Author: rbouvier consulting

Quarterly Journal Reviews

Quarterly Journal Reviews

1. Economic valuation of green and blue nature in cities: A meta-analysis

Marija Bockarjovaa, Wouter J.W. Botzena, Mark J. Koetse

Ecological Economics 169 (2020)

Environmental economists have long maintained that nature and the ecological services that nature provides are vastly undervalued. This undervaluation of “natural capital” relative to other types of capital is one of the primary drivers of environmental damage.  But getting the prices right – putting a “value” on the environment – is not an easy thing to do well. Many times we rely on complicated statistical models (see below) to attempt to  “tease out” the value that people put on the environment by looking at their actions, or by their responses to carefully designed surveys.

Environmental economists have been relying more and more in recent years on a methodology called “benefit transfer.” Essentially, this is a method by which the value of a certain environmental good or service in one area is simply applied (transferred) to another area. While easier and certainly cheaper, there are serious methodological concerns about the technique.

One way of circumventing some of those difficulties is to use a method called meta-analysis – whereby many different environmental valuation studies are brought together in one large dataset and analyzed for any statistical regularities. This particular study examined 60 such studies worldwide, focusing on the economic value of nature in cities, to determine characteristics that are associated with either a higher or lower stated value.

The authors find, not surprisingly, that an area’s average income level is associated with a higher stated value. “The interpretation is that natural areas in regions with a 1% higher income have a 1.4 to 1.5% higher value.” They also find that areas with a higher population density also have higher values.  Secondly, the authors look at the vehicle through which the value is elicited- in other words, whether the survey respondent was asked to value urban nature through a tax, an entry fee, or a donation to a fund. Interestingly, results demonstrate that “nature values elicited by means of a tax as a payment vehicle were systematically valued lower compared to values elicited by means of other payment mechanisms, such as an entry fee or a donation to a fund.” Finally, the authors examine different types of urban green space, and find that parks are the highest valued type of urban greenspace, followed by “blue sites” (Iakes, rivers, ponds, etc.).

2. Who Cares? Future Sea Level Rise and House Prices Land Economics • May 2020 • 96 (2): 207–224

Olga Filippova 

Cuong Nguyen 

Ilan Noy 

Michael Rehm

Does the finding that a property is at risk from sea level rise lead to a decrease in property value? This article takes advantage of a unique case study in New Zealand to address that question. In 2012, the Kapiti Coast District Council produced and published detailed projected erosion risk maps. The Council then notified property owners in areas deemed to be at risk, and placed that information on memorandums that were then made available to every potential property buyer. Later, in 2014, the council had to remove the maps from online access, due to the actions of a small but vocal group of property owners worried about the effect of the information on property values. These events set up a perfect experiment for the researchers, as they could compare property values and sales during the time that the information was made available to the period when it was not. 

After conducting the analysis, the authors conclude the following: “Overall, given the known hazard risks, buyers are still willing to pay the same premium for these coastal properties, and appear to largely ignore the new information they received in 2012. In short, the erosion risk information being placed in the LIM reports seems to have had little effect on property pricing.”  While this effect may seem counter- intuitive, it is actually consistent with other studies examining the effect of what is seen as a risk in the distant future. While other studies have found that current flooding affects property values, people react less strongly to threats that are seen as hypothetical or occuring in the distant future. 

3. Legacies of Lead: Estimating Home Buyer Response to Potential Lead Exposure

Nicholas B. Irwin Land Economics • May 2020 • 96 (2): 171–187

Much like the previous study, this study examined the effect of a potential environmental threat – this time lead exposure – on property values. In this study, however, the author found that houses most likely to contain lead and located in areas that had been labeled “at risk” by the state of Maryland experienced a substantial price penalty of 7.7%. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, the author was able to determine that the price penalty was “attributable solely to the information about potential lead exposure,” not to other characteristics of the property or the area. Furthermore, the author found that the negative effect persisted and actually became stronger over time.

