Environmental Economics

Climate change and environmental issues are daily topics now both in the media and science circles. Much has been mentioned about the economic worth of the environment, and what levels of intervention if any should be applied, how to balance environmental protection with the ongoing resource needs of humans and how we can reach a sustainable outcome. This article will take a broad scaled look at the mechanisms and concepts of basic economics and how these mechanisms interact with environmental systems and practices. Environmental economics is a sub field of standard economics, and should not be confused with ecological economics.

Fundamentals Of Economics

Generally, economics can be described as being influenced by utilitarian ethics. This means that an action is usually judged in terms of net gains, for example if the net benefit outweighs the net gains, it is seen as a positive action. The goal is to be able to maximise the net benefits for humans whilst also ensuring the efficient distribution of resources. Economists make certain assumptions when deciding on how to distribute these resources efficiently. One of these assumptions is that all resources are scarce and that rational humans will weigh up the maximise their utility by calculating the costs versus the benefits of any given resource. Another one of these assumptions as that all resources are interchangeable and substitutable, and that technology can always come up with these substitutes without reducing utility.

The scarcity of a resource depends on human wants at the time. For example diamonds are scarce, but if you were lost in the desert, the simple utility of water would be the most valuable thing to you at the time. However if you are not stuck in the desert, you may be willing to pay a high price for a diamond ring because in general terms it is a scarce resource, and this is the assumption made by economics, that scarcity is dependant on human wants, not needs, and that humans will always choose to get the maximum reward for the budgeted amount that they spend on the utility.

When this option for gaining the maximum reward is forgone, this is referred to as an opportunity cost. However this also makes certain assumptions, such as we have the complete knowledge of the benefits versus the costs of the utility, that there is an easy method to make the comparisons between the utilities and that the actual net benefit is calculated, not whether the choice is ethically or morally right or wrong, so in essence it assumes that humans will behave in a certain way in small market situations 1).

When economists talk about opportunity cost, this means that you have foregone one option for the other. For example if you are looking to buy a hat, and there are two hats, one a baseball cap and the other a sun hat, and each cost the same amount of money, the hat that you don't buy is the best alternative foregone. Another example would be the opportunity cost of reading this article. Have you weighed up the cost and benefits of spending your time doing this, and if you did this instead of reading the newspaper, the reading of the newspaper is the opportunity cost.

The assumption of substitutability also depends on some conditions. The first condition is that we accept substitutability, regardless of whether it is morally, ethically or psychologically right. For example it will assume that we will buy a product that has replaced 100 workers from our town with a robot because it has greater net benefit for use financially. The second assumption is that there are no physical constraints, for example solar power can completely substitute for coal power. So in summary, economists will always assume high levels of substitutability. Many of these theories and assumptions are open to subjectivity, as each individual may make different interpretations of cost and benefit analysis, or may simply wish to not accept the assumptions that have been made 2).

When economists talk about capital, it means that it is a base or solid foundation that can create the flow of goods, services and money. For example a house is a capital investment, and it creates a flow of money via rent. When we talk about natural capital, it refers to natural elements that are already in place, such as the ocean which produces flow of natural resources by the means of the harvesting of marine animals. Capital is used as an investment under normal terms, and natural capital is valuable if it produces benefits for someone, for example timber from forests or honey from bees. If there is no flow, there is no value. So in essence, the protection of oceans and forests from over harvesting is the protection of capital.

Efficiency is a term that is often used in economic fundamentals, and efficiency is the point at which we are generating the maximum amount of output per unit of input. This efficiency model however does not mean that the generation of a utility stays in the one place. For example if you can gain better efficiency by moving the production of wheat to another field, then it is not at it's maximum efficiency where it is currently. So in light of this, a concept called Pareto Efficiency is generally accepted in economic circles. This assumes that when someone is better off as the result of an action, it leaves another person worse off. It is then considered efficient if the person who gains benefit compensates the person who lost out, or if the net gain outweighs the net loss. However Pareto Efficiency models can have severe ethical implications. For example if one country pays another country to take their hazardous waste and pay them compensation, it can be considered Pareto Efficient even though this may have serious environmental and health implications. The country who took the waste will be financially better off, as would the country who exported the waste as it would cost more to process this waste at home. So whilst this is considered efficient under Pareto concepts, it is seriously flawed 3).

