Environmental economics

From Academic Kids

Environmental economics is a subfield of economics concerned with environmental issues (other usages of the term are not uncommon). In using standard methods of economics, it is distinguished from green economics which subsumes the nonstandard approaches to environmental problems, environmental science/environmental studies, or ecology. Quoting from the NBER Environmental Economics program:

[...] Environmental Economics [...] undertakes theoretical or empirical studies of the economic effects of national or local environmental policies around the world [...]. Particular issues include the costs and benefits of alternative environmental policies to deal with air pollution, water quality, toxic substances, solid waste, and global warming.
Contents

Topics and concepts

Central to environmental economics is the concept of an externality. This means that some effects of an activity are not taken into account when it is priced. Too much pollution may occur if the producer need not take the interests of those adversely affected by the pollution into account. Too little nature conservation may occur if those who undertake such activities are not rewarded in relation to the increase in the quality of life they help to bring about for the general population.

One frequent externality is the Tragedy of the Commons, which occurs in connection to public goods (goods that are "non-excludable" and "non-rivalrous" - that is, they are open to all). An example would be a recreational area with open access to the public. Residents and visitors will use the resource more than if they had to pay for it, leading to environmental degradation.

In economic terminology, these are examples of market failures, and that is an outcome which is not efficient in an economic sense. Here the inefficiency is caused because too much of the polluting activity will be carried out, as the polluter will not take the interests of those adversely affected by the pollution into account. This has led to research into measuring well-being that try to measure when pollution is actually starting to affect human health and general quality of life.

Solutions

Solutions advocated to correct such externalities include:

  • Better defined property rights. For example, if people living near a factory had a right not to be polluted, or the factory had the right to pollute, then either the factory could pay those affected by the pollution or the people could pay the factory not to pollute. Or, citizens could take action themselves as they would if other property rights were violated. The Coase Theorem states that assigning property rights will lead to an optimal solution, regardless of who receives them. The US River Keepers Law of the 1880s was an early example, giving citizens downstream the right to end pollution upstream themselves if government itself did not act (an early example of bioregional democracy).
  • Taxes and tariffs on pollution/Removal of "dirty subsidies". The tax should be such that pollution occurs only if the benefits to society (e.g. in form of greater production) exceeds the costs. Some advocate a major shift from taxation from income and sales taxes to tax on pollution - the so-called "green tax shift".
  • Quotas on pollution. Often it is advocated that quotas should be implemented by way of tradeable emissions permits, which if freely traded may ensure that reductions in pollution are achieved at least cost. Effectively such quotas seek to equalize the burden that normally accrues to the whole ecoregion as it filters and dilutes pollution. Henry Ford in the 1920s advocated a strict feedback solution whereby industry could take as much water as they wanted and use it for whatever they wanted, but had to put their "out-pipe upstream from their in-pipe" - thus suffering the consequences of any failures to filter the water to industry's standards.

Alternative approaches to environmental economics

All of the above are advocated by the specific theory of Natural Capitalism (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins). The book goes further by envisioning a world where natural services are considered on par with capital.

Another way externality applies is when globalization permits one player in a market who is unconcerned with biodiversity to undercut prices of another who is - creating a "race to the bottom" in regulations and conservation. This in turn may cause loss of natural capital with consequent erosion, water purity problems, diseases, desertification, and another outcome which is not efficient in an economic sense. This concern led to the subfield of sustainable development and its political relation, the anti-globalization movement.

Environmental economics was once distinct from resource economics but is now hard to distinguish as a separate field as the two became associated with sustainable development and more radical green economists split off to work on an alternate political economy.

Environmental economics was a major influence on the theories of natural capitalism and environmental finance, which could be said to be two sub-branches of environmental economics concerned with resource conservation in production, and the value of biodiversity to humans, respectively.

The more radical Green economists reject neoclassical economics in favour of a new political economy beyond capitalism or communism that gives a greater emphasis to the interaction of the human economy and the natural environment, acknowledging that "economy is three-fifths of ecology" - Mike Nickerson.

These more radical approaches would imply changes to money supply and likely also a bioregional democracy so that political and economic and ecological "environmental limits" were all aligned, and not subject to the arbitrage normally possible under capitalism.

Accordingly, there is still a need for a more conservative environmental economics, and its subfields environmental finance, Natural Capitalism, measuring well-being and sustainable development.

See also

Prominent Environmental Economic Hypotheses and Theorems

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