The author also found evidence that neighborhood composition shifted following the implementation of the program, “with a decrease in the number of white mortgage applicants in at-risk areas and an increase in the spread of incomes for all mortgage applicants.” The author then warns of the unintended consequences of such a program, noting:

“the goal of the policy was to prevent childhood lead exposure by coarsely targeting potential lead risk areas, which shifted home buyers’ perceptions of risk based on an entire area’s designation as a risk zone. This then capitalized in the form of lower house prices for houses located in the at-risk areas most likely to contain lead, which, in turn, altered said neighborhoods as they became less attractive to some while becoming more affordable for others. These changes in neighborhood composition could be leading indicators for longer-term cycles of neighborhood decline due to a perceived stigma of living in an at-risk area.” 

These findings have clear implications for environmental justice, and point to the need to think carefully about the unintended consequences of a program such as this one. Yes, residents should be made aware of the potential risks of the area in which they live; but the policy also may have created a situation where some individuals were able to escape that risk, while others may have been forced to accept a tradeoff between homeownership and increased environmental risk.

Resilience in the Age of COVID-19

Resilience in the Age of COVID-19

An example of climate change resilience planning chart

In our field, the term “resiliency” is typically thought of as resiliency to climate change . However, economic resiliency can also be resiliency to any sort of disaster – economic, human- caused, or “natural”. Economic resiliency or an economic resiliency study (sometimes called a vulnerability assessment) involves taking a good hard look at your community or your company, its strengths and weaknesses, and the connections between its various parts. If one part of the system breaks down, what are the impacts of that on the larger system? If one component is particularly vulnerable to an outside threat, are there alternatives if (when?) disaster strikes?

COVID 19 is making these vulnerabilities abundantly clear. Although vulnerability to climate change and vulnerability to a pandemic are different threats, , they involve some of the same basic questions. A closer look actually reveals some connections between the two seemingly different issues. 

For example, let’s look at why the United States has had such a difficult time rolling out adequate testing. Yes, the capacity is there, as the federal government has said, but the theoretical capacity is different from the actual ability to complete the entire sequence of events from start to finish. It actually is a good case study that illustrates the connections between public health, supply chains, and climate change.

Let’s start by looking at the chain of events that has to take place in order to carry out a successful testing regime. Yes, we need to have a lot of tests available -and we need to have a lot of medical personnel able to administer those tests. Most tests are administered via a swab that is inserted in the patient’s nose to where the nasal passage intersects the back of the throat, meaning we need to have an adequate number of specialized swabs available. After the specimen is obtained, the swab then needs to be transported in sterile saline  to a lab for analysis. Once at the lab, there needs to be an adequate amount of materials to run the analysis, including chemicals, machinery, and people. Only then can the results be made available. Looking at the chain of events and the things needed for each event to occur can reveal a lot about the vulnerability of a system. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, as the maxim goes.

Remember Hurricane Maria? Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico in 2019. It turns out that most of our country’s manufacturing of saline and saline bags is located on the island. The testing swabs mentioned in the previous paragraph need to be stored in saline in order to be transferred to a lab for testing. While health economists highlighted this weakness in the medical supply chain during the flu season of 2018, it was not adequately addressed.

 This example underscores the idea that analyzing vulnerability to an unexpected event – whether to a hurricane or a pandemic – follows the same formula: Vulnerability = exposure times probability times impact. It also highlights the fact that vulnerability to one disaster (hurricanes) can exacerbate vulnerability to another ( a pandemic).That vulnerability can have serious economic implications, as we are finding.

Our next blog post will be on economic vulnerability to COVID-19, and the way communities can build resilience.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

When talking about sustainability we often use the metaphor of a three legged stool.  We take great pains to explain how each leg – economic, social, and environmental – is essential to ensure that the stool will hold the person who sits on it. The person in this metaphor is us, human beings and the world we live in.

If these three pillars are the stool’s support, justice is the glue that holds them together. Without justice the stool will not stand. If we take an honest look at the sustainability table we are all gathered around, the faces are mostly white, and there is no place to sit.  

This is not new. Racism is present in every aspect of our culture. Our own movement of environmentalism has a history that is rooted in racism

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has placed our failures as individuals, and as a culture, before us. We can’t deny the lack of justice in our country.  We can’t claim to be working towards a more sustainable world and turn away. 

