Archive for the 'Sustainability' Category

Nov 09 2012

Economic arguments for and against a carbon tax

Reuters – Long-shot carbon tax suddenly part of fiscal cliff debate

The article above suggests that during Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States, the country may begin to seriously consider imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The justification for such a tax, points out the article, is two-fold:

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast last week, has raised fresh questions about the links between climate change and extreme weather events, which also makes the idea of a carbon tax more appealing.

A carbon tax is a mechanism to charge emitters of greenhouse gases, such as power plants and oil refiners, for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit.

Prospects for such a tax as a way to address pollution and climate are probably dim in a still deeply-divided Congress, but some analysts say the measure would be more attractive if positioned as a source of new revenue.

In fact, a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, suggesting a $20 per ton tax on carbon emissions could halve the U.S. budget deficit over time.

Such a tax would generate about $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020, the report said, slashing U.S. debt by between 12 and 50 percent within a decade, depending on how high the deficit climbs, the report said.

America’s government budget has been in deficit every year since 2000, meaning the government spends more than it collects in taxes. Fears over the growing national debt and the impact it will have on future economic growth potential have led many in the US government to look for new ways to earn tax revenue for the government, even some ways that have bene considered taboo until now.

In my year 1 IB Economics course this week we have been learning about and evaluating taxes and subsidies in the markets for various goods. Generally, we learn that government intervention in free markets worsens the overall allocation of resources in the market economy, imposes more costs on society than benefits, and therefore leads to a loss of total welfare. For example, a tax on American beef in Switzerland helps keep the price of imported meat high, benefiting Swiss farmers, but overall the higher price of meet and the reduced quantity and variety available to consumers harms many in society to the benefit of the few cattle farmers. Such a tax, it can be argued, creates a loss of total welfare in society, as the tax’s cost outweighs its benefit.

But not ALL indirect taxes (those placed on the production and consumption of particular goods) reduce total welfare in society. A tax on a good that is over-consumed by the free market may actually improve total welfare as the higher cost to producers leads to a reduced supply, higher price, and a reduction in the quantity demanded in the market. A cigarette tax is the classic example. Without taxes on cigarettes, more people would smoke, creating more harmful effects for society, such as the ills of second-hand smoke, higher rates of lung cancer, greater demand for health care and the higher prices that this increased demand create for all of society, even non-smokers. Cigarette taxes are so widely employed by government and accepted by society that there is no debate whatsoever about their use.

But taxes on other goods that create ills for society are highly controversial, and for good reason. Perhaps one of the most debated and divisive tax proposals of recent years has been on the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. The main emitters of CO2 in the United States are the country’s electricity generating firms, which burn coal, gas and oil more than any other industry in the country. CO2 emissions are measured in tons, and a CO2 tax would apply to each ton of the gas emitted by fossil fuel consuming firms.

Arguments against a carbon tax

The primary argument against a tax on CO2 emissions is that it would drive up the costs of energy production, leading to higher energy costs for the nation’s households and firms. This boost in prices would increase costs to producers of all other goods and services in the economy, effectively reducing the supply in several key sectors of the US economy, leading to falling national output, more inflation and greater unemployment. American industry would become less competitive with other nation’s producers, leading to more factories closing down and moving overseas, taking American jobs with them.

Such a conclusion requires that a CO2 tax would, in fact, lead to significant decreases in the amount of energy demanded by the nation’s households and firms. In other words, it assumes a relatively elastic demand for electricity. It also assumes that as the price of fossil fuel generated electricity rises, there will be few alternative forms of electricity for firms to switch to. This leads us to the arguments for a carbon tax.

Arguments for a carbon tax

Energy is an essential good that consumers (whether they be households or firms) demand in large quantities regardless of the price. A carbon tax, which increases the cost and decreases the supply of fossil fuel energy, will not significantly reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy consumed in the United States; at least not in the short run, during which there will be very few substitutes for fossil fuel energy available to consumers.

However, one outcome that proponents of the tax hope for is an increase in the demand for alternative energies, such as wind and solar, which do not require the burning of fossil fuels. Such alternatives are not currently price-competitive with fossil fuels, but a carbon tax would make them more competitive, increasing demand for alternative energies and leading to a greater percentage of America’s total energy production coming from wind and solar.

