Politicians, business leaders, climate scientists, interest groups and journalists from across the world have been meeting in Dubai at the COP28 climate summit (the 28th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)). The meeting comes at a time when various climate tipping points are being reached or approached – some bad, but some good. Understanding these tipping points and their implications for society and policy requires understanding not only the science, but also the various economic incentives affecting individuals, businesses, politicians and societies.
A recent report (see first reference in articles section below) identified various climate tipping points. These are when global temperatures rise to a point where various domino effects occur. These are adverse changes to the environment that gather pace and have major effects on ecosystems and the ability to grow food and support populations. These, in turn, will have large effects on economies, migration and political stability.
According to the report, five tipping points are imminent with the current degree of global warming (1.2oC). These are:
- Melting of the Greenland ice sheet;
- Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet;
- Death of warm-water coral reefs;
- Collapse of the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation, which helps to drive the warm current that benefits Western Europe;
- Widespread rapid thawing of permafrost, where tundra without snow cover rapidly absorbs heat and releases methane (a much more powerful source of global warming than CO2).
With global warming of 1.5oC, three more tipping points are likely: the destruction of seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps and the southern part of the boreal forests that cover much of northern Eurasia. As the temperature warms further, other tipping points can interact in ways that drive one another, resulting in tipping ‘cascades’.
But the report also strikes an optimistic note, arguing that positive tipping points are also possible, which will help to slow global warming in the near future and possibly reverse it further in the future.
The most obvious one is in renewable energy. Renewable power generation in many countries is now cheaper than generation from fossil fuels. Indeed, in 2022, over 80% of new electricity generation was from solar and wind. And as it becomes cheaper, so this will drive investment in new renewable plants, including in small-scale production suitable for use in developing countries in parts not connected to a grid. In the vehicle sector, improved battery technology, the growth in charging infrastructure and cheaper renewable sources of electricity are creating a tipping point in EV take-up.
Positive tipping points can take place as a result of changing attitudes, such as moving away from a meat-intensive diet, avoiding food waste, greater use of recycling and a growth in second-hand markets.
But these positive tipping points are so far not strong enough or quick enough. Part of the problem is with economic incentives in market systems and part is with political systems.
Economic decisions around the world of both individuals and firms are made largely within a market environment. But the market fails to take into account the full climate costs and benefits of such decisions. There are various reasons why.
Externalities. Both the production and consumption of many goods, especially energy and transport, but also much of agriculture and manufacturing, involve the production of CO2. But the costs of the resulting global warming are not born directly by the producer or consumer. Instead they are external costs born by society worldwide – with some countries and individuals bearing a higher cost than others. The result is an overproduction or consumption of such goods from the point of view of the world.
The environment as a common resource. The air, the seas and many other parts of the environment are not privately owned. They are a global ‘commons’. As such, it is extremely difficult to exclude non-payers from consuming the benefits they provide. Because of this property of ‘non-excludability’, it is often possible to consume the benefits of the environment at a zero price. If the price of any good or service to the user is zero, there is no incentive to economise on its use. In the case of the atmosphere as a ‘dump’ for greenhouse gases, this results in its overuse. Many parts of the environment, however, including the atmosphere, are scarce: there is rivalry in their use. As people increase their use of the atmosphere as a dump for carbon, so the resulting global warming adversely affects the lives of others. This is an example of the tragedy of the commons – where a free resource (such as common land) is overused.
Inter-generational problems. The effect of the growth in carbon emissions is long term, whereas the benefits are immediate. Thus consumers and firms are frequently prepared to continue with various practices, such as driving, flying and using fossil fuels for production, and leave future generations to worry about their environmental consequences. The problem, then, is a reflection of the importance that people attach to the present relative to the future.
Ignorance. People may be contributing to global warming without realising it. They may be unaware of which of the goods they buy involve the release of carbon in their production or how much carbon they release when consumed.
Governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, face incentives not to reduce carbon emissions – or to minimise their reduction, especially if they are oil producing countries. Reducing carbon involves short-term costs to consumers and this can make them unpopular. It could cost them the next election or, in the case of dictatorships, make them vulnerable to overthrow. What is more, the oil, coal and gas industries have a vested interest in continuing the use of fossil fuels. Such industries wield considerable political power.