As a company and as individuals we support and stand with Black Lives Matter.  We acknowledge our own shortcomings, our own biases, and our own culpability in the unjust society that privileges us at the expense of others. We are committed to educating ourselves, to investigating the consequences – intentional and unintentional – of our actions and the policies we support, and to emphasize the essential role of justice and equality in working towards a more truly sustainable society. 

Resources:

Black Lives Matter

Environmentalism’s Racist History

How Sustainability Professionals can Uplift the Black Community

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

Recycling changed dramatically in 2018, when China went from accepting 45% of the world’s plastic waste to almost none. As a result, by 2030, up to 111 million metric tons of plastic could be displaced.[1]

All that extra plastic, as well as the paper and other materials China is refusing, has significant and far-reaching effects. It impacts waste management systems and the economics of recycling, and it may also force people to re-evaluate their behavior.

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2019 Second Quarter Journal Reviews

2019 Second Quarter Journal Reviews

Measuring Willingness to Pay for Environmental Attributes in Seafood

Hilger, J., Hallstein, E., Stevens, A.W. et al. Environ Resource Econ (2019) 73: 307. 

We found this article very interesting because of our recent work with CEI on growing farmed scallop in Maine.  Most research suggests that consumers are willing to pay for environmental attributes (like sustainable harvest) in seafood, but the majority of that research are stated preference, rather than revealed preference, studies. In other words, they are studies of what consumers say they’re going to do, rather than studies of what consumers do.  It is more difficult to design a controlled experiment that adequately captures consumers’ actual behavior than it is to design a survey! This article uses a “natural experiment” by which the researchers compared sales of seafood before and after a sustainability labeling scheme (using red, yellow, and green labels) was implemented. The researchers found that consumers did express preferences for wild-caught versus farmed seafood, US-caught versus no-US caught seafood, and selective harvest methods to less selective harvest methods. Another interesting aspect of this paper is the discussion of the yellow label, which was described as “proceed with caution” on the label but actually meant that not enough information was available to make a final decision. Consumers seem to have responded to this ambiguity by substituting away from this alternative altogether.

Do energy efficiency standards hurt consumers? Evidence from household appliance sales.

Journal of Environmental Economics and Management

Volume 96, July 2019, Pages 88-107

Arlan Brucala; Michael J.Roberts

In yet another article investigating policy and its effect on consumers, this article looks at Energy Star ™ labels on washers, dryers, and air conditioners, and the effect of those standards on prices and consumer behavior.  Contrary to expectations, the authors find that stricter standards increase consumer welfare, by encouraging substitution towards more durable and energy-efficient goods.        

Urban afforestation and infant health: Evidence from MillionTreesNYC

Journal of Environmental Economics and Management

Volume 95, May 2019, Pages 26-44

This is a fascinating study of the effect of planting trees on infant health in urban areas. Whereas most of the literature on the positive effect of trees on health looks at the effect of proximity to green space on health, this article takes advantage of the MillionTreesNYC program in New York City to study the effect of planting trees on infant health. The authors use a database from the US Centers for Disease Control to compare the health of infants born to women in New York City to those born to women in similar areas where no afforestation occurred.  They take advantage of several cutting-edge statistical methodologies to control for confounding factors, such as socio-demographic factors. Their findings imply that a twenty percent increase in in urban forest cover (such as occurred under the program) decreased prematurity and low birth weight among mothers in New York City by 2.1 and 0.24 percentage points, respectively, relative to similar mothers outside of NYC. While this doesn’t seem like much, the difference in low birth weight is equivalent to that of a mother who doesn’t smoke to a mother who smokes two cigarettes a day during pregnancy. The effect seemed to be greater among African American women, indicating that urban afforestation may be significant equity effects as well.

Taking the Measure of Plastic Bag Bans

Taking the Measure of Plastic Bag Bans

MichaelisScientists [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Americans go through 102.1 billion plastic bags each year, and those bags end up everywhere. Whether they’re in whale stomachs, or in our water as microplastics, the volume has people concerned.