Market Theory

A market can be defined as a decentralised group of buyers and sellers who determine the price and allocation of goods through the medium of an exchange. Markets can help determine what the value of a certain item is, and can come in various forms, such as farmers markets, stock exchanges and even possibly employment exchanges. The markets are generally split into two groups, the buyers or consumers and the suppliers like producers, wholesalers or bankers. Like most economic theory, a certain number of assumptions are made when it comes to markets. The first assumption is that the consumers have all the correct information about quality, availability and pricing. The second assumption is that there is no dominant force in the market so no one can influence prices to suit their own needs. The next assumption is that there are no barriers to entry or exit of a market, for example entry fees, registration fees and similar. It is also assumed that there are no externalities involved with the goods that are being traded, for example timber from old growth forests. So in all reality, there is no 'perfect market', there is always information withheld, entry and exit fees, price fixing and many externalities.

The price of goods and services is defined by what is called supply, which is the amount of the goods that are being traded and demand, which is the amount of people who are willing to buy the goods at the certain price. In normal market theory, the demand of a product will go down as the price goes up. The demand can also go down the more the product is consumed, for example if we were really hungry, we might be willing to pay ten dollars for a sandwich, but after we ate that sandwich we may be reluctant to pay ten dollars for a second one. In turn, if the demand for a good or product goes up, the price will usually follow. This increase in price can also be due to the extra amount of energy that is used to access more of this product, along with the possible diminishing of the resource. Markets will find an equilibrium when the supply and demand reaches a common point, for example if the suppliers set the price too high, there will be no demand, so they will need to lower the price in order to sell the goods. If the price is too low, there will be a rush on buying the product, which will increase the price according to the theories above. So market equilibrium is reached when the price finds a balanced point on the supply demand curve. When it comes to environmental resources, many economists believe that the good are being sold at too low a price, this is mainly due to overexploitation and the amount of externalities 4).

When a consumer buys a product for less than what they were expecting to or what the maximum amount that they could have paid, this is called a surplus. This is also true for suppliers when they sell goods for a higher price than what they expected or for above the minimum price that the good could have been sold for. This can also be called profit. Prices can change when there are certain changes in the market, such as increased supply or better technology may cause prices to go down due to the costs of production and prices can go up if there is resource scarcity or a natural disaster.

To combat the perceived low price of environmental resources, some countries have implemented what are called Pigouvian taxes. This is an economic theory which was instigated by the late Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), who suggested a tax on the output that is in line with the cost of the externalities, for example a tax on the social costs of the production of that product. A carbon tax is a prime example of a Pigouvian tax. These taxes are meant to work on two levels, firstly the introduction of the tax will raise the price which will go towards paying the social costs, and secondly the price rise, according to market theory will reduce the demand, setting a new equilibrium 5).

Market Failures

Like anything else, markets are not immune to failure. This can result from a number of things, such as inefficient allocation of resources, when prices do not meet the market expectations or when some of the aforementioned market theories vary or fail. This can happen on three dimensions, which could mean there is something wrong with the goods, the people or the institutions 6).

__Something Wrong With The Goods__

Goods can be put into two categories, exlcudable and non-excludable. An excludable good is when an entity can have total control over a resource, a non-excludable good is where you cannot control the amount of goods that people can access, for example air. Industries and suppliers are reluctant to pay for non-excludable goods, and the externalities that come from this are not included in the overall production costs. For example if the costs of air pollution were passed on to all facets of the industry, this can still cause price equilibrium whilst reducing environmental impacts. This theory also has assumptions, such as the assumption that the goods come from many sellers and not a single pool. However this too comes with it's own problems, as people and companies can tend to over exploit common pools, such as forests and fisheries. This can cause market failure as the resources will quickly become scarce and make goods and services unavailable or extremely difficult to attain, thus reducing the amount of available money in the market. If the failure is due to externalities, this is when Pigouvian taxes or the Pareto efficiency theory can be applied.

