We rely on the natural environment as a source of food and raw materials, for recreation and health and as a dump for waste. Yet, too often, little or no monetary value is placed on the environment. GDP, the standard measure of economic success, is based on market values; and the market undervalues the environment. The prices of the goods we buy bear little relationship with the environmental costs of their production. And yet we all bear the costs (some more than others) as the planet warms, as rain forests are cut down, as seas become polluted and as biodiversity is destroyed.
A major study commissioned by the UK government has just been published. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review looks at how we need to rethink the value we attach to nature and embed that within economic decisions. As the Review begins by saying, ‘We are part of Nature, not separate from it’. Nature is an asset on which we all depend and yet is is hugely undervalued. The Amazon rainforest is seen by developers as valuable only for clearance for cattle, soy or mining. In these terms, Amazon the company, valued at over US$1 trillion, is worth more than the Amazon rainforest. As page 2 of the Headline Messages states:
Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge. These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets.
Moreover, aspects of Nature are mobile; some are invisible, such as in the soils; and many are silent. These features mean that the effects of many of our actions on ourselves and others – including our descendants – are hard to trace and go unaccounted for, giving rise to widespread ‘externalities’ and making it hard for markets to function well.
But this is not simply a market failure: it is a broader institutional failure too. Many of our institutions have proved unfit to manage the externalities. Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit Nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities. A conservative estimate of the total cost globally of subsidies that damage Nature is around US$4 to 6 trillion per year. And we lack the institutional arrangements needed to protect global public goods, such as the ocean or the world’s rainforests.
The Review urges a complete rethinking of environmental value. We need to recognise that we are embedded in Nature and that biodiversity has intrinsic worth – perhaps even moral worth. Only this way can correct economic decisions be made.
To detach Nature from economic reasoning is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to Nature. The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it.
The Review highlights some specific policies that can be adopted to attach value to the environment. It makes three major recommendations.
- Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level. This involves countries and their citizens accepting that they are stewards of the land, seas and atmosphere. This means making conservation central to decision making in areas such a food production, raw material extraction, energy generation and recycling. A range of policy instruments can be used, including taxes and subsidies, laws and regulations, public investment and provision of services.
- Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path. This would involve amending measures, such as GDP, to include environmental degradation (-ve) and improvement (+ve) and national wealth to include all natural assets, such as biodiversity and land, air, sea and water quality. This would involve ‘natural capital accounting’. This, in turn, would be helped by global standardised presentation of data and modelling approaches, and the provision of data on the environment by statistical agencies.
- Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations. Institutional arrangements should be put into place that allow the pooling of environmental information at local, national and global levels. Then there will need to be international subsidies to countries with environments that should be protected for the global good (e.g. rainforests) and international charges for the use of global common resources, such as oceans and the atmosphere. ‘What is ultimately required is a set of global standards underpinned by credible, decision-grade data, which businesses and financial institutions can use to fully integrate Nature-related considerations into their decision-making, and assess and disclose their use of, and impact on, Nature.’ But this must also be backed up by education so as to encourage people to be more conservationist in their behaviour and attitudes.
It is hoped that the Review will be a major focus of two upcoming United Nations conferences: on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming, China in May 2021 and on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021. The authors of the Review hope that these conferences will set new environmental commitments and establish the necessary institutional arrangements to ensure such commitments are met. This will involve changing the approach to economic decision making at all levels in society.
As Sir David Attenborough states in his foreword to the Review,
Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core and provides the compass that we urgently need. In doing so, it shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology together, we can help save the natural world at what may be the last minute – and in doing so, save ourselves.
The Dasgupta Review
- To what extent is the Dasgupta Review an updated version of the Stern Review of 2006?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate how the existence of negative externalities will lead to production levels above the social optimum.
- To what extent is Nature a public good?
- What is meant by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? How is it relevant to the exploitation of Nature?
- How could market incentives be changed by governments so as to halt the loss of biodiversity?
- Following an international agreement to protect the natural environment, what sanctions could be imposed on countries or companies which violate the agreement? How effective would they be?
With the growing recognition of the global climate emergency (see also), attention is being increasingly focused on policies to tackle global warming.
In the October version of its journal, Fiscal Monitor, the IMF argues that carbon taxes can play a major part in meeting the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or earlier.