In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic, bans on single-use plastic bags are on the rise. California and New York already have state-wide bans, and Maine has just become the third state to do so. In other states, cities like Boston, Seattle and Chicago have their own bans, and more seem likely to follow.

While it’s popular to attack plastic bags, it’s still important to ask questions to make sure the bans are necessary and effective.

Are plastic bags as bad as people think? What are the alternatives, and are they any better? What impact do these bans have on people’s behavior and the environment?

It turns out that when you look at the whole lifecycle of different bags, and the unintended consequences of the bans, the results aren’t straightforward.

Cost of Bag Production

The environmental cost of production is a good starting point in measuring the impact of different bags. Contrary to what you might think, from this perspective, plastic bags win out.

Plastic bags are made by using ethylene. Ethylene   is a by-product of the crude oil refining process and natural gas production.   Manufacturing plants have also gotten very efficient at making plastic, so this process doesn’t generate many greenhouse gases per bag.

Paper bags, on the other hand, require cutting down trees and then processing them in an energy-intensive way. A 2005 Scottish study noted that paper bag production uses about four times as much water as plastic and creates three times the amount of greenhouse gases. It should be noted that in the United States, many paper manufacturing facilities use biofuels and co-gen systems to generate the power used in the manufacturing process which may mitigate some of these emissions.

Even cotton tote bags aren’t better for single use. This is because you need to factor in the land and water used to grow the cotton, as well as the processing and production. One study found that you’d need to use the tote bag at least 131 times to be better than a single-use plastic bag, based on the production impact.

Recycling and Decomposing

One of the biggest problems with plastic bags is what happens after they’re used. This is true whether they’re used once or a couple of times.

While the bags can technically be recycled, municipalities don’t accept them with other recyclables. This puts the burden on the consumer to save them and bring them to a place that will accept them, and most people don’t go to the trouble.

When plastic doesn’t get recycled, it either goes into a landfill or ends up as litter.

In a landfill, plastic takes an average of 500 years to decompose. The volume of these bags in the trash also comes at a cost. California alone spends $25M annually on disposal of plastic waste in landfills.

Paper, on the other hand, decomposes in just two to six weeks. It can also be easily recycled.

Other Impacts of Plastic in the Environment

Additionally, when plastic ends up as litter, the environmental impact is much worse than with paper.

Plastic has become one of the most common kinds of waste products, with much of it ending up in the ocean. A study from UC Santa Barbara found that each year, the world’s oceans receive almost 8 million metric tons of plastic.

As an example of how widespread this is, a recent dive by American explorer Victor Vescovo found a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles below the surface.

One of the biggest concerns with this is the impact on marine animals. Many are tempted to eat plastic bags, thinking they’re food, but instead the bags block their digestion.  As many as 1 million sea animals die each due to the plastic in the oceans. Among them was a dead sperm whale found in April 2019 with 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

A less publicized issue is the fact that plastic bags can cause problems in urban settings by clogging waterways and drains. This was discovered as one of the primary factors in flooding in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998, which led them to ban plastic bags in 2002.

Microplastics are another concern. These form when the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

No one has enough evidence to show any specific health impacts of microplastics, mostly because it is unethical to ask human test subjects to ingest microplastics due to known health hazards of plastic in general, but the amount and range makes it worth watching. A 2017 study found that 94% of tap water samples from the United States contained microplastics and other studies have found high concentrations of microplastics in fish and shellfish commonly eaten by humans.

Another study also noted that when plastic bags are exposed to sunlight, they begin to give off ethylene, and continue to do so even after the sun sets.  This ethylene can contribute to the creation of atmospheric carbon monoxide, a greenhouse gas.  

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These factors are what make the plastic bag bans so popular, even though from a production standpoint, they can do less environmental damage than the alternatives.

Considering Consumer Behavior

One issue that policymakers often overlook is how consumers will react to their policies. Production and disposal are only one part of the story. It’s also important to consider if people actually do reuse those bags, for what purpose, and how consumers will change their behavior after a plastic bag ban.

In some cases, people do use the plastic bags again, though often only one other time. The most common examples are to line small trash cans and to pick up after dogs. Those needs don’t disappear with the bans, and those are things you can’t use tote bags for.