The graphs below show the desired outcome of a CO2 tax on the markets for fossil fuel energy and renewable energies.

Notice that the tax does not lead to a significant decrease in the quantity of fossil fuel energy consumed in the short run. Businesses in the US will face higher costs, but energy costs are a relatively small proportion of most US industries’ total costs. (The biggest cost faced by US firms, not surprisingly, is labor costs). But the highly inelastic demand assures that fossil fuel energy prices will rise, leading to greater interest from consumers in alternative energies. In the graph on the right, we see an increase in the demand for renewables, leading to a greater quantity being produced.

But what might the long-run impact of a carbon tax be on the US energy sector? As we can see in the graph on the right above, greater demand for renewables will drive their prices up, which over time will increase the appeal of renewable energies to the country’s electricity producing giants. Slowly, the number of renewable energy producers will grow, as old coal or gas burning electricity plants are decommissioned and new wind or solar plants are installed. The supply of renewable energies should rise while the supply of fossil fuel energy should decrease. The result is an ever growing percentage of America’s total energy production generated using wind, solar, or other renewable sources of power. The graphs below show the possible long run impact of a carbon tax in the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors.

Here we can see that in the long-run, the prices of renewable energies and fossil fuel energies will become closer as the supply of energy produced using wind and solar grows, making it more price-competitive and therefore reducing the demand for fossil fuel energies.Presumably, if the outcomes described above come to pass, the proposed carbon tax could lead to meaningful reductions in America’s greenhouse gas emissions over the long run, as the composition of the nation’s energy production slowly transitions away from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable, non-polluting energy sources.

But what about the other reason the government is considering a carbon tax now? Remember those fears over the national debt and deficit? How effective would a carbon tax be at raising revenue to help the government balance its budget? To determine this, we must look again at the first graph we drew, only examine the impact of the tax on government, not just the market for fossil fuel energy.

In the graph above, we see that the tax creates a large chunk of tax revenue for the government, “about $88 billion in 2012, rising to $144 billion by 2020″. These figures seem optimistic, especially if the previous outcome in which the demand for fossil fuel energies falls in the long run comes to pass. But for now, at least from this Economics teacher’s perspective, a tax on carbon is a good first step towards both reducing American’s dependence on fossil fuels and generating desperately needed government revenues.

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Feb 06 2012

Dr. Irene Forichi on Agricultural Productivity and Economic Development in Southern Africa

On February 6 my IB year 2 Economics classes welcomed Dr. Irene Forichi, former Research Officer for Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Agriculture, and former Regional Emergency Agronomist for the Food and Agriculture Organization for Southern Africa. Dr. Forichi spoke with our classes about the role of agricultural productivity in contributing to human development and economic growth in Southern Africa.

For students or teachers who are interested, she delivered an excellent presentation about the agriculture-related obstacles to and strategies for economic development in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Her presentation can be viewed here, or the PowerPoint she presented can be viewed below.

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Jan 16 2012

Common access resource case study – Indonesia’s Reef Fish

This week we’ve been exploring the issues of common access resources and how they give rise to a market failure. The video below illustrates the tragedy of the commons in Indonesia’s fish populations.

The high demand for fresh seafood from Southern China and Hong Kong create demand for Indonesia’s reef fish species. Over the last decade, the fish stocks around the more populated Western islands of the archipelago have all but disappeared, so today fishermen have brought their unsustainable methods to the Eastern islands of Indonesia, using dynamite and cyanide to stun fish, which are then caught live and rapidly transported to the markets in China for consumption. According to some estimates, Indonesia’s fish stocks are declining by 30% per year, a rate at which they will be depleted within the next decade.

This poses several problems for both the consumers and producers of fresh fish. For the Chinese consumers, the increasing scarcity of fish in the next decade will mean rising prices and, eventually, the death of the market altogether. For Indonesian fishermen, the outcome is more dire; a loss of their livelihood as the fish stocks dry up.

This raises the question: Why do fisherman continue to use these unsustainable methods? Of course, in a competitive market with thousands of fisherman, if one individual chooses to fish using sustainable methods (using hook and line, for example), he risks catching fewer fish than the competition using cyanide and dynamite. Fewer fish mean less income and a lower standard of living. The rational thing for each individual fisherman, therefore, is to catch fish using the most productive method available. The tragedy of this is that the highest yielding methods are unsustainable, as the story explains, and before long the fish will be exploited to extinction.