Even if governments want the world to reduce carbon emissions, they would rather that the cost of doing so is born less by their own country and more by other countries. This creates a prisoner’s dilemma, where the optimum may be for a large global reduction in carbon emissions, but the optimum is not achieved because countries individually are only prepared to reduce a little, expecting other countries to reduce more. Getting a deal that is deemed ‘fair’ by all countries is very difficult. An example is where developing countries, may feel that it is fair that the bulk of any cuts, if not all of them, should be made by developed countries, while developed countries feel that fixed percentage cuts should be made by all countries.
If the goal is to tackle climate change, then the means is to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (or at the least to stop its increase – the net zero target). There are two possibilities here. The first is to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. The second is to use carbon capture and storage or carbon sequestration (e.g. through increased forestation).
In terms of reducing carbon emissions, the key is reducing the consumption of carbon-producing activities and products that involve emissions in their production. This can be achieved through taxes on such products and/or subsidies on green alternatives (see the blog ‘Are carbon taxes a solution to the climate emergency?‘). Alternatively carbon-intensive consumption can be banned or phased out by law. For example, the purchase of new petrol or diesel cars cold be banned beyond a certain date. Or some combination of taxation and regulation can be used, such as in a cap-and-trade system – for example, the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (see the blog ‘Carbon pricing in the UK‘). Then there is government investment in zero carbon technologies and infrastructure (e.g. electrifying railways). In practice, a range of policy instruments are needed (see the blog ‘Tackling climate change: “Everything, everywhere, all at once”‘).
With carbon capture, again, solutions can involve a mixture of market mechanisms and regulation. Market mechanisms include subsidies for using carbon capture systems or for afforestation. Regulation includes policies such as requiring filters to be installed on chimneys or banning the felling of forests for grazing land.
The main issue with such policies is persuading governments to adopt them. As we saw above, governments may be unwilling to bear the short-term costs to consumers and the resulting loss in popularity. Winning the next election or simple political survival may be their number-one priority.
The COP28 summit concluded with a draft agreement which called for the:
transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.
This was the first COP summit that called on all nations to transition away from fossil fuels for energy generation. It was thus hailed as the biggest step forward on tackling climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement. However, there was no explicit commitment to phase out or even ‘phase down’ fossil fuels. Many scientists, climate interest groups and even governments had called for such a commitment. What is more, there was no agreement to transition away from fossil fuels for transport, agriculture or the production of plastics.
If the agreement is to be anything more than words, the commitment must now be translated into specific policy actions by governments. This is where the real test will come. It’s easy to make commitments; it’s much harder to put them into practice with policy measures that are bound to impose costs on various groups of people. What is more, there are powerful lobbies, such as the oil, coal and steel industries, which want to slow any transition away from fossil fuels – and many governments of oil producing countries which gain substantial revenues from oil production.
One test will come in two years’ time at the COP30 summit in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil. At that summit, countries must present new nationally determined commitments that are economy-wide, cover all greenhouse gases and are fully aligned with the 1.5°C temperature limit. This will require specific targets to be announced and the measures required to achieve them. Also, it is hoped that by then there will be an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and not just to ‘transition away’ from them.
Reasons for hope
Despite the unwillingness of many countries, especially the oil and coal producing countries, to phase out fossil fuels, there are reasons for hope that global warming may be halted and eventually even reversed. Damage will have been done and some tipping points may have been reached, but further tipping points may be averted.
The first reason is technological advance. Research, development and investment in zero carbon technologies is advancing rapidly. As we have seen, power generation from wind and solar is now cheaper than from fossil fuels. And this cost difference is likely to grow as technology advances further. This positive tipping point is becoming more rapid. Other technological advances in transport and industry will further the shift towards renewables and other advances will economise on the use of power.
The second is changing attitudes. With the environment being increasingly included in educational syllabuses around the world and with greater stress on the problems of climate change in the media, with frequent items in the news and with programmes such as the three series of Planet Earth, people are becoming more aware of the implications of climate change and how their actions contribute towards the problem. People are likely to put increasing pressure on businesses and governments to take action. Growing awareness of the environmental impact of their actions is also affecting people’s choices. The negative externalities are thus being reduced and may even become positive ones.