__Something Wrong With The People__

As mentioned earlier, economists make a series of assumptions such as what is considered to be rational decisions in the marketplace. Markets can fail if the people involved start to act irrationally. This irrational behaviour is not always the fault of the consumer, as it can be affected by the people being given incorrect or false information or cheating from suppliers and producers in the quest to control and influence the markets in their favour. The markets can also fail from simple irrationality, such as consumers paying for goods over market value or paying too little causing disruptions to suppliers.

__Something Wrong With The Institutions__

Institutions can also cause market failure. This may come about from price fixing, trying to create cartels or monopolies or insider trading. Each of these cases can alter market equilibriums, causing an imbalance in market share and the loss of smaller producers. This can also occur due to political pressure or the pushing of certain agendas.

Measuring Economy

When economists try to measure economies, they talk about two things, which are microeconomics and macroeconomics, which is the form of what is called the circular flow. Microeconomics refers to the functionality of markets, marketing and pricing, Macroeconomics refers to the economy as a whole, and focuses on income and policies. The key players are households or consumers who show a demand for goods, supply labour to the market and receive wages. Companies produce goods, supply goods, collect revenue, give employment and provide wages. The financial sector provides capital for companies and provide returns and a vehicle for households and businesses. International markets provide goods and services via imports, pay for goods that are exported and can provide extra labour through migration. The government collects taxes, looks after social welfare, regulates waste management and provides other services such as schools and health care. So all of this goes around in a circle, creating economies 7).

One of the major flaws with the circular flow model is not what's in it, but what's not. The environment is a major player in every economy however does not find itself in this flow model. The environmental impacts can most definitely have impacts on the economy, such as pollution causing health problems and depletion of natural resources, all of which are external to and can disrupt normal price equilibriums.

To measure national accounts, economists will look at factors such as national income, which is measured by costs of production. The national product then measures consumer goods prices, in essence measuring the total amount of money that is making its way through the circular flow. This can help give indications as to whether the economy is growing, stable or shrinking. Models such as this were develop post great depression in an effort to allow governments and economists a way in which to measure economies on a constant basis.

When this number is determined, it is called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This indicates the market value of all new goods and services provided within the borders of any given country over the period of one year. This can include local residents and foreigners, and is the total consumption plus investment plus government spending, minus indirect taxes. It can be measured in total expenditure or total income as in theory these should be the same. The Gross National Product (GNP) measures the amount of income from the citizens of a particular country, regardless of whether they are living in the country or abroad. The GDP is used not only so governments can keep track of the economy, but also can be used to instigate policy change, allow banks to set and vary interest rates and businesses to adjust their investments according to these factors.

The GDP however is not a foolproof system. There are many things that are not measures, such as unpaid labour or volunteer work, or basically anything that does not have a price tag on it. Whilst it measures economic welfare, there are no mechanisms in place to measure social welfare, for example destruction of ecosystems and pollution. This can cause discrepancies as money will need to be spent to fix environmental problems which cannot be accounted for in the circular flow models and the GDP. This has prompted some economists to come up with a new measuring tool which is called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). This factors into it things like cost of environmental damage and clean ups, crime and other non monetary problems that can occur and also things like unpaid labour and health levels. In almost all cases the GPI will be lower than the GDP and GNP and is most likely a better indicator of the health of an economy 8).

Environment And Macroeconomics

Macroeconomics is a way in which governments decide how and where to allocate resources. The governments do not directly control the economies in their nations, but can influence the direction that the economy takes. The first way that they can implement correct resource allocation is by having a measuring tool, such as the GDP. In order to maintain a strong economy, governments will look at four key factors: High levels of employment, economic growth, low inflation and balanced trade. In recent times however a fifth key factor has been introduced, and this is sustainability. To measure sustainability, economists look at what is called the triple bottom line, which is economic, social and environmental. The triple bottom line is aims for economic growth, equitable distribution of resources and environmental use which is sustainable for the long term.

