Tag: common resources

For many goods and services, economists argue that relatively unregulated markets often do a pretty good job in delivering desirable outcomes from society’s view point.

However, for these desirable outcomes to occur, certain conditions need to be present. One of these is that all the benefits and costs of consuming and producing the good/service must be experienced/incurred by the buyers and sellers directly involved in the transaction: i.e. there are no externalities. The market can still work effectively if people outside of the transaction are affected (i.e. third parties) but the impact occurs through the price mechanism.

The fast fashion industry

Fast fashion refers to designs and trends that rapidly pass from catwalks and designers to retailers. The clothes sell for low prices and in high quantities. The business model relies on regular purchases and impulse buying. It is particularly popular in the UK where annual clothing consumption per capita is significantly greater than in other European countries – 26.7kg vs 16.7kg in Germany and 14.5kg in Italy. On average, people in the UK have 115 items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, 30 per cent of these garments have not been worn for at least 12 months.

Externalities in fast fashion

There is lots of evidence that the fast fashion market fails to meet the condition of no externalities. Instead, it generates lots of external costs across its whole supply chain that do not affect third parties through the price mechanism. For example:

  • Growing cotton requires large amounts of water. Some estimates suggest that on average it takes 10 000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of cotton. As water is a common resource (rival and non-excludable), its use in cotton production can exceed socially desirable levels. This can have serious consequences for both the quantity of drinking and ground water and can lead to previously fertile land being transformed into arid regions that are too dry to support vegetation.
  • Growing cotton also uses large amounts of pesticide. Some estimates suggest that 6 per cent of global pesticide production is applied to cotton crops. Extended contact with these chemicals can cause illness and infertility. It also has a negative impact on the long-term productivity of the soil. For example, the chemicals destroy microorganisms, plants and insects and so decrease biodiversity.
  • The manufacture of synthetic fibres such as polyester has a smaller negative impact on the use of water and land than the cultivation of a natural fibre such as cotton. However, because it is derived from oil, its manufacture generates more CO2 emissions. One study compared the CO2 emissions from producing the same shirt using polyester and cotton. The former generated 5.5kg whereas the latter produced 2.1kg.
  • The waste water from the use of solvents, bleaches and synthetic dyes in the manufacture of textiles/garments often flows untreated into local rivers and water systems. This is especially the case in developing countries. Estimates suggest that this is responsible for between 17 and 20 per cent of industrial global water pollution.
  • There are excessive levels of textile waste. This can be split into producer waste and consumer waste. Producer waste consists of 10–15 per cent of the fabric used in the manufacture of garments that ends up on the cutting room floor. It also includes deadstock – unsold and returned garments. For example, Burberry admitted that in 2017 it incinerated £28.6 million of unsold stock. In the same year, UK consumers disposed of 530 000 tonnes of unwanted clothing, shoes, bags and belts. This all went for landfill and incineration.
  • Textiles are one of the major sources of microplastic pollution and contribute 35 per cent (190 000 tonnes) of microplastic pollution in the oceans. A 6kg domestic wash can release as many as 700 000 synthetic fibres.

Addressing the externalities

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on the fashion industry in February 2019. One of its key recommendations was that the tax system should be reformed so that it rewards fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts.

The UK government has tended to focus on the use of plastic rather than textiles. For example, it introduced a charge for single use carrier bags as well as banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal products and plastic straws/stirrers.

In April 2022, a new tax is being introduced in the UK on the plastic packaging of finished goods that is either manufactured in the UK or imported from abroad. The rate, set at £200 per metric tonne, will apply to packaging that contains less than 30 per cent of recycled plastic.

One specific proposal made by the Environmental Audit Committee was for the government to consider extending this new tax to textiles that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester. A recent study found that just under 50 per cent of clothes for sale on leading online websites were made entirely from new plastics.

The committee also called for the introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme. This would make textile businesses responsible for the environmental impact of their products: i.e. they would have to contribute towards the cost of collecting, moving, recycling and disposing of their garments. It could involve the payment of an up-front fee, the size of which would depend on the environmental impact of the product.

In its Waste Prevention Programme for England published in March 2021, the government announced plans to consult with stakeholders about the possibility of introducing an ‘extended producer responsibility scheme’ in the textile industry. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is also carrying out a follow-up inquiry to its 2019 report.

Articles

Government and Parliament documents and reports

Questions

  1. Using the concepts of rivalry and excludability, define the concept of a common resource.
  2. Explain the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and how it might apply to the use of water in the cultivation of cotton.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate how negative externalities in consumption and production lead to inefficient levels of output in an unregulated competitive market.
  4. Using a diagram, explain how imposing a tax on producers of textile products that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester could reduce economic inefficiency.
  5. Explain the potential limitations of using taxation/regulation to address the pollution issues created by the fast fashion sector.