- Global Tipping Points
University of Exeter, Global Systems Institute, Timothy M. Lenton et al. (6/12/23)
- Report: Pivotal moment for humanity as tipping point threats and opportunities accelerate
- Earth is closing in on catastrophic climate ‘tipping points’, over 200 scientists warn
Independent, Vishwam Sankaran (6/12/23)
- Earth on verge of five catastrophic climate tipping points, scientists warn
The Guardian, Ajit Niranjan (6/12/23)
- Cop28: King Charles warns of ‘vast, frightening experiment’ on natural world
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey, Nina Lakhani, Aletha Adu, Damian Carrington, Patrick Greenfield and Oliver Milman (1/12/23)
- UK likely to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, analysis shows
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (5/12/23)
- Water and the High Price of Bad Economics
Project Syndicate, Mariana Mazzucato , Partha Dasgupta, Nicholas Stern, and Johan Rockström (1/12/23)
- Fossil fuels: Can humanity really kick its addiction?
BBC News, Justin Rowlatt (10/12/23)
- Five climate change solutions under the spotlight at COP28
BBC News, Mark Poynting (6/12/23)
- COP28: Five reasons for optimism on climate
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/12/23)
- COP28 Agreement Signals “Beginning of the End” of the Fossil Fuel Era
UN Climate Press Release (13/12/23)
- COP28 climate summit ends with deal to transition away from fossil fuels
CNBC, Ruxandra Iordache and Sam Meredith (13/12/23)
- Cop28 landmark deal agreed to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels
The Guardian, Adam Morton, Fiona Harvey and Patrick Greenfield (13/12/23)
- COP28 draft agreement drops phaseout of fossil fuels
Financial Times, Attracta Mooney, Aime Williams and Alice Hancock (13/12/23)
- Examining COP28’s potential impact on climate change
BBC News, Matt McGrath (13/12/23)
- Cop28 failed to halt fossil fuels’ deadly expansion plans – so what now?
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (14/12/23)
- The momentum of the solar energy transition
Nature Communications, Femke Nijsse, Jean-Francois Mercure, Nadia Ameli, Francesca Larosa, Sumit Kothari, Jamie Rickman, Pim Vercoulen and Hector Pollitt (17/10/23)
- COP28: Bill Gates on climate optimism, wealth and the human condition
BBC News on YouTube, Bill Gates (2/12/23)
- From the Paris agreement to COP28, how oil and gas giants try to influence the global climate agenda
The Conversation, Alain Naef (8/12/23)
- COP28: Phasedown or Phaseout, Fossil Fuels Must be Addressed to Meet 1.5C Goal
Forbes, Felicia Jackson (5/12/23)
- Use a diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in production on the level of output and how this differs from the optimum level.
- Use another diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in consumption on the level of consumption and how this differs from the optimum level.
- What was agreed at COP28?
- What incentives were included in the agreement to ensure countries stick to the agreement? Were they likely to be sufficient?
- What can governments do to encourage positive environmental tipping points?
- How may carbon taxes be used to tackle global warming? Are they an efficient policy instrument?
- What can be done to change people’s attitudes towards their own carbon emissions?
The global average temperature for July 2023 was the highest ever recorded and July 3rd was the world’s hottest day on record. We’ve seen scenes of wildfires raging across much of southern Europe, people suffering searing temperatures in south-west USA, southern India and western China, flash floods in South Korea, Japan and eastern USA. These are all directly related to global warming, which is causing weather systems to become more extreme. And as the planet continues to warm, so these problems will intensify.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, in a press conference on 27 July warned that:
Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable. The heat is unbearable. And the level of fossil-fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy. No more excuses. No more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.
The environmental, human, social and economic impact of global warming is huge, but concentrated on just part of the world’s population. For many, a more variable climate is at worst an inconvenience – at least in the short term. But it is the short term that politicians are most concerned about when seeking to win the next election.
Tackling climate change requires action to reduce carbon emissions now, even though the effects take many years. But one person’s emissions make only a minuscule contribution to global warming. So why not be selfish and carry on driving, flying off on holiday, using a gas boiler and eating large amounts of red meat? This is what many people want to do and governments know it. Many people do not like green policies as they involve sacrifice. Examples include higher fuel prices and restrictions on what you can do. So, despite the visions of fires, floods and destruction, governments are wary about raising fuel taxes, airport duties and charges to use old high-emission cars in cities; wary about raising taxes generally to provide subsidies for sustainable power generation; wary about banning new oil and gas fields that would reduce reliance on imported fuel.
