram to show how the external costs of carbon emissions cause a more than socially optimal output of products emitting CO2.
- What is meant by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? Give some environmental examples.
- Discuss possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons.
- Why was COP25 generally regarded as a failure?
- Identify four possible policies that governments could adopt to reduce carbon emissions and discuss their relative advantages and disadvantages.
- Are meetings such as the annual World Economic Forum meetings at Davos of any benefit other than to the politicians attending? Explain.
There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.
Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.
Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.
One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.
One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.
Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.
Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.
Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.
Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.
Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.
If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?