Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?
In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.
‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.
… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’
Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:
‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’
The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)
- What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
- Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
- How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
- What social functions are filled by insurance?
- Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
- What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
- Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
- How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
- Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
This weekend, Australia will play host to the world’s leaders, as the G20 Summit takes place. The focus of the G20 Summit will be on global growth and how it can be promoted. The Eurozone remains on the brink, but Germany did avoid for recession with positive (just) growth in the third quarter of this year. However, despite Australia’s insistence on returning the remit of the G20 to its original aims, in particular promoting growth, it is expected that many other items will also take up the G20’s agenda.
In February, the G20 Finance Ministers agreed various measures to boost global growth and it is expected that many of the policies discussed this weekend will build on these proposals. The agreement contained a list of new policies that had the aim of boosting economy growth of the economies by an extra 2% over a five year period. If this were to happen, the impact would be around £1.27 trillion. The agreed policies will be set out in more detail as part of the Brisbane Action Plan.
As well as a discussion of measures to promote global growth as a means of boosting jobs across the world, there will also be a focus on using these measures to prevent deflation from becoming a problem across Europe. Global tax avoidance by some of the major multinationals will also be discussed and leaders will be asked to agree on various measures. These include a common reporting standard; forcing multinationals to report their accounts country by country and principles about disclosing the beneficial ownership of companies. It it also expected that the tensions between Russia and Ukraine will draw attention from the world leaders. But, the main focus will be the economy. Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott said:
“Six years ago, the impacts of the global financial crisis reverberated throughout the world. While those crisis years are behind us, we still struggle with its legacy of debt and joblessness…The challenge for G20 leaders is clear – to lift growth, boost jobs and strengthen financial resilience. We need to encourage demand to ward off the deflation that threatens the major economies of Europe.”
Many people have protested about the lack of action on climate change, but perhaps this has been addressed to some extent by the deal between China and the USA on climate change and Barak Obama’s pledge to make a substantial contribution to the Green Climate Fund. This has caused some problems and perhaps embarrassment for the host nation, as Australia has remained adamant that despite the importance of climate change, this will not be on the agenda of the G20 Summit. Suggestions now, however, put climate change as the final communique.
Some people and organisations have criticised the G20 and questioned its relevance, so as well as discussing a variety of key issues, the agenda will more broadly be aiming to address this criticism. And of course, focus will also be on tensions between some of the key G20 leaders. The following articles consider the G20 Summit.
Ukraine and Russia take center stage as leaders gather for G20 Reuters, Matt Siegel (14/11/14)
The G20 Summit: World leaders gather in Brisbane BBC News (14/11/11)
G20: Obama to pledge $2.5bn to help poor countries on climate change The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg (14/11/14)
G20 in 20: All you need to know about Brisbane Leaders summit in 20 facts Independent, Mark Leftly (13/11/14)
G20 leaders to meet in Australia under pressure to prove group’s relevance The Guardian, Lenore Taylor (13/11/14)
Australia PM Abbott accuses Putin of bullying on eve of G20 Financial Times, George Parker and Jamie Smyth (14/11/14)
G20: David Cameron in Australia for world leaders’ summit BBC News (13/11/14)
G20 summit: Australian PM Tony Abbott tries to block climate talks – and risks his country becoming an international laughing stock Independent, Kathy Marks (13/11/14)
Incoming G20 leader Turkey says groups must be more inclusive Reuters, Jane Wardell (14/11/14)
Behind the motorcades and handshakes, what exactly is the G20 all about – and will it achieve ANYTHING? Mail Online, Sarah Michael (14/11/14)
Is the global economy headed for the rocks? BBC News, Robert Peston (17/11/14)
Official G20 site
G20 Priorities G20
Australia 2014 G20
- What is the purpose of the G20 and which countries are members of it? Should any others be included in this type of organisation?
- What are the key items on the agenda for the G20 Summit in Brisbane?
- One of the main objectives of this Summit is to discuss the policies that will be implemented to promote growth. What types of policies are likely to be important in promoting global economic growth?
- What types of policies are effective at addressing the problem of deflation?
- What impact will the tensions between Russia and Ukraine have on the progress of the G20?
- Why are multinationals able to engage in tax evasion? What policies could be implemented to prevent this and to what extent is global co-operation needed?
- Discuss possible reforms to the IMF and the G20’s role in promoting such reforms.
- Should the G20 be scrapped?
On my commute to work on the 6th October, I happened to listen to a programme on BBC radio 4, which provided some fascinating discussion on climate change, growth, capitalism and the need for co-operation. With more countries emerging as leading economic powers, pollution and emissions continue to grow. Is it time for a green revolution?
The programme considers some ‘typical’ policies and also discusses some radical solutions. There is discussion on developing and developed nations and how these countries should be looked at in terms of compensation, entitlement and aid. Carrots and sticks are analysed as means of saving the planet and how environmental damage can be reduced, without adversely affecting the growth rate of the world economy. I won’t say any more, but it’s certainly worth listening to, for an interesting discussion on one of the biggest problems that governments across the world are facing and it is not going to go away any time soon.
Naomi Klein on climate change and growth BBC Radio 4, Start the Week (6/10/14)
- What are the market failures with the environment?
- Why is global co-operation so important for tackling the problem of climate change?
- Which policies are discussed as potential solutions to the problem of climate change?
- What has been the problem with the European carbon trading scheme?
- Why may there be a trade-off between capitalism, growth and the problem of carbon emissions?
- To what extent do you think that countries such as Bangladesh should be ‘compensated’?