As the blog accompanying the journal states:
Global warming has become a clear and present threat. Actions and commitments to date have fallen short. The longer we wait, the greater the loss of life and damage to the world economy. Finance ministers must play a central role to champion and implement fiscal policies to curb climate change. To do so, they should reshape the tax system and fiscal policies to discourage carbon emissions from coal and other polluting fossil fuels.
The effect of a carbon tax on production
The argument is that carbon emissions represent a massive negative externality, where the costs are borne largely by people other than the emitters. Taxes can internalise these externalities. The effect would be to raise the price of carbon-emitting activities and reduce the quantity consumed and hence produced.
The diagram illustrates the argument. It takes the case of carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity generation in a large country. To keep the analysis simple, it is assumed that all electricity in the country is generated from coal-fired power stations and that there are many such power stations, making the market perfectly competitive.
It is assumed that all the benefits from electricity production accrue solely to the consumers of electricity (i.e. there are no external benefits from consumption). Marginal private and marginal social benefits of the production of electricity are thus the same (MPB = MSB). The curve slopes downwards because, with a downward-sloping demand for electricity, higher output results in a lower marginal benefit (diminishing marginal utility).
Competitive market forces, with producers and consumers responding only to private costs and benefits, will result in a market equilibrium at point a in the diagram: i.e. where demand equals supply. The market equilibrium price is P0 while the market equilibrium quantity is Q0. However the presence of external costs in production means that MSC > MPC. In other words, MEC = b – a.
The socially optimal output would be Q* where P = MSB = MSC, achieved at the socially optimal price of P*. This is illustrated at point d and clearly shows how external costs of production in a perfectly competitive market result in overproduction: i.e. Q0 > Q*. From society’s point of view, too much electricity is being produced and consumed.
If a carbon tax of d – c is imposed on the electricity producers, it will now be in producers’ interests to produce at Q*, where their new private marginal costs (including tax) equals their marginal private benefit.
Assessing the benefits of carbon taxes
The diagram shows the direct effect on production of electricity. With widespread carbon taxes, there would be similar direct effects on other industries that emit carbon, and also on consumers, faced with higher fuel prices. In the UK, for example, there are currently higher taxes on high-emissions vehicles than on low-emissions ones.
However, there are other effects of carbon taxes which contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions over the longer term. First, firms will have an incentive to invest in green energy production, such as wind, solar and hydro. Second, it will encourage R&D in green energy technology. Third, consumers will have an incentive to use less electricity by investing in more efficient appliances and home insulation and making an effort to turn off lights, the TV, computers and so on.
People may object to paying more for electricity, gas and motor fuel, but the tax revenues could be invested in cheaper clean public transport, home insulation and public services generally, such as health and education. This could be part of a policy of redistribution, with the tax revenues being spent on alleviating poverty. Alternatively, other taxes could be cut.
The IMF estimates that to restrict global warming to 2°C (a target seen as too modest by many environmentalists), large emitting countries ‘should introduce a carbon tax set to rise quickly to $75 a ton in 2030’.
This would mean household electric bills would go up by 43 per cent cumulatively over the next decade on average – more in countries that still rely heavily on coal in electricity generation, less elsewhere. Gasoline would cost 14 percent more on average.
It gives the example of Sweden, which has a carbon tax of $127 per ton. This has resulted in a 25% reduction in emissions since 1995, while the economy has expanded 75% since then.
Limits of carbon taxes
Although carbon taxes can make a significant contribution to combatting global warming, there are problems with their use.
First, it may be politically popular for governments not to impose them, or raise them, with politicians arguing that they are keen to help ‘struggling motorists’ or poor people ‘struggling to keep their homes warm’. In the UK, successive governments year after year have chosen not to raise road fuel taxes, despite a Fuel Price Escalator (replaced in 2011 by a Fuel Duty Stabiliser) designed to raise fuel taxes each year by more than inflation. Also, governments fear that higher energy prices would raise costs for their country’s industries, thereby damaging exports.
Second, it is difficult to measure the marginal external costs of CO2 emissions, which gives ammunition to those arguing to keep taxes low. In such cases it may be prudent, if politically possible, to set carbon taxes quite high.
Third, they should not be seen as a sufficient policy on their own, but as just part of the solution to global warming. Legislation to prevent high emissions can be another powerful tool to prevent activities that have high carbon emissions. Examples include banning high-emission vehicles; a requirement for coal-fired power stations and carbon emitting factories to install CO2 scrubbers (filters); and tougher planning regulations for factories that emit carbon. Education to encourage people to cut their own personal use of fossil fuels is another powerful means of influencing behaviour.