As a result, one side effect of the bans is that people buy more trash bags for those purposes. Rebecca Taylor, an economist at the University of Sydney, saw a 120% increase in sales of small, four-gallon trash bags. From an environmental perspective, trash bags are worse than the single-use bags, since trash bags are thicker than grocery bags. This means they use more plastic, and it takes longer for them to degrade.

A quick glance at the comments section of the Portland Press Herald, in an article announcing the ban, revealed that many commenters were “hoarding” their plastic bags in response to the ban, or even buying rolls of plastic bags in advance of the law’s April 2020 effective date.

Additionally, the use of paper bags increases significantly after bans. A survey of a few areas in California found that paper bag usage jumped from 3% to 16%. This meant increased production for paper bags, as well as higher volumes of paper trash.

Still, the bans do encourage people to reuse bags by 40%. The bans also reduce the amount of plastic that ends up as trash, which is the other piece to consider.

Conclusion – It’s Complicated

Economists are notorious for responding “it depends” when asked a question comparing two alternatives.  The impact of bans on plastic bags is no different.  Depending on what you measure, you can find support for using plastic bags, and support for banning them.   

It’s important to remember that the impact doesn’t stop with the manufacturing. It continues with how the bags are used, and what happens with them when they’re no longer in use. It’s also important to recognize that no law is ever passed in a vacuum. We need to consider how people will respond, what alternatives are available to them, and what the unintended consequences may be.   

References:

The Buzz About B-Corps: Triple Bottom Line Accountability

The Buzz About B-Corps: Triple Bottom Line Accountability

Triplebotline [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]


For generations most companies have measured their success or failure by the amount of profits and losses they experience.  This is in part because financial gains and losses are easy to quanitfy, but also because legally a company owes a fiduciary duty of care to its stockholders, and must weigh stockholder impact when making corporate decisions.  That impact is generally measured in dollars and sometimes is taken to the extreme of “maximizing shareholder value” above all else.  Publicly held companies, companies that sell stock to the general public, are required to prepare annual reports that contain these gains and losses and file those reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  Most companies also issue a similar report for their stockholders and prospective investors. 

But business is changing, and more and more companies are seeking to measure their achievements in a manner that considers more than just how much money they make; they want to include their social and environmental impact as part of their success too.  In a business world where the common approach is to increase profit and maximize the benefit to your stockholders, and in some cases face stockholder lawsuits for NOT doing this, how can you find a way to include your social and environmental impacts as part of your bottom line reporting?

Enter the benefit corporation and Certified B-Corporations (often abbreviated to B-Corp).

Benefit Corporations and Certified B-Corps came into existence to help companies that want to take a triple bottom line approach to how they do business and how they report on their success.  Benefit Corporations and Certified B-Corps are often thought to be the same thing, but there are some important differences.

Benefit Corporation

A benefit corporation is a company that has legally incorporated as a benefit corporation in their state.  Currently 34 states allow for companies to file as benefit corporations; a few of these states allow for benefit LLCs as well.  If your state allows benefit corporations, you file to become one in the same way you file to become a traditional corporation.  But what exactly is the difference between a benefit corporation and a traditional corporation? 

When you file as a benefit corporation your legal obligations and duties are expanded to include the company’s impact on society and the environment.  It allows company decision makers to take actions that might create a greater benefit to society or lessen the company’s impact on the environment even if those actions reduce company profits or shareholder value.  Company decision makers are protected from potential shareholder claims when the company takes such actions.

Benefit corporations publish annual reports just as traditional corporations do, but they don’t just report on the financial bottom line, the company’s social and environmental impacts are reported as well. 

Certified B-Corp

You may have seen the Certified B-Corporation logo popping up on websites, product labels, and office front doors in the past few years.  The Certified B-Corporation came into existence to provide a way for those in states that do not currently have the option of incorporating as a benefit corporation to be able to “consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment” in addition to the financial impact.

The certification is issued by the non-profit B-Lab.  Companies who wish to become Certified B-Corporations must apply via the bcorporation.net website.  They undergo a review to assess the company’s impact on “its workers, customers, community, and environment.”  If the company scores high enough on its review, they must then agree to transparency by making the report available on the B-Corp website.  Finally, they must take the step of amending their bylaws, or other legal governing documents, to “require their board of directors to balance profit and purpose” when make decisions. 