One of the first of these measures is the labour market. Labour markets are considered just like any other type of market. A worker sells their 'time' to the employer who 'buys' it. The price of labour is set just like any other supply and demand curve. Too much labour in the marketplace will lower wages, and vice versa. Excess labour will prompt workers to leave the industry, however many countries have set minimum wage conditions so that this market is less prone to failure. The participation rate is calculated by the amount of people if working age that are in the workforce compared to the amount of unemployment. Governments will aim to keep the participation rate as high as possible. In the past there were two types of workers, white collar, who work in the professional industries and blue collar workers, who work in labour, trades and semi or unskilled labour. In recent times there as been a third category, and that is green collar workers. Green collar workers are often blue collar workers who have moved or been moved into cleaner environmental industries. These green collar workers help the triple bottom line reducing unemployment and increasing GDP whilst also helping the environmental and sustainability outcomes 9).

In order for a government to manage it's spending and fiscal policy, they will collect tax from individuals and companies. This can vary from country to country depending on their specific economic situation. The federal government will spend most of their money on health, welfare, education and infrastructure. Environmental expenditures are usually picked up by local governments, however some countries will try and provide national frameworks for environmental costs such as implementing carbon or pollution taxes and subsidise the use of cleaner energy systems.

Another way in which the government can try and control the economy is by implementing a monetary policy. Money can take several forms, and not all of it is in physical form. It is used as a medium of exchange between two parties and a unit as to which to measure the values of things. Financial markets collect and distribute money within the country however the value of money can also be influenced by foreign currency trading. The financial sector will work in conjunction with governments in order to keep the monetary flow stable, as it affects all parties.

Trade policies are put in place by governments in order to regulate and dictate the amount of goods and services that are being imported and exported. The government will usually try to keep this figure balanced, as too big a shift either way can cause economic instability. To do this they may implement policies such as tariffs and quotas on imports which will encourage the higher use of local goods and services. When free trade policies are introduced, this means that consumers are free to buy from any other nation without restriction, however this may cause imbalances and provide a course for economies to fail. A fair trade policy will avoid dealing with companies who have high social costs associated with their goods or services which may sometimes cause the prices to increase 10).

Ecological Economics

Ecological economics can be measured and determined by resource flow models. The natural resource flows into the economy, is distributed by the government and companies, finally reaching the consumer and then ending the flow as waste. The problem with the flow models is the two assumptions that are made by economists, firstly that there are no limits on natural resources, and secondly that there is no cost attributed to the externalities that come with pollution and waste disposal. As we know it, these two assumptions are not correct, and can lead to market failures. In order to avoid market failure, we must ensure that the loop is closed on these assumptions. In most capitalist countries the economic system is not connected to the ecological system. In biophysical economic systems, the ecological system is embedded into the economic system 11).

This has caused some economic commentators to give nicknames to capitalist and biophysical economic systems. The capitalist system is called a 'Cowboy Economy' that is open and unlimited resources can flow through it, regardless of the consequences with no cap on the amount of growth. The biophysical system is called a 'Spaceship Economy' and is a closed system, much like spaceship. There are limits placed on the resources that can be produced and used, and everyone is responsible for and impacted by the consequences. Biophysical economic systems are treated in a similar fashion to the laws of thermodynamics, where energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted into other forms but never completely disappear, as assumed in a cowboy economy. The second law of thermodynamics says that when converting energy, the quality will always go down, or the entropy goes up. When there are high levels of entropy, disorder ensues, and this can also apply to biophysical economic systems. This economic model gives a more realistic approach to measuring economies, as it can calculate total costs that accurately reflect the social and environmental costs.