Australia held a general election on 2 July 2016. The Liberal/National coalition narrowly won in the House of Representatives, gaining a substantially reduced majority of 77 of the 150 seats, to Labor’s 68 and other parties’ 5 seats. One campaign issue for all parties was the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, which is seen as an environmental disaster. Each party had proposals for tackling the problem and we examine some of them here.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. As the BBC’s iWonder guide states:

One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef contains some 900 islands and 3000 smaller reefs. It is larger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, home to around 10% of the world’s marine fish, over 200 bird species and countless other animals, including turtles and dolphins.

But this iconic Reef system is facing unprecedented threats. Together with governments, scientists are playing a key role in the battle to preserve this vulnerable ecosystem before it’s too late.

The Reef is 2300km long. In the northern third, around half of the coral is dead. Few tourists see this, as they tend to dive in the southern third, which, being cooler, is less affected.

The bleaching and destruction of coral reefs has a number of causes. These include: rising water temperatures, generally from global warming and more extreme El Niño events (rising warm waters that periodically spread across the Pacific); pollution, including that from coal mining, industrial effluent and run-off of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and sediment from farming, leading to acidification of waters; more frequent and more violent cyclones; rapidly expanding numbers of coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish; and over fishing of some species of fish, leading to knock-on effects on ecosystems.

The Barrier Reef and the oceans and atmosphere around it can be regarded as a common resource. The warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, and the destruction of the reef and the wildlife on it, are examples of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. With no-one owning these resources, they are likely to be overused and abused. Put another way, these activities cause negative externalities, which do not appear as costs to the polluters and despoilers, but are still costs to all who treasure the reef. And, from a non-human perspective, it is a cost to the planet and its biodiversity. What is in the private interests of the abusers is not in the social or environmental interest.

The Australian government had sought to downplay the extent of the problem, afraid of deterring tourists – a valuable source of revenue – and under pressure from the coal and farming industries. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the election, the destruction of the Reef and what to do about it became a major debating point between the parties.

The Coalition government has pledged A$1bn for a new Reef fund, which will be dedicated to tackling climate change and water quality.

The fund will also help coastal sewage treatment plants to reduce ocean outfalls with efficient pumps, biogas electricity generation and next-generation waste water treatment. Improving water quality will enhance the Reef’s resilience to climate change, coral bleaching and outbreaks of the destructive crown of thorns starfish.

But how much difference the fund can make with the money it will have is not clear.

The Labor Party pledged to follow every recommendation in the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce’s Final Report, released in May, and to pass laws to prevent farm pollution flowing into the waters around the Reef and to have a more rapid shift towards renewable energy.

The Green Party goes the furthest. In addition to the Labor Party’s proposals, it wants to impose taxes on coal firms equal to the cost of the damage they are causing. The tax revenues would be paid into a multi-billion dollar fund. This would then be spent on measures to rescue the Reef, invest in clean energy projects, stop damaging industrial development, improve farm management and stop polluted run-off into the Reef catchment area by investing in water systems.

Promises at the time of an election are all well and good. Just how much will be done by the re-elected Coalition government remains to be seen.

Interactive Videos and presentations
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: an Interactive Journey, Atlantic Productions, David Attenborough (2015)
Global Warming – the greatest market failure Prezi, Yvonne Cheng (5/12/12)

Articles

The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare The Guardian, Michael Slezak (7/6/16)
The Guardian view on the Great Barrier Reef: the crisis they prefer to downplay The Guardian (7/6/16)
Fight to save Great Barrier Reef could cost billions, secret government modelling estimates ABC News, Mark Willacy (2/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef: government must choose which parts to save, says expert The Guardian, Joshua Robertson (8/7/16)
This election, what hope is there for the Great Barrier Reef? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (1/7/16)
Coalition will protect Great Barrier Reef with $1bn fund, says PM The Guardian, Gareth Hutchens (12/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef election explainer: how do the parties compare? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (2/6/16)
Five things we can do right now to save the Great Barrier Reef The Guardian, John Pandolfi (13/6/16)
We’ve scored the parties on the Reef My Sunshine Coast, Australian Marine Conservation Society (29/6/16)
Our Most Iconic Places Are Under Dire Threat From Climate Change Huffington Post, Nick Visser (26/5/16)
There are bright spots among the world’s coral reefs – the challenge is to learn from them The Conversation, Australia, Joshua Cinner (21/7/16)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons. Is all pollution damage an example of this?
  2. What can the Australian government do to internalise the external costs to the Great Barrier Reef from (a) farming; (b) mining; (c) global warming?
  3. Why is it difficult to reach international agreement on tackling climte change? What insights can game theory provide for understanding the difficulties?
  4. What are the recommendations in the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce? What mix of tools does it suggest?
  5. What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of taxation, laws and regulations, public investment, education and international negotiation as policy instruments to protect the Reef?