The B-Corp website states that there are currently 2,500 Certified B-Corps around the world.  There are many companies that are both benefit corporations and Certified B-Corps.  Having the third-party B-Corp certification can demonstrate that a company is not just paying lip service to triple bottom line accounting, but is actually actively pursuing a more sustainable way of doing business.

Benefit corporations and B-Corp certification provide triple bottom line minded companies with a way of doing business that is in alignment with their purpose.  Putting society and the environment on par with profits creates new avenues for such organizations to measure their success.  The transparency required provides consumers and investors with the information they need to make decisions on which companies are in line with their personal values.  In the end, having more companies that take a triple bottom line approach to doing business benefits us all.

Costly Change to Mercury Emission Standards

Costly Change to Mercury Emission Standards

On December 28, 2018, the Trump administration announced that the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) that restrict mercury emissions were too costly and without enough benefits to make them necessary. Those in favor of the restrictions argue that the real cost comes from changing the standards.

Why is mercury an issue?

Mercury is a heavy metal that is released into the atmosphere from a variety of sources, with coal burning power plants being one fo the primary sources.  Once mercury is released into the air, rain and snow send it to the waterways, where it converts to the toxic methyl mercury. From there, it contaminates the water we drink and begins to work its way up the food chain beginning with smaller fish and accumulating at higher amounts in larger fish, such as salmon or tuna exposing humans to further risk.   

Difference in cost-benefit analysis

The debate about the restrictions e. centered around the cost-benefit analysis of MATS, and specifically around what should be considered a co-benefit.

The original analysis issued by the EPA  in 2011 factored in the co-benefits [JG1] of reducing particulate matter (PM) as well as the direct benefit from cutting back on hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions. In this analysis, the projected health savings were $59 billion to $140 billion annually. This more than offset the estimated $10.9 billion annual cost of regulating emissions.

Some of the health benefits identified include preventing:

  • 6,800-17,000 premature deaths
  • 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma
  • 850,000 days of people missing work
  • 5.1 million days of restricted activity

In 2018, though, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced a Supplemental Cost Finding proposing that including co-benefits related to PM is flawed, and the analysis should only consider quantifiable benefits from HAP reductions.

Using this revised approach, the health-related co-benefits would only be $4 to $6 million annually. Compared to the billions needed to enact the regulations, the new finding claims that it is not “appropriate or necessary” to regulate emissions, since it’s not cost-effective.

The proposal also indicates that while there are other benefits, they are unquantified and not enough to support the stricter standards.

Timing and intent

One of the surprises of the revised analysis is the timing. When MATS was passed, facilities had up to 5 years to meet the standards. This means that the majority have already paid to install the necessary technology to reduce emissions. Changing the standards now won’t give them that money back. On the other hand, many utilities are already recouping their investment through regulated pricing.

This has raised some questions about the intent of the supplemental analysis and who would benefit from the change.

Benefiting the coal industry

Power plants are the primary source of most pollutants, and within the power sector, coal-fired plants produce 99% of mercury emissions. They also generate the majority of other pollutants. As a result, they’re the most impacted by MATS.

Those coal plants would therefore stand to gain the most. It’s uncertain how helpful this would be, however, given that coal-fired power generation has fallen more than 40% since 2007.

Opening the door to health problems

Changing the cost-benefit approach could set a dangerous precedent. It could set a new standard the way health benefits are considered for all future standards and environmental rulings. Such a change is significant because of the potential damages.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brains and nervous systems of unborn babies and young children. As a result, consuming fish with high mercury levels can cause serious harm, especially for children, nursing mothers, and women who are pregnant or might become so. The EPA estimates that each year, more than 300,000 newborns may have a higher percent of learning disabilities due to mercury exposure.

Other health impacts can affect all ages and include damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, liver, and immune systems. This can lead to muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, lack of coordination, speech impairment, and impaired hearing and walking.