The Clean Energy Bill has been on the agenda for some time and not just in the UK. With climate change an ever growing global concern, investment in other cleaner energy sources has been essential. However, when it comes to investment in wind farms, developers have faced significant opposition. The balancing act for the government appears to be generating sufficient investment in wind farms, while minimising the negative externalities.
The phrase often thrown around with regards to wind farms, seems to be ‘not in my backyard’. That is, people recognise the need for them, but don’t want them to be built in the local areas. The reason is to do with the negative externalities. Not only are the wind farms several metres high and wide, creating a blight on the landscape, but they also create a noise, both of which impose a third party effect on the local communities. These factors, amongst others, have led to numerous protests whenever a new wind farm is suggested. The problem has been that with such challenging targets for energy, wind farms are essential and thus government regulation has been able to over-ride the protests of local communities.
However, planning guidance in the UK will now be changed to give local opposition the ability to override national energy targets. In some sense, more weight is being given to the negative externalities associated with a new wind farm. This doesn’t mean that the government is unwilling to let investment in wind farms stop. Instead, incentives are being used to try to encourage local communities to accept new wind farms. While acknowledging the existence of negative externalities, the government is perhaps trying to put a value on them. The benefits offered to local communities by developers will increase by a factor of five, thus aiming to compensate those affected accordingly. Unsurprisingly, there have been mixed opinions, summed up by Maria McCaffery, the Chief Executive of trade association RenewableUK:
Maria McCaffery, chief executive of trade association RenewableUK, said the proposals would signal the end of many planned developments and that was “disappointing”.
Developing wind farms requires a significant amount of investment to be made upfront. Adding to this cost, by following the government’s advice that we should pay substantially more into community funds for future projects, will unfortunately make some planned wind energy developments uneconomic in England.
That said, we recognise the need to ensure good practice across the industry and will continue to work with government and local authorities to benefit communities right across the country which are hosting our clean energy future.
The improved benefits package by the energy industry is expected to be in place towards the end of the year. The idea is that with greater use of wind farms, energy bills can be subsidised, thereby reducing the cost of living. Investment in wind farms (on-shore and off-shore) is essential. Current energy sources are non-renewable and as such new energy sources must be developed. However, many are focused on the short term cost and not the long term benefit that such investment will bring. The public appears to be in favour of investment in new energy sources, especially with the prospect of subsidised energy bills – but this positive outlook soon turns into protest when the developers pick ‘your back yard’ as the next site. The following articles consider this issue.
Residents to get more say over wind farms The Guardian, Fiona Harvey and Peter Walker (6/6/13)
Local communities offered more say over wind farms BBC News (6/6/13)
Locals to get veto power over wind farms The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (6/6/13)
Wind farms are a ‘complete scam’, claims the Environment Secretary who says turbines are causing ‘huge unhappiness’ Mail Online, Matt Chorley (7/6/13)
New planning guidance will make it harder to build wind farms Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Pilita Clark and Elizabeth Rigby (6/6/13)
Will more power to nimbys be the death of wind farms? Channel 4 News (6/6/13)
Locals given more ground to block wind farms Independent, Tom Bawden (6/6/13)
- What are the negative externalities associated with wind farms?
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis as to whether a wind farm should be constructed in your local area. Which factors have you given greatest weight to?
- In question 2 above, were you concerned about the Pareto criterion or the Hicks-Kaldor criterion?
- If local communities can be compensated sufficiently, should wind farms go ahead?
- If the added cost to the development of wind farms means that some will no longer go ahead, is this efficient?
- Why is there a need to invest in new energy sources?
- To what extent is climate change a global problem requiring international (and not national) solution?
No market is perfect and when the market mechanism fails to deliver an efficient allocation of resources, we say the market fails and hence there is justification for some government intervention. From a monopolist dominating an industry to a manufacturing firm pumping out pollution, there are countless examples of market failure.
The Guardian is creating a guide to climate change, covering areas from politics to economics. The problem of climate change has been well documented and this blog considers a particular issue – the case for climate change or the environment as a market failure. In many cases just one market failure can be identified, for example an externality or a missing market. However, one of the key problems with climate change is that there are several market failures: externalities in the form of pollution from greenhouse gases; poor information; minimal incentives; the problem of the environment as a common resource and the immobility of factors of production, to name a few. Each contributes towards a misallocation of resources and prevents the welfare of society from being maximised.
When a market fails, intervention is justified and economists argue for a variety of policies to tackle the above failures. In a first-best world, there is only one market failure to tackle, but in the case of the environment, policy must be designed carefully to take into account the fact that there are numerous failings of the free market. Second-best solutions are needed. Furthermore, as the problem of climate change will be felt by everyone, whether in a developed or a developing country, international attention is needed. The two articles below are part of the Guardian’s ultimate climate change guide and consider a huge range of economic issues relating to the problem of environmental market failure.
Why do economists describe climate change as a ‘market failure’? Guardian, Grantham Research Institute and Dunca Clark (21/5/12)
What is the economic cost of climate change? Guardian (16/2/11)
- What is meant by market failure?
- What are the market failures associated with the environment and climate change? In each case, explain how the issue causes an inefficient allocation of resources and thus causes the market to fail? You may find diagrams useful!
- What is meant by the first-best and second-best world?
- What does a second-best solution aim to do?
- Using diagrams to help your explanation, show how a tax on pollution will have an effect in a first best world, where the only market failure is a negative externality and in a second best world, where the firm in question is also a monopolist.
- What solutions are there to the problem of climate change? How effective are they likely to be?
- Does the need to tackle climate change require international co-operation? Can you use game theory to help your explanation?!