Because the external costs of carbon emissions are so high and global, government action is required to change behaviour. Education can help and scenes of devastation from around the world may change the hearts and minds or some people. Also, the prospect of profits from cleaner and more fuel-efficient technology can help to spur innovation and investment. But to meet net zero targets still requires policies that are unpopular with many people who might be inconvenienced or have to pay higher petrol, energy and food prices, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed by inflation.
Part of the problem is a distributional one. The people most affected by the cost-of-living crisis and higher interest rates are those on lower incomes and with higher debts. Politicians know that it will be hard to win the votes of such people if they are faced with higher green taxes. As elections approach, politicians are likely to backtrack on many environmental commitments to appeal to such people.
This is beginning to happen in the UK, with the government declaring that it is on the side of the motorist. Indeed, Rishi Sunak has just announced that the government will authorise more than 100 new licenses for new oil and gas wells in the North Sea. This is despite the United Nations, various other international bodies, climate scientists and charities calling for a halt to all licensing and funding of new oil and gas development from new and existing fields. The government argues that increased North Sea production would reduce the reliance on imported oil.
- July 2023 the Hottest Ever Month on Record, Likely Warmest in ‘Tens of Thousands of Years’
The Wire, Aathira Perinchery (28/7/23)
- Climate threat ‘existential’ says Biden, as world faces hottest July
BBC News, Heather Sharp and Emma Owen (27/7/23)
- UN chief says Earth in ‘era of global boiling’, calls for radical action
- Why it’s time to prepare for the worst on climate change
Financial Times, Robert Pindyck (6/7/23)
- The planet heats, the world economy cools – the real global recession is ecological
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/7/23)
- Climate change will reshape global supply chains — it can reduce welfare on Earth by 20%: Ivan Rudick
The Economic Times (India), Srijana Mitra Das (30/6/23)
- Rishi Sunak defends granting new North Sea oil and gas licences
BBC News (31/7/23)
- The oil industry has succumbed to a dangerous new climate denialism
The Conversation, Adi Imsirovic (31/7/23)
- Dismay as Rishi Sunak vows to ‘max out’ UK fossil fuel reserves
The Guardian, Severin Carrell, Peter Walker and Helena Horton (31/7/23)
- What are the Conservatives’ green policies – and what could be scrapped
Sky News, Jennifer Scott (31/7/23)
- Rishi Sunak signals he is ready to soften UK green policies
Financial Times, George Parker and Lucy Fisher (24/7/23)
- Green campaigners fear UK policy backlash after ULEZ keeps Uxbridge Tory
Politico, Charlie Cooper and Bethany Dawson (23/7/23)
- Climate policy and economic inequality
VoxEU, Diego Känzig (25/6/23)
- The untapped potential of education in the battle against climate change
VoxEU, Noam Angrist, Kevin Winseck, Harry Anthony Patrinos and Joshua Graff Zivin (14/7/23)
- In what sense is the environment a ‘public good’? How is the concept of externalities relevant in analysing the private decisions made about the use of a public good?
- How may game theory be used to help understand the difficulties in reaching international agreement about climate change policies?
- What is meant by ‘net zero’? Is carbon capture and storage an acceptable alternative to cutting carbon emissions?
- In what ways could policies to tackle climate change be designed to reduce income inequality rather than increase it?
- What are the arguments for and against banning (a) petrol and diesel cars; (b) gas boilers; (c) fossil-fuel power stations? How much notice should be given if such bans are to be introduced?
- What is meant by ‘nudge theory’? In what ways could people be nudged into making greener decisions?
- What are the arguments for and against granting new licences for North Sea oil and gas drilling? Explain where you feel the balance of the arguments lies.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published the first part of its latest seven-yearly Assessment Report (AR6) on global warming and its consequences (see video summary). The report was prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries and endorsed by 195 governments. Its forecasts are stark. World temperatures, already 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, will continue to rise. This will bring further rises in sea levels and more extreme weather conditions with more droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and glacial melting.
The IPCC looked at a number of scenarios with different levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, where significant steps are taken to cut emissions, global warming is set to reach 1.5C by 2040. If few or no cuts are made, global warming is predicted to reach 4.4C by 2080, the effects of which would be catastrophic.