Mercury is widespread – including in Maine

What makes the health implications even more worrisome is that mercury is widespread, and it lingers for a long time. A study by the EPA in 2009 found that 48% of lakes and reservoirs nationwide had levels of mercury exceeding the guidelines (0.3 parts per million).

Maine is far from immune, since prevailing winds bring mercury emissions from coal-powered plants in the west. The state of Maine already warns people that due to pollutants, they should not have more than two servings of fresh-caught fish per month, depending on where fish are caught.

But restrictions on mercury emissions have been making a difference. According to research done by Nicholas Fischer of Stony Brook University in New York, mercury has been decreasing in the Gulf of Maine. This has also led to lower levels of mercury in tuna, declining at the rate of 2% per year.

Rolling back standards has potential for increased costs in several areas

Those gains would likely be lost, though, if the new proposal goes through. Also, while the coal industry might have a reduction in costs, other sectors – such as recreation, education, and employment – could see higher costs.

For example, the original cost-benefit analysis pointed to 5.1 million days of restricted activity due to emissions. Those impacted won’t be out skiing, hiking, hunting, or fishing, something that hurts states like Maine who have economies that are dependent upon eco-tourism.

The cost impacts on  education is another factor. Mercury negatively impacts the brainmdevelopment of young children who are exposed to it; children effected by mercury exposure will need extra care and support in educational settings. According to the National Education Association, a  student who needs this sort of assistance can cost $9,369 more to educate than a student who does not need assistance.

When  these students become adults, their opportunity for employment and earnings will likely be   reduced by those early health impacts.

Mercury levels also have implications for the fishing industry. Bluefin tuna are only now beginning to make a comeback after conservation efforts. They’ve recovered enough to allow some fishing in the Gulf of Maine, including an 801-pound catch in 2018. Ttheir economic impact is considerable. In 2013, a single bluefin sold for more than $1.75 million at a Japanese auction.

Unfortunately, these tuna are also likely to have elevated levels of mercury, especially if emissions increase. If the fish become more dangerous to consume, they’ll be less viable in the Maine economy.

Additionally, mercury has a negative health impact directly on fish. Elevated mercury levels can slow growth and development in wildlife and fish, and reduce their rate of reproduction. That doesn’t bode well for an economy that relies heavily on fishing and brought in $616.50 million in 2015.

Conclusion

Although the health benefits from reduced emissions are not easily quantifiable, they are still significant and shouldn’t be discounted. It also seems counter-productive to remove standards when the costs of implementing them have already been paid. The Trump administration would do better to leave the standards in place so the people of Maine, and the rest of the country, can enjoy the benefits.


 [JG1]Define co-benefit 8

Wind power is back!

Wind power is back!

Photo: US Department of Energy

This past week, newly elected governor Janet Mills ended former governor Paul LePage’s ban on wind farms in certain areas of the state

As an environmental economist, I am in favor of increased wind power in the state.  Renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and in certain circumstances, hydropower, will help with our  much needed transition away from fossil-fuel based energy..  Furthermore, wind power provides well-paying jobs in construction in primarily rural areas of the state, as well as property taxes, the potential for income for rural landowners, and other tangible benefits to host communities. 

However, concerns about large-scale wind farm development include potential negative impacts on nearby residents, tourism, and wildlife.  Questions include:

  • Do wind farms enhance or detract from tourism? Answer: it depends on the context.  Some studies have found that proposed wind farms affect potential demand for tourism, but those studies are hypothetical, not actual. A recent study in Scotland found that there was no correlation between existing windfarms and tourism-related employment.    Other case studies have shown that wind farms can actually be a boon to tourism, if local tourism agencies market them as a tourist attraction .   More work needs to be done on looking at the effect of actual, operating wind farms on tourism in different contexts.  In any case, the concern about conflicts between wind farms and tourism can be mitigated by proper planning and siting.
  • Do wind farms have a significant impact on migratory birds?  The answer here depends on what you consider significant, and again, it depends on the context.  Wind turbines located in migratory corridors have been linked to avian mortality, and those deaths are increasing as wind power generation itself increases.   Still, some studies suggest that wind-power related avian deaths are less than those associated with other forms of energy, and much less than those associated with the average housecat.  However, that does not mean we should brush those concerns away lightly. New technologies in turbine and blade design, as well as proper modeling and siting procedures – as well as simply shutting down generation during peak migration – should mitigate this concern.
  • Do wind farms increase or decrease property values or property taxes? Evidence shows that large-scale wind development in residential areas does have a negative impact on homes in direct proximity (much like any other energy-related infrastructure), and that this effect declines as distance to the wind farm increase.  However, properties in rural areas that are host to a turbine can see an increase, as the potential for income from the land is realized https://www.cfra.org/news/180719/are-property-values-affected-wind-farms.  There also is evidence that the added property tax revenue from a wind farm can reduce a town’s overall mil rate.  Again, these concerns can be mitigated by proper planning and siting.        