The organization profiled in the video is using education to encourage fisherman to use sustainable methods to catch fish. Unfortunately, I fear this will not be enough to save the wild fish stock of Indonesia. The Indonesian government must intervene in the market to enforce strict catch limits, perhaps employing a permit scheme that would allow fishermen to buy and sell permits to catch a strictly controlled quantity of fish during a fishing season.

As it stands, however, Indonesia’s dwindling fish stocks demonstrate yet another example of the tragedy of the commons. Without clear property rights or management by a government, the common resource of Indonesia’s reef fish will continue to be exploited unsustainably,  leaving future fishing communities with fewer sources of income and future consumers with less variety of fish to consume and enjoy. The resource is over-exploited today, to the gain of today’s consumers and fisherman, at the expense of future generations.

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Feb 07 2011

Internalizing externalities: Zurich’s expensive garbage

This post is about how Switzerland has successfully employed an innovative system of incentives to encourage its citizens to reduce the amount of garbage they create. Just three weeks in this amazing country and I can already see why it earned the highest score in last year’s Environmental Performance Index.

In the AP and IB Economics units on market failure, we study the concept of negative externalities, which exist when the behavior of one individual or firm creates spillover costs to be faced by other individuals or society as a whole. A simple example is a factory that dumps waste in a river. Clearly, disposing of its waste in such a manner poses little or no cost on the factory owners, but significant costs on downstream users of the river’s water. A community that wishes to use the river for drinking water must now install expensive filtration and purifying systems just to make the water usable. The factory has kept its own costs down by externalizing the cost of filtration by passing it on to downstream users.

Spillover costs exist on micro levels as well. While it is easy to see how a large factory creates negative externalities, it is often harder to imagine how we as individuals create spillover costs for our neighbors and society in our everyday actions. The stark truth, however, is that an individual’s behavior, multiplied by millions upon millions of individuals making up a citizenry, can have as great if not greater negative impacts on the environment and society as the negligent behavior of one firm.

Here in Switzerland, the behavior of each individual citizen is subject to unusually strict scrutiny. No, Big Brother is not watching, as you may be thinking, (however, I have heard stories of snoopy neighbors alerting the police upon witnessing the most minor of infractions by a fellow citizen), rather, one finds it in his best economic interest to strictly monitor his own behavior down to the finest detail. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Let’s take garbage for example. The definition of garbage in Switzerland is very different from that in the United States. Where I’m from, garbage is anything that you can’t use anymore. You throw it “away”, put it on the curb and it disappears.

A garbage bag in the US is usually a 40 gallon (160 litre) plastic bag that could fit an entire family inside, and the typical American family probably produces two to three bags worth of “garbage” each week, which conveniently disappears in the wee hours of the morning to be taken “somewhere”, which most Americans don’t know or care to know where that is. How much does it cost an American household to dispose of this voluminous quantity of garbage? Well, the bags cost around 18 cents each, and monthly removal services vary depending on the community, but are typically a flat rate for almost any amount of garbage.

In the United States, it is very easy for individuals to pass the true cost of their garbage disposal onto society as a whole. It doesn’t matter all that much whether you put one tiny plastic bag on the curb or a half dozen 40 gallon bags on the curb, you are going to generally pay the same amount for collection regardless. The result of such a system is that the typical household has no incentive to reduce the amount of garbage that it produces. Logically, Americans are inclined to over-consume and produce copious amounts of garbage in the absence of any significant system of incentives in place to encourage waste reduction.

So, what’s different about Switzerland? It’s all about incentives. Let me explain. Here, you don’t pay a flat rate for garbage removal. In fact, you don’t HAVE to pay anything for garbage removal! Oh wow, you say, it’s FREE? In fact, quite the opposite is true. You don’t have to pay anything for garbage removal as long as you don’t create any garbage. In other words, you only pay for what you throw away.

Unlike in the US, here a typical garbage bag here is a 35 litre plastic sack, only slightly larger than a plastic grocery bag. Each village requires its citizens to buy official garbage bags for that community, and each individual bag costs anywhere from $1.50 – $2.50. A role of ten 35 litre bags can cost around $25.

