Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Environment Revisited

I want to revisit some of the key environmental themes of this blog that have had very little airtime lately. In particular I want to revisit, over the next month, the unintended consequences of some of our favourite environmental policies and personal choices.

For those new to the blog, the divergence of post topics from my blog title is explained here:

...understanding property is the key to a reasoned approach to preserving our quality of life by preserving environmental amenity. Maybe I am more of a ‘quality of life’ economist who believes there are many non-market goods, including the quality of, and accessibility of natural environments, that are major contributors to our well-being.

However the increasing fanaticism I have observed in some areas of the climate change movement, the lack of ability for some environmentalists to see the forest for the trees (pun intended), has lead me to distance myself from some of the core environmentalist views.

As a rule of thumb I believe we should first focus our efforts on local, tractable environmental problems with clear externalities, and implementable solutions – protecting diversity and fish stocks in the Great Barrier Reef, tackling air pollution and improving urban amenity, and preserving the quality of waterways and wilderness areas. Climate change, that global intractable problem, has dropped down my list of concerns, even though my previous research focussed on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The development of my ideas on the environment is the reverse of renowned ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg’s u-turn. He once held a strong position that climate change was far down humanities list of concerns, particularly noting the obvious an immediate threats from treatable diseases in the developing world. Now climate change to the top of his list, no doubt to pitch his new book to cashed-up fanatics.

My second rule of thumb is that personal ‘green’ consumption choices make no difference, and small actions do not add up. These behaviours are typically offset by other economic adjustments in upstream production and by choices of others as prices respond. These effects are know an rebound effects.

A recent article in The Economist highlights new research showing these rebound effects in action. The study estimates that new energy efficient lighting technology will increase energy consumption in the long run. My own research showed that conservation behaviour, such as using lights and electrical appliances and driving less, will also result in minimal change as money saved get spent elsewhere in the economy.

I intend to revisit ideas about waste, efficiency, environmental taxes, recycling and solar power over the next month to see how my ideas have developed, and to seek input to develop them further.


  1. "Climate change, that global intractable problem, has dropped down my list of concerns, even though my previous research focussed on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

    I was at a seminar by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, and they highlighted that the single biggest problem with acting on climate change is that people are becoming less interested and/or less willing to engage in a discussion about it.

    By focusing on the smaller externalities do you think it is easier to loose focus on the main issue? and what is that main issue specifically?

  2. Unless the population issue is tackled------------
    You can forget about all the other issues---------
    Main or otherwise
    Cos the game over is over.