After two weeks of negotiations between the 195 countries attending the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, a deal has been reached on tackling climate change. Although the deal still has to be ratified by countries, this is a major step forward in limiting global warming. Before it can formally come into force, it must have been ratified by at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The deal goes much further than previous agreements and includes the following:

  • A limit on the increase in global temperatures to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels and efforts pursued to limit it to 1.5°C.
  • A recognition that the pledges already made ahead of the conference by 186 countries and incorporated into the agreement are insufficient and will only limit global temperature rise to 2.7°C at best.
  • Countries to update their emissions reductions commitments every five years – the first being in 2020. Such revised commitments should then be legally binding.
  • A global ‘stocktake’ in 2023, and every five years thereafter, to monitor countries’ progress in meeting their commitments and to encourage them to make deeper cuts in emissions to reach the 1.5°C goal. This requires a process of measurement and verification of countries’ emissions.
  • To reach a peak in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and then to begin reducing them and to achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases (i.e. zero net emissions) in the second half of this century.
  • Developed countries to provide the poorest developing countries with $100bn per year by 2020 to help them reduce emissions. This was agreed in Copenhagen, but will now be continued from 2020 to 2025, and by 2025 a new goal above $100bn per year will be agreed.
  • The development of market mechanisms that would award tradable credits for green projects and emissions reductions.
  • A recognition that the ‘loss and damage’ associated with climate-related disasters can be serious for many vulnerable developing countries (such as low-lying island states) and that this may require compensation. However, there is no legal liability on developed countries to provide such compensation.

Perhaps the major achievement at the conference was a universal recognition that the problem of global warming is serious and that action needs to be taken. Mutual self interest was the driving force in reaching the agreement, and although it is less binding on countries than many would have liked, it does mark a significant step forward in tackling climate change.

But why did the conference not go further? Why, if there was general agreement that global warming should be tackled and that global temperature rise should ideally be capped at 1.5°C, was there not a binding agreement on each country to apply this cap?

There are two reasons.

First, it is very difficult to predict the exact relationship, including its timing, between emissions and global temperature rise. Even if you could make limits to emissions binding, you could not make global temperature rise binding.

Second, even if there is general agreement about how much emissions should be reduced, there is no general agreement on the distribution of these reductions. Many countries want to do less themselves and others to do more. More specifically, poor countries want rich countries to do all the cutting while many continue to build more coal-fired power stations to provide the electricity to power economic development. The rich countries want the developing countries, especially the larger ones, such as China, India and Brazil to reduce their emissions, or at least the growth in their emissions.

Then there is the difference between what countries vaguely pledge at a global conference and what they actually do domestically. Many developed countries are keen to take advantage of currently cheap fossil fuels to power economic growth. They are also still investing in alternative sources of fossil fuels, such as through fracking.

As we said in the previous blog, game theory can shed some useful insights into the nature and outcome of climate negotiations. ‘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.’

‘Minimalistic’ may be too strong a description of the outcomes of the Paris conference. But they could have been stronger. Nevertheless, judged by the outcomes of previous climate conferences, the deal could still be described as ‘historic’.

Videos

With landmark climate accord, world marks turn from fossil fuels Reuters (13/12/15)
COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris BBC News (13/12/15)
COP21: Paris climate deal is ‘best chance to save planet’ BBC News (13/12/15)
COP21: Climate change deal’s winners and losers BBC News, Matt McGrath (13/12/15)
The Five Key Decisions Made in the UN Climate Deal in Paris Bloomberg, video: Nathaniel Bullard; article: Ewa Krukowska and Alex Morales (12/12/15)
The key factors in getting a deal in Paris BBC News on YouTube, Tom Burke (13/12/15)

Articles

COP21 agreement: All you need to know about Paris climate change deal Hindustan Times, Chetan Chauhan (13/12/15)
COP21: Paris agreement formally adopted Financial Times, Pilita Clark and Michael Stothard (12/12/15)
Let’s hail the Paris climate change agreement and get to work Financial Times, Jeffrey Sachs (12/12/15)
COP21: Public-private collaboration key to climate targets Financial Times, Nicholas Stern (13/12/15)
Paris climate change agreement: the deal at a glance The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (12/12/15)
Climate Accord Is a Healing Step, if Not a Cure New York Times, Justin Gillis (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement Ushers in End of the Fossil Fuel Era Slate, Eric Holthaus (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement: the reaction Business Green, James Murray and Jessica Shankleman (12/12/15)
World’s First Global Deal to Combat Climate Change Adopted in Paris Scientific American, David Biello (12/12/15)
COP21: Paris climate deal ‘our best chance to save the planet’, says Obama Independent, Tom Bawden (13/12/15)
Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments The Guardian, George Monbiot (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement on climate change: the good, the bad, and the ugly The Conversation, Henrik Selin and Adil Najam (14/12/15)
COP21: James Hansen, the father of climate change awareness, claims Paris agreement is a ‘fraud’ Independent, Caroline Mortimer (14/12/15)
Paris climate agreement: More hot air won’t save us from oblivion Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher (15/12/15)

Draft Agreement

Adoption of the Paris Agreement United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (12/12/15)

Questions

  1. Could the market ever lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Explain.
  2. What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the Paris agreement?
  3. Is it in rich countries’ interests to help poorer countries to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?
  4. How might countries reduce the production of fossil fuels? Are they likely to want to do this? Explain.
  5. Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
  6. What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

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

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

Questions

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