Ecological economists also make a number of assumptions and principal policies. The first one is the idea of a 'steady state economy'. This occurs when the inputs and outputs stay the same, for example the amount of births is the same as the amount of deaths, and the amount of production equals the amount of depreciation, for example the same amounts of trees will be regrown to replace the ones that were cut down, never more, never less. They also assume that not all resources are substitutable, as assumed by orthodox economic principles. Man made products are not always sustainable and almost always create higher entropy. The ecological description of 'keystone species' is considered in ecological economics as species that are vital foundations to ecosystems and cannot be replaced, nor can there be a price put on them. Ecological economics is a discipline that is much more involved and concise than orthodox economics as there are a significant number interwoven systems that rely on each other 12).

In the perfect world there would be no damage at all to the environment however unfortunately this can never be the case. This is why ecological economists use what is called the 'precautionary principle'. If a certain practice threatens to do significant harm to the environment, ecological economists will choose the option of taking action early while the costs are low compared with the potential high costs if action is taken after it is too late, as in the old phrase 'prevention is better than cure'. Some of the issues being discussed now, such as climate change, can be mitigated now for a much cheaper rate than if we leave it too long into the future. The governments in the European Union lean towards a spaceship economy, but unfortunately some of other major players such as the United States and China are still chasing cows. Ecological economy systems focus more on sustainability and minimising damage rather than consumer satisfaction.

Policy Designs

There are different ways in which governments and economists can create effective policy designs in response to environmental economic targets. The first of such policies is the previously mentioned triple bottom line. The triple bottom line looks at three different factors. Economic, which includes economic growth and efficient allocation of resources, social, which looks at the equity and fair distribution of resources and environmental, which focuses on sustainability. In order to achieve an efficient allocation of resources, there needs to be a price put on the environment. This can be done by conducting a cost-benefit analysis, and then by setting a new price equilibrium. Fair distribution of resources can be achieved by returning the revenues raised as taxes on externalities back to the environment and environmental rehabilitation, and also to society who may suffer due to the reduction of some of the resources. These taxes however can only work if it looks at reducing the amount of profit generated by companies who make negative impacts on the environment. If these companies look to maintain profits and just pass on the cost of the tax to consumers, it sets up the market for failure 13).

When the third factor, sustainability is looked at, economists need to understand and plan growth within the physical limits of the natural resources. This can be done by calculating what is called the global footprint. This involves calculating how much energy, materials and resources that we use and compare it with how much the earth can produce over the same time frame. At current rates we are using 1.5 times the amount of resources that the earth can produce, which makes us sustainably weak. In economic terms, this means that we are undoubtedly heading for market failure not as countries, but on a global scale. In order to avoid this imminent market failure, we must employ sustainable development strategies. The environment needs to be able to provide our needs within the capacity of the economic boundaries, whilst remembering that we cannot simply speed up the environment in order to satisfy our non stop consumption. If the consumption of resources is equal to or less than the resources that the environment can produce, then you become a sustainably strong economy.

Some countries and governments have tried to create similar models by trying to implement carbon taxes or emission trading schemes. A carbon tax is a tax imposed on the biggest polluters or emitters of carbon dioxide. This revenue is then divided and returned to various avenues, such as to society and worse off people and towards research and subsidies for cleaner industries, and the tax also aims to encourage the bigger polluters to find more efficient means of production. Unfortunately these tax schemes have not worked nearly as well as hoped for, as the companies sought to protect profits and pass down the cost of the tax to consumers, as mentioned earlier. Emission trading schemes (ETS) are set up by governments who create a number of fixed maximum emission levels and give them to the companies after setting a price, which is usually worked out per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions. If these companies want to be able to go over these limits, they must buy the unused credits from companies who do not reach their emission caps. This s a dual pronged strategy, as it encourages the bigger polluters to find cleaner methods in order to avoid having to buy extra credits, and it also encourages the other companies to reduce their emissions so that they can financially benefit from selling their unused credits. Whilst ETS schemes are good in theory, there have been many problems encountered due to governments over allocating credits, setting too low a price or giving them away to bigger companies, which is disadvantageous to smaller companies 14).