The articles below go into considerable detail on the different scenarios and their consequences. Here we focus on the economic causes of the crisis and the policies that need to be pursued.
Global success in reducing emissions, although partly dependent on technological developments and their impact on costs, will depend largely on the will of individuals, firms and governments to take action. These actions will be influenced by incentives, economic, social and political.
Economic causes of the climate emergency
The allocation of resources across the world is through a mixture of the market and government intervention, with the mix varying from country to country. But both market and government allocation suffer from a failure to meet social and environmental objectives – and such objectives change over time with the preferences of citizens and with the development of scientific knowledge.
The market fails to achieve a socially efficient use of the environment because large parts of the environment are a common resource (such as the air and the oceans), because production or consumption often generates environmental externalities, because of ignorance of the environmental effects of our actions, and because of a lack of concern for future generations.
Governments fail because of the dominance of short-term objectives, such as winning the next election or appeasing a population which itself has short-term objectives related to the volume of current consumption. Governments are often reluctant to ask people to make sacrifices today for the future – a future when there will be a different government. What is more, government action on the environment which involves sacrifices from their own population, often primarily benefit people in other countries and/or future generations. This makes it harder for governments to get popular backing for such policies.
Economic systems are sub-optimal when there are perverse incentives, such as advertising persuading people to consume more despite its effects on the environment, or subsidies for industries producing negative environmental externalities. But if people can see the effects of global warming affecting their lives today, though fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, etc., they are more likely to be willing to take action today or for their governments to do so, even if it involves various sacrifices. Scientists, teachers, journalists and politicians can help to drive changes in public opinion through education and appealing to people’s concern for others and for future generations, including their own descendants.
Policy implications of the IPCC report
At the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November, countries will gather to make commitments to tackle climate change. The IPCC report is clear: although we are on course for a 1.5C rise in global temperatures by 2040, it is not too late to take action to prevent rises going much higher: to avoid the attendant damage to the planet and changes to weather systems, and the accompanying costs to lives and livelihoods. Carbon neutrality must be reached as soon as possible and this requires strong action now. It is not enough for government to set dates for achieving carbon neutrality, they must adopt policies that immediately begin reducing emissions.
The articles look at various policies that governments can adopt. They also look at actions that can be taken by people and businesses, actions that can be stimulated by government incentives and by social pressures. Examples include:
- A rapid phasing out of fossil fuel power stations. This may require legislation and/or the use of taxes on fossil fuel generation and subsidies for green energy.
- A rapid move to green transport, with investment in charging infrastructure for electric cars, subsidies for electric cars, a ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles in the near future, investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology for lorries and hydrogen production and infrastructure, cycle lanes and various incentives to cycle.
- A rapid shift away from gas for cooking and heating homes and workplaces and a move to ground source heating, solar panels and efficient electric heating combined with battery storage using electricity during the night. These again may require a mix of investment, legislation, taxes and subsidies.
- Improvements in energy efficiency, with better insulation of homes and workplaces.
- Education, public information and discussion in the media and with friends on ways in which people can reduce their carbon emissions. Things we can do include walking and cycling more, getting an electric car and reducing flying, eating less meat and dairy, reducing food waste, stopping using peat as compost, reducing heating in the home and putting on more clothes, installing better insulation and draught proofing, buying more second-hand products, repairing products where possible rather than replacing them, and so on.
- Governments requiring businesses to conduct and publish green audits and providing a range of incentives and regulations for businesses to reduce carbon emissions.
It is easy for governments to produce plans and to make long-term commitments that will fall on future governments to deliver. What is important is that radical measures are taken now. The problem is that governments are likely to face resistance from their supporters and from members of the public and various business who resist facing higher costs now. It is thus important that the pressures on governments to make radical and speedy reductions in emissions are greater than the pressures to do little or nothing and that governments are held to account for their actions and that their actions match their rhetoric.