When we consider that anything a household wishes to throw away must be put in an official village garbage bag which itself must be purchased for $2.25, and we know that a typical 40 gallon (160 litre) garbage bag in the US costs just $0.18, we can easily calculate and compare the costs of garbage disposal to both US and Swiss households.

  • In Switzerland: 100 litres of garbage costs $6.40 to dispose of
  • In the US: 100 litres of garbage costs a little over $0.11 to dispose of
  • In other words, garbage removal costs Swiss households around 57 times as much per litre as it does Americans, when we consider the price of garbage bags alone.

Clearly, Swiss households are given a significant incentive NOT to create garbage. So what DO the Swiss do with lots of their waste? Recycle it, of course! See, here in Switzerland all recycling is free. The villages even offer free curb side pick-ups for all recyclable materials.

A simple system of incentives (and dis-incentives) is the secret to Switzerland’s environmental success. Other systems are in place to encourage citizens to use public transport, tread lightly while hiking in the outdoors, conserve energy and water at home, and behave in other environmentally friendly ways, but I’ll save my discussion of those items for another time, once I figure out how to reduce, re-use and recycle all my own “garbage” here in Zurich!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Zurich’s system of garbage collection “internalize” the “externality” associated with household consumption?
  2. Incentives matter. This is a basic economic concept that can be used to fix many of the environmental, social, economic and health problems faced in society. Identify one way your parents have used incentives to try to get you to do something or NOT do something they think you should or shouldn’t do.
  3. Discourage what society want less of, encourage what society wants more of.  Identify and discuss one example of a market in which a government (local or national) uses incentives to discourage certain behaviors, and one example of a market in which incentives are used to encourage certain behaviors.

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Feb 24 2009

Market Failure and the role of government in the economy ~ an introduction to Environmental Economics

Economics is the field of study that attempts to address the basic problem faced by society relating to the environment and natural resources: the problem of scarcity in a world of infinite wants. Many, if not all, of our planet’s environmental woes are attributable to an economic phenomenon known as market failure. A market failure results whenever too much (or in some cases too little) of a good or service is produced and consumed by the economy.

What does this have to do with the environment? The connection lies in the reality that everything we produce and consume (and I mean everything!) originates from the earth. Nothing can be made by the sweat of man alone; in fact, three resources are required to produce any good or service: labor, capital (i.e. tools), and land. Sometimes weE-waste think of the resource of land as gifts of nature. However, in a world where environmental threats like those mentioned above are staring us in the face, it is becoming more and more obvious that the natural resources we’ve exploited for so long may not, in fact, have been gifts from Mother Nature at all, and their overuse may impose significant and unaccounted for costs on society AND the environment.

But let’s be honest, consuming is fun! Nothing is more gratifying than scoring a fantastic deal at your favorite boutique, walking out of a fast food joint with a plastic bag full of tasty treats for super cheap, and getting your hands on the latest high tech gizmos as soon as they’re launched (and dumping that old technology out so you’re not the lame one with the three pound cell phone!) However, the true cost of our obsessive consumption habit is not always represented by the price we pay for our fast food, our blue jeans, and our iPads.

In reality, the prices we pay for our goods and services are far lower than they should be; and the quantity of these things we consume is far higher than it should be. How do we know this? Look around. The very environmental issues with which environmental groups are most concerned can be traced back to the consumer behavior we enjoy partaking in so much. We’re conditioned to buying what we want, when we want it, and for a price that places little burden on our pocket books.

What we don’t realize, however, is that nature is bearing the burden of our high levels of consumption. In its attempt to absorb the pollutants that are emitted in the manufacture of our products, the waste that’s created from the disposal of our products, and the destruction that’s left behind from the extraction of the natural resources that go into our products, Mother Nature is more than ever choking on the waste created by our economic behavior. The costs born by nature are not accounted for in the production costs faced by firms, nor in the prices paid by consumers. These costs are externalized, or passed on for others to worry about.

The problem is, these days the bill has come due, and the environment is calling in its debts. Humans must now face up to the failures of its markets, and internalize the costs that for so long have been passed on to the environment and society, which suffers from the effects of environmental degradation.

The reality that we’ve used too many natural resources to produce too much stuff for too long is evidenced by simple examination of the natural world around us. Or, in the case of China, the complete lack of a natural world around us. From the pollution filled skies, to the waste clogged waterways, to the traffic jammed highways, China is a case study in market failure. The world, now used to the cheap imports China is so good at pumping out, does not consider the impact that the manufacture and consumption of such a massive variety of cheap products is having on China’s, and these days the world’s, environment.

