Tag: environmental economics

The health of an economy is generally measured in terms of the growth rate in GDP. A healthy economy is portrayed as one that is growing. Declining GDP, by contrast, is seen as a sign of economic malaise; not surprisingly, people don’t want rising unemployment and falling consumption. The recession of 2008/9 has generally been seen as bad news.

But is GDP a good indicator of human well-being? The problem is that GDP measures the production of goods and services for exchange. True, such goods and services are a vital ingredient in determining human well-being. But they are not the only one. Our lives are not just about consumption. What is more, many of our objectives may go beyond human well-being. For example, the state of the environment – the flora and fauna and the planet itself.

Then there is the question of the capital required to produce goods and maintain a healthy and sustainable environment. Capital production is included in GDP and the depreciation of capital is deducted from GDP to arrive at a net measure. But again, things are left out of these calculations. We include manufactured capital, such as factories and machinery, but ignore natural capital, such as rain forests, coral reefs and sustainable ecosystems generally. But the state of the natural environment has a crucial impact on the well-being, not only of the current generation, but of future generations too.

In the video podcast below, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge and also from the University of Manchester, argues that the well-being of future generations requires an increase in the stock of capital per head, and that, in measuring this capital stock, we must take into account natural capital. In the paper to which the podcast refers, he argues “that a country’s comprehensive wealth per capita can decline even while gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increases and the UN Human Development Index records an improvement.”

Nature’s role in sustaining economic development (video podcast) The Royal Society, Partha Dasgupta
Nature’s role in sustaining economic development Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 365, no. 1537, pp 5–11, Partha Dasgupta (12/1/10)
GDP is misleading measure of wealth, says top economist University of Manchester news item (21/12/09)
Economics and the environment: Down to earth index Guardian (28/12/09)


  1. Why might a rise in GDP result in a decline in human well-being?
  2. In what sense is nature ‘over exploited’?
  3. What is meant by ‘comprehensive wealth’ and why might comprehensive wealth per capita decline even though the stocks of both manufactured capital and human capital are increasing?
  4. What is meant by ‘shadow prices’ in the context of natural capital?
  5. How might economists go about measuring the shadow prices of capital?
  6. What factors should determine the rate of discount chosen for projects that impact on the future state of the environment?

Until changes in their governments, both the USA and Australia were unwilling to sign up to the Kyoto Treaty on climate change. But things are changing. In both countries, cap and trade bills have been proposed by their administrations (see A changing climate at the White House). In the USA, President Obama’s bill would see the imposition of carbon quotas aimed at achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 of 17 per cent, with emissions trading allowing an efficient means of achieving this. In Australia, Kevin Rudd’s Labor government plans to introduce quotas and emissions trading in 2011 to achieve a 25 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020.

But are there lessons to be learned from the European Emissions Trading scheme? The following articles look at some of the issues.

Cap-and-trade off Houston Chronicle (23/5/09)
US climate change bill passes key hurdle Telegraph (22/5/09)
Obama climate change bill defies Republicans to pass key committee Guardian (22/5/09)
Cap and Trade Debate CNN (video) (22/5/09)
Historic emissions trading scheme bills tabled Sydney Morning Herald (14/5/09)
A pattern behind fire and flood Sydney Morning Herald (25/5/09)
Interview with Australian Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong ABC (21/5/09)
Can Copenhagen achieve much? ABC PM programme (includes link to audio) (20/5/09)
Plunging price of carbon may threaten investment Independent (9/2/09)
EU ETS emissions fall 3% in 2008 Environmental Expert (18/5/09)
European investors call for carbon trading revamp businessGreen (20/5/09)
The carbon scam 21st Century Socialism (19/5/09)
Economy and the environment: growing pains Guardian (17/5/09)
See also
European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Defra: emissions trading


  1. Discuss the merits and problems of cap-and-trade systems for reducing carbon emissions in an efficient and effective way.
  2. Is the price of carbon a useful indicator of the success or otherwise of cap-and-trade schemes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
  3. In what ways does the current recession (a) aid, and (b) hinder the introduction of tougher schemes to tackle global warming?