A cap-and-trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme would be an alternative means of cutting carbon efficiently. It involves setting quotas for emissions and allowing firms which manage to cut emissions to sell their surplus permits to less efficient firms. This puts a price pressure on firms to be more efficient. But the quotas (the ‘cap’) must be sufficiently tight if emissions are going to be cut to desired levels.
But, despite being just one possible policy, carbon taxes can make a significant contribution to combatting global warming.
- Fiscal Policies to Curb Climate Change
IMF blog, Vitor Gaspar, Paolo Mauro, Ian Parry and Catherine Pattillo (10/10/19)
- Energy bills will have to rise sharply to avoid climate crisis, says IMF
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (10/10/19)
- Huge global carbon tax hike needed in next 10 years to head off climate disaster, says IMF
Independent, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman (11/10/19)
- World urgently needs to quicken steps to reduce global warming – IMF
Reuters, Lindsay Dunsmuir (10/10/19)
- The Case for a Goldilocks Carbon Tax
Forbes, Roger Pielke (13/9/19)
- The world needs a massive carbon tax in just 10 years to limit climate change, IMF says
Washington Post, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman (10/10/19)
- People like the idea of a carbon tax – if the money is put to good use
New Scientist, Michael Le Page (18/9/19)
- The IMF thinks carbon taxes will stop the climate crisis. That’s a terrible idea.
The Guardian, Kate Aronoff (12/10/19)
- Firms ignoring climate crisis will go bankrupt, says Mark Carney
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (13/10/19)
- How central banks can tackle climate change
Financial Times, The editorial board (31/10/19)
- World Economic Forum: Climate change action needed to avoid societal ‘collapse’ says minister
The National, UAE, Anna Zacharias (3/11/19)
- Riots and trade wars: Why carbon taxes will not solve climate crisis
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 1)
- The plethora of effective alternatives to carbon pricing
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 2)
- Are these the real reasons why Big Oil wants a carbon tax?
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 3)
- Do we need carbon taxes in an era of cheap renewables?
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 4)
- How to Mitigate Climate Change
IMF Fiscal Monitor, Ian Parry (team leader), Thomas Baunsgaard, William Gbohoui, Raphael Lam, Victor Mylonas, Mehdi Raissi, Alpa Shah and Baoping Shang (October 2019)
- Draw a diagram to show how subsidies can lead to the optimum output of green energy.
- What are the political problems in introducing or raising carbon taxes? Examine possible solutions to these problems
- Choose two policies for reducing carbon emissions other than using carbon taxes? Compare their effectiveness with carbon taxes.
- How is game theory relevant to getting international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Why is there likely to be a prisoners’ dilemma problem in reaching and sticking to such agreements? How might the problem of a prisoners’ dilemma be overcome in such circumstances?
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)
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)
- Explain what is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons. Is all pollution damage an example of this?
- What can the Australian government do to internalise the external costs to the Great Barrier Reef from (a) farming; (b) mining; (c) global warming?
- Why is it difficult to reach international agreement on tackling climte change? What insights can game theory provide for understanding the difficulties?
- What are the recommendations in the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce? What mix of tools does it suggest?
- 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?
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.
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t slow global economic growth — report The Guardian, Bruce Watson (26/9/15)
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)
- What are the possible causal relationships between cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of economic growth?
- What incentive mechanisms can governments or other agencies adopt to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without reducing economic growth?
- 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.
- How might the developed world support developing countries in moving to a low carbon technology?
- What factors lie behind the falling costs of renewable energy? Are these the same factors that lie behind the falling cost of oil?
- What political problems might hinder the greater production of renewable energy?
- 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?
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
EU Business and Biodiversity Platform EC Environment DG
Whales & Dolphins (cetaceans) World Wildlife Fund
- Why might UK-based businesses be concerned with the plight of whales in the world’s seas and oceans?
- In what ways might shipping firms – and the manufacturers who contract their services – be regarded as ‘good’ businesses?
- Using the concept of externalities, how would you account for the impacts of global commerce upon whales?
- How could you conduct a scientific evaluation of the trade-offs involved?
- Can damage to one species by the actions of business ever be offset by ‘making good’ through corporate action elsewhere?