Environmental Policy Discourses

Economies can also be measured and discussed by a method called discourse. Discourse separates and breaks down different types of economic strategies, assumptions and judgements into categories and provides a way in which to coherently communicate the data. Environmental economics generally has two types of discourse, which are administrative rationalism and economic rationalism. These discourses are then broken into four dimensions, or more accurately, four different types of players 15).


Ontology is the recognition of the existence of certain entities, such as the recognition of the environment as an entity in it's own right, and not a limitless store which can continually be exploited.

__Natural Relationship Assumptions__

These assumptions are about the relationship between different entities, such as the links between the environment and the economy or the link between social well being and markets.

__Agents And Their Motives__

Each environmental discourse has it's own set of players, or 'actors'. This makes assumptions about the behaviour of individuals, such as environmental protectionists and human rights activists who will fight for natural justice.

__Key Metaphors__

This refers to the creation of key or 'buzz' words, such as spaceship economy and free markets, in order to convince people or push the agendas.

Administrative rationalism relies on the knowledge and input of scientists and experts, and harnesses this in order to get the best possible information and predictions about key issues. Most of the early environmental protection movements were in fact headed up by scientists and experts and not by elected officials. This creates a command and control approach, and the experts are given the power to set parameters and hand out penalties if the rules are broken. Most of the acts, such as the environmental protection act will be written by these experts. This approach tends to focus more at the end result of environmental economics, for example the amount of waste and pollution and not so much the original production and exploitation. The government gives these experts the power to enforce and regulate for example what types of machinery a company can use, or which cars are environmentally acceptable, or making new start up projects perform environmental impact studies. The earliest example of this is the United States Environmental Protection Act which was brought into force in 1970. Due to this act created too much irrelevant paperwork and red tape, governments and experts decided to try a different approach, called the cost benefit analysis (CBA).

A CBA is a simpler, more straightforward method to analyse environmental impacts. This analysis works through a number of steps, such as identifying policy options and then listing the benefits and costs of each option. The next step is to put a price on all of the costs and benefits, and also a price on the future costs and benefits. After all of this data is gathered, the decision makers will then choose the option that has the best net benefit. The CBA can have some flaws however. Each expert may put a different value on a natural resource, which may cause differences in opinions within the expert panels. Another problem is that governments with certain agenda may install experts who will tow the party line, or give biased decisions for the benefits of other entities.

Economic rationalism uses the current economic market mechanisms in order to reach it's decisions. This type of rationalism is often hostile to regulations and seeks to stick to tried and proven economic systems. This school of thought seeks greater privatisation and only using the government to facilitate the markets. When the environment fails, this is looked at as a market failure due to the over exploitation of natural pool resources, rather than a lack of expertise, or due to the fact that land use is not correctly defined. Believers of economic rationalism will argue that public land is always in a worse state than private land, and that private owners take better care of their own land, hence calls for more privatisation. This has been the case in the past in the United States and is thought to have been the catalyst to the start of the American environmental activism movement. Whilst this can work in theory, it is not possible to privatise every natural resource, for example air and oceans, which can still be exploited and polluted by just about anybody. This then prompted governments to start to tax the polluters for polluting, which brought about such schemes as carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes 16) .


This article discusses the several mechanisms and economic policies and systems that can play a part in economies. Even though most mechanisms are good on paper or in theory, each has a negative component, especially when it comes to assumptions that are made. The omission of the environment from standard or orthodox economic theories is a serious flaw, and leaves massive gaps in the flows. It is important to firstly realise that the environment is an intrinsic part of all economies and that a realistic price must be put on these resources and that they should be distributed and utilised in a ration and sustainable manner. Governments and decision makers must take the spaceship economy approach instead of the cowboy economy approach as the globe is a closed system and has finite resources. Only then will all countries be able to get on the same page and make positive sustainable decisions about not only the future of their own countries but the earth as a whole.

Economics | Environment

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