In the following audio clips, you’ll hear three short stories about how the over-exploitation of resources is causing harm to human welfare and the environment. Each of these stories contains a market failure, usually in the form of a negative externality, or the production and consumption of certain goods creating spillover costs on somebody or something not involved in its production or consumption. See if you can identified who’s being harmed, and who’s at fault:

Story #1: “Where does all that E-waste go?” from Public Radio International’s “The World: Technology” podcast

Story #2: “Trash Island” from WBEZ Chicago’s “This American Life”

Story #3: “Nauru – the island in the middle of nowhere” from WBEZ Chicago’s “This American Life”

After listening to these stories, reflect for a moment on the true cost of the environmental and human tragedies of which they told. What role does our consumer culture play in these tragedies? What could have been done to prevent the conditions in those E-waste markets in Africa and China, the islands of garbage floating in our deep oceans, and the complete destruction of an island paradise 1,100 miles from the nearest land? Is there anyone to blame? Should we blame our politicians, our leaders? The answer to these questions is: there’s no easy answer, unless we want to get really personal here and point to humans’ own flawed nature: the fact that we are motivated primarily by greed and self-interest.

If that’s true, then perhaps hope for the environment can only be found in the responsible hands of benevolent governments, who once and for all take steps to mitigate the destructive impacts of our endless patterns of production and consumption. In fact, it is often government which is needed to intervene and correct market failures like those in the stories.

Three tools have emerged for governments wishing to correct such negative externalities. These involve three fundamentally different approaches, some more effective than others. One involves direct government control. This is when governments intervene in a market in which negative externalities exist and try to make producers clean up their acts. They threaten producers with penalties and fines, and monitor industries to try and force firms to manufacture their products in a clean, efficient way. (this is like what the Europeans are doing to minimize their e-waste).

The next option also involves a large roll for the government: corrective taxes. Businesses that produce goods that end up polluting the environment (either through their production or consumption) can be taxed based on the amount of pollution they create. If creating more pollution means paying more taxes, the companies will find ways to produce in a more environmentally responsible manner, in order to keep their costs low and to maximize their profits.

The third method for externality reduction is also the most recently adopted. A market for pollution permits is set up, where a government actually gives all the companies in a polluting industry permits that allow them to pollute a certain amount. WHAT? The government’s allowing firms to pollute? Well, yes. The fact is, they’re going to do it anyway, they HAVE to in order to produce anything! The benefit of this system is that the government will only give each firm so many permits, and they’re not allowed to pollute beyond what their permits allow, UNLESS they go and buy more permits from producers that don’t need all theirs. This way, firms have an incentive to pollute less, because any permits they don’t use they can sell to other producers and make profits on those sales! Dirty firms have to buy more and more permits, clean firms get to sell those they don’t need… can you see where this is going? ALL FIRMS want to become clean firms in this scenario!

Nauru - a paradise lost

The three methods introduced above are being used to different degrees by different countries in various industries to try and mitigate the negative effects of some types of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, not nearly enough is yet being done, especially by some of the worlds largest economies (and thus, polluters), namely the United States, China, and India.

If our world is to avoid a fate like that of the tiny island of Nauru, where every last resource was exploited to the point where the island could no longer sustain life, then more must be done to reduce the spillover costs that accompany the production and consumption of so many of our precious goods.

I tell my econ students a story about how one day hundreds of years ago some smart guy decided to start calling products (you know, the stuff we consume), GOODS. From that day on humans would always associate consumption with something GOOD. Today, in an era where the goodness of consumption is offset by the evil of environmental destruction, more than a strong government hand is needed. Conservation and appreciation for the gifts of nature, not insofar as they can be exploited by industry, but left intact for the appreciation and welfare of society, both today’s generation and that of our grandchildren, must be fostered and encouraged among global citizens young and old.

Hopefully, this article and the stories you heard here will help you understand a little more about the economics of the environment, and help you become more educated about what can and should be done to correct the market failures that have led to the dire challenges faced by our world today.

A great website on environmental economics written by two economists WAY smarter than Mr. Welker can be found here: http://www.env-econ.net/

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