In other words, evidence abounds on both sides of the debate, and is context-specific. We do need to be cautious about where these facilities are located, from an environmental and aesthetic context. But in the words of Governor Mills: “It is time for Maine to send a positive signal to renewable energy investors and innovators.”

Note:  This blog post is based on a  “Maine Voices” column written by Dr. Bouvier and published in February of 2018 \lsdpri

France’s Yellow Vest Riots: Death Knell for a Carbon Tax?

France’s Yellow Vest Riots: Death Knell for a Carbon Tax?


By the time this blog post comes out, the “yellow vest” riots in France may be old news. But this fall, people took to the streets of France, seemingly angered by a proposed fuel tax. Opponents of carbon taxes were quick to declare victory: if France, a country with a fairly liberal (in the American sense of the word) populace, reacted with such anger to a proposed carbon tax, then clearly it is not a sound policy.

Not so fast. As any student of political science could tell you, context matters. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was fairly unpopular among certain groups before the tax was proposed. Part of this was class based: Macron is seen by some as the “president of the rich,” partially due to the repeal of a tax on the very wealthy, which only served to stoke already simmering class resentments. The proposed fuel tax would have hit low-income rural voters the hardest, a constituency that was already smarting under an oil tax that Macron had implemented earlier in the year. If Macron hadn’t already angered that constituency, would the riots have occurred? It’s hard to say. France, after all, is a party to the Paris accord, and Macron was elected in part based on his promise to do something about climate change.

Secondly, not all carbon taxes are created equal. The proposed policy in France took the shape of a fuel tax, one that would have increased the already high price that French consumers pay at the pump. A certain amount of an increase in fuel price is pretty much unavoidable. As greenhouse gases are formed by the combustion of fossil fuels, policies to reduce the use of those fuels is naturally going to impact, in one way or another, the users of those fuels. But the proper design of such a policy could help lessen their impact.

Carbon taxes can be placed at several different places in the “life” of a carbon atom. A tax on gasoline, which is what France proposed, is placed at the very end of the production and consumption process. It would affect low income and rural consumers more heavily, because those users consume disproportionately more gasoline. (Macron didn’t help his case by suggesting that rural folks carpool more often, displaying a serious misunderstanding of the lives of his rural constituents.)

Other forms of a carbon tax could be imposed (at least theoretically) during the extraction process: i.e., when the fossil fuel is extracted from the earth. In France, however, there is very little oil and natural gas production. Most of France’s energy comes from fossil fuel free nuclear power. While that means that France’s energy sector is much less carbon intensive than other countries’, it doesn’t leave them much wiggle room to reduce emissions elsewhere.

Thirdly, the way the revenue from the tax is “recycled” matters.  By recycling the revenue and returning it to households in some way, governments can reduce the regressivity of the carbon tax. Current proposals include reducing the payroll tax, reducing the capital gains tax, or simply returning it to households on a per person basis, much like the Alaskan Permanent Fund.  You can read more about revenue recycling in our earlier blog post.

The difficulty is that such schemes are complicated, and hard to explain to the general public. Add that complexity to Macron’s apparent communication problems, simmering class resentments, and increasing economic stress, and you have a problem. But don’t assume that all carbon taxes are politically infeasible. Like most other policies, they need to be designed – and communicated – effectively.

Image: Lionel Allorge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons