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)
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)
- Why is COP21 considered to be so significant?
- For what reasons is there hope for a binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C?
- What would be the effect on global warming of the commitments made by more than 180 countries prior to the conference?
- What market failings contribute towards the problem of global warming?
- Why, if all countries want to achieve a binding agreement at the Paris conference, is it likely to be so difficult to achieve?
- Explain what is meant by a ‘Nash equilibrium’ and how the concept is relevant to international negotiations.
- Why is China investing heavily in solar power?
- Could Africa lead the world in green energy?
- Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
- What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?
- How does the structure/order of the Paris conference differ from previous COPs? Is such a structure more likely to achieve substantial results?
In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.
Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.
According to the ONS:
‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)
As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.
As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.
The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.
The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.
However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.
lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)
Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)
- Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
- Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
- In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
- Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
- What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
- Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
- Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
- Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
In the UK, we take it for granted that if you need to see a doctor, you go and give little, if any thought, to the cost. It may be petrol costs, time off work or the cost of a prescription, but beyond that, receiving treatment is free at the point of use. Funded through a progressive tax system, the NHS is seen as being one of the more equitable health care systems.
When a mother gives birth, the main thing she will have to worry about is the labour – and not whether to have certain painkillers or stay an extra night, because of the cost.
The International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) looked at data on the cost of giving birth, based on insurance company payments. For someone living in the UK, the figures make for quite astonishing reading. In the USA, a normal delivery will cost $10,000, while a caesarean totals $15,000, meaning that giving birth in the USA is the most expensive place in the world. The article linked below takes the case of Mari Roberts, whose total delivery bill came to over $100,000. The insurance did cover it, but that’s not always the case. Medical bills in the United States are one of the leading reasons for bankruptcy and with these types of figures, perhaps it’s hardly surprising.
Other countries also see high costs for delivery, where expectant mothers really do need to give consideration to the length of their stay in hospital and perhaps even whether they are willing to forgo a pain-relieving drug and save some money. There is often said to be an efficiency–equity trade-off in the area of healthcare, with countries offering a free at the point of use service delivering an equitable system, but with a lack of responsiveness to the demands of the patients. In the UK, you don’t pay to see a doctor but, with a ‘free’ service, demand is understandably very high, thus creating a shortage and waiting lists. In countries, such as the USA, a higher price for treatment does limit demand, creating more inequity but a responsive system.
There are certainly lessons that can be learned from all health care systems and living in a developed country, we should certainly consider ourselves lucky. There are many countries where access to even the most basic health care is a luxury that most cannot afford. So, where does have the best health care system? I’ll leave that to you.
Video and article
How much do women around the world pay to give birth? BBC News, Mariko Oi (13/2/15)
Research for Universal Health Coverage, World Health Report 2013 World Health Organisation August 2013
Health Systems Financing: The Path to Universal Coverage, World Health Report 2010 World Health Organisation August 2010
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain why there may be a trade-off between efficiency and equity.
- If there is over-consumption of a service such as health care, does this suggest that the market fails?
- What are the main market failures that exist in health care?
- Is the concept of opportunity cost relevant to mothers in labour? Think about the country in question.
- How would you go about ranking health care systems if you worked for an organisation such as the OECD or WHO?
- Pick a country whose health care system you are familiar with. What changes have occurred to the way in which health care is organised and financed in this country? How has it affected the key objectives that formed part of your answer to question 5?
Much of the east coast of England is subject to tidal flooding. One such area is the coastline around the Wash, the huge bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Most of the vulnerable shorelines are protected by sea defences, usually in the form of concrete walls or earth embankments, traditionally paid for by the government. But part of the Norfolk shoreline is protected by shingle banks, which require annual maintenance.
Full government funding for maintaining these banks ended in 2013. According to new government rules, only projects that provide at least £8 of benefits for each £1 spent would qualify for such funding to continue. The area under question on the Norfolk cost of the Wash does not qualify.
Between 2013 and 2015 the work on the shingle banks is being paid for by the local council charging levies. After that, the plan is for a partnership-funding approach, where the government will make a (small) contribution as long as the bulk of the funding comes from the local community. This will involve setting up a ‘community interest company’, which will seek voluntary contributions from local residents, landowners and businesses.
Sea defences are a public good, in that it is difficult to exclude people benefiting who choose not to pay. In other words, there is a ‘free rider’ problem. However, in the case of the Wash shoreline in question, one borough councillor, Brian Long, argues that it might be possible to maintain the flood defences to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not.
Not surprisingly, many residents and businesses argue that the government ought to fund the defences and, if it does have to be financed locally, then everyone should be required to pay their fair share.
Holding back the sea BBC Radio 4, David Shukman (19/11/14)
What is the price of holding back the sea? BBC News, David Shukman (19/11/14)
Firms will have to pay towards cost of sea defences between Heacham and Wolferton in West Norfolk EDP24, Chris Bishop (1/8/14)
Businesses between Snettisham and Hunstanton will have to pay for flood defences. EDP24, Chris Bishop (19/11/14)
Wash and west Norfolk sea defence repairs now under way BBC News (13/12/13)
Managing our coastline Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Environment Agency
- What are the two main features of a public good? Are sea defences a pure public good?
- Is there a moral hazard if people choose to live in a coastal area that would be subject to flooding without sea defences?
- Who is the ‘public’ in the case of sea defences? Is it the whole country, or the local authority or just all those being protected by the defences?
- What are the problems with relying on voluntary contributions to fund, or partly fund, sea defences? How could the free-rider problem be minimised in such a funding model?
- Discuss the possible interpretations of ‘equity’ when funding sea defences.
- If ‘flood defences could be built or maintained to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not’, does this mean that such defences are not a public good?
- Find out how sea defences are funded in The Netherlands. Should such a funding model be adopted in the UK?
The UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has announced that, if Labour is returned to power in the next election, it will bring back the 50% top rate of income tax (see also). This will apply to incomes over £150,000.
But will this raise more tax revenue? The question here concerns incentive effects. Will the higher rate of income tax discourage work by those earning £150,000 or encourage tax avoidance or tax evasion, so that the total tax take is reduced? The Conservatives say the answer is yes. The Labour party says no, claiming that there will still be an increase in tax revenue.
The possible effects are summed up in the Laffer curve (see The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). As the previous post stated:
These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.
As Labour is claiming that re-introducing the 50% top rate of income tax will increase tax revenue, the implication is that the economy is to the left of the top of the Laffer curve: that, at current level of income, the curve is still rising.
Work by HMRC, and published in the document The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax, suggested that the previous cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% would cut revenue by around £3.5 billion if there were no incentive effect, but with the extra work that would be generated, the cut would be a mere £100 million. This implies, other things being equal, that a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would raise only a tiny bit of extra taxes.
However, the HMRC analysis has been criticised and especially its assumptions about the incentive effects on work. Then there is the question of whether a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would have exactly the reverse effect of a cut from 50% to 45%. And then there is the question of how much HMRC could reduce tax evasion and avoidance.
The following article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies examines the effects. However, the authors conclude that:
… at the moment, the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.
But there is also the question of equity. Putting aside the question of how much revenue would be raised, is it fair to raise the top rate of tax for those on high incomes? Would it make an important contribution to reducing inequality? This normative question lies at the heart of the different views of the world between left and right and is not a question that can be answered by economic analysis.
50p tax – strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve? Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson and David Phillips (Jan 2014)
- Distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance.
- How would it be possible for a rise in tax rates to generated less tax revenue?
- Could policies shift the Laffer curve as opposed to merely resulting in a move along the curve?
- What is meant by ‘taxable income elasticity (TIE)’? What are its determinants?
- Is the taxable income elasticity at the top of the Laffer curve equal to, above or below zero? Explain.
- Why did the Office for Budget Responsibility chairman, Robert Chote, conclude that, whatever the precise answer, we were ‘strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve’?
- Explain why ‘there is little additional evidence to suggest that a 50p rate would raise more than was estimated by HMRC back in 2012’.
- What contribution can economists make to the debate on the desirability of reducing inequality?