- Some climate changes now irreversible, says stark UN report
Channel 4 News, Alex Thomson (9/8/21)
- Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity’
BBC News, Matt McGrath (10/8/21)
- Climate change: Five things we have learned from the IPCC report
BBC News, Matt McGrath (10/8/21)
- Climate Scientists Reach ‘Unequivocal’ Consensus on Human-Made Warming in Landmark Report
Bloomberg Green, Eric Roston and Akshat Rathi (9/8/21)
- Climate change: Seven key takeaways from the IPCC climate change report
Sky News, Philip Whiteside (10/8/21)
- IPCC report: global emissions must peak by 2025 to keep warming at 1.5°C – we need deeds not words
The Conversation, Keith Baker (9/8/21)
- This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know
The Conversation, Pep Canadell, Joelle Gergis, Malte Meinshausen, Mark Hemer and Michael Grose (9/8/21)
- IPCC report: how to make global emissions peak and fall – and what’s stopping us
The Conversation, Matthew Paterson (9/8/21)
- World’s 1.5C goal slipping beyond reach without urgent action, warns landmark IPCC climate report
Independent, Daisy Dunne and Louise Boyle (9/8/21)
- IPCC report: 14 ways to fight the climate crisis after publication of ‘Code Red’ warning
Independent, Harry Cockburn (10/8/21)
- Major climate changes inevitable and irreversible – IPCC’s starkest warning yet
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (9/8/21)
- Climate scientists have done their bit. Now the pressure is on leaders for COP26.
CNN, Ivana Kottasová and Angela Dewan (10/8/21)
- 21 For 21: The Climate Change Actions Scotland Needs Now
Common Weal, Common Weal Energy Policy Group (9/8/21)
- How to build support for ambitious climate action in 4 steps
The Conversation, Sarah Sharma and Matthew Hoffmann (4/3/21)
- Scientists have finally added world politics to their climate models
Quartz, Michael J Coren (9/8/21)
- Summarise the effects of different levels of global warming as predicted by the IPCC report.
- To what extent is global warming an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’?
- How could prices be affected by government policy so as to provide an incentive to reduce carbon emissions?
- What incentives could be put in place to encourage people to cut their own individual carbon footprint?
- To what extent is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties of achieving international action on reducing carbon emissions?
- Identify four different measures that a government could adopt to reduce carbon emissions and assess the likely effectiveness of these measures.
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?
Each week, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts readings from a book serialised in five 15-minute episodes. In the week beginning 18 January 2021, the readings were from English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, a farmer from the Cumbrian fells. His farm is relatively small, covering 185 acres.
He has attempted to make it much more sustainable and less intensive, reintroducing traditional Herdwick sheep, having a mixture of cows and sheep rather than just sheep, a greater sub-division of fields, and more natural scrubland, peatbogs and trees. As a result, soil quality has improved and there has been an explosion of biodiversity, with an abundance of wild flowers and insects.
Apart from being an autobiography of his time as a farmer and his attempt to move towards more traditional methods, the book examines broader issues of agricultural sustainability. It looks at the pressures of consumers wanting cheap food, the market power of supermarkets and wholesalers, the cost pressures on farmers pushing them towards monoculture to achieve economies of scale, and the role of the agrichemicals industry promoting fertilisers, feeds and pesticides which bring short-term financial gains to farmers, but which cause longer-term damage to the land and to biodiversity.
Rebanks has gained quite a lot of media attention after the publication of his first book, The Shepherd’s Life, including being one of the guests on Desert Island Discs and the subject of an episode of The Food Programme.
Listen to the Food Programme podcast and try answering the questions, which are all based on the podcast in the order of the points made in the interview.
- What are the incentives of an unregulated market for food that result in monoculture and a loss of biodiversity?
- To what extent are consumers responsible for changes in farming methods?
- Have the changes helped the urban poor?
- How is the monopsony power of supermarkets and food wholesalers impacting on food production and the pattern of agriculture?
- There are various (private) economies of scale in food production, but these often involve substantial external costs and long-term private costs too. How does this impact on land use?
- What are some of the limits of technology in increasing crop, meat and dairy yields?
- Will more recent changes in the pattern of food consumption help to increase mixed farming and biodiversity?
- Is it ‘rational’ for many farmers to continue with intensive farming with high levels of artificial fertilisers and pesticides?
- Is diversity in farming across farms within a local area a public good? If so, how could such diversity be achieved?
- How can farmers be encouraged to think and act holistically?
- Is there a trade-off between food output and biodiversity?
- What are the dangers in the UK reaching an agricultural trade deal with the USA?
- What are the benefits and costs of encouraging local food markets?