Author: rbouvier consulting

Changes to the Census: What it Means to Researchers and Policy Makers

Changes to the Census: What it Means to Researchers and Policy Makers

At rbouvier consulting, we understand how vital Census data is at all levels of society. Not only is decennial Census data used to appropriate seats in the US House of Representatives, state governments, and allocate billions of dollars in federal funding, it’s also vital data used in research across the country that supports both public and private decision making.  

Which is why we’re concerned about changes to the 2022 Census and what it might mean for researchers and policy makers alike.

Challenges of the 2020 Census  

The 2020 Decennial Census was set to face unprecedented challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In 2019, Kenneth Prewitt, a Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs and the Special Advisor to the President at Columbia University, spoke out about the 2020 Census and the issues it was expected to face. He addressed the major challenges the decennial census has faced throughout history and the nuanced challenges of the 2020 decennial census.

Since its inception, the census has consistently faced two major challenges: operational issues and partisan interference. Budget constraints and public distrust in the period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic added to those difficulties for the 2020 census. 

The US Census Bureau’s advertising budget for the 2000 and 2010 Censuses was dramatically boosted as a result of the concerningly high and rising non-response rates in the 1990 Census. Due to the success of the Bureau’s advertising activities and the country’s population growth, another budget rise for the 2020 Census was anticipated. Congress, however, decided against approving a budget increase for the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau did manage to offset at least part of its budget constraints by allowing able households to fill out the Census online. It also used administrative records to fill in gaps when respondents choose not to answer certain questions, helping to avoid costly in-person follow-ups to these respondents’ homes. The use of administrative records, however, posed another operational issue to the Bureau: public distrust and privacy concerns, which were more difficult to manage. 

Unsurprisingly, the outset of the pandemic brought about additional operational issues as concerns over health and safety halted all in-person operations. When in-person field operations did resume, the country was experiencing multiple hurricanes and deadly wildfires, and the Census Bureau struggled to find in-field staff due to public health concerns. Additionally, the country saw a mass number of people that were forced to relocate due to both the pandemic and multiple natural disasters, impacting the public’s ability to participate in the Census and the Bureau’s ability to reach certain households. There were a number of actions the Bureau took to mitigate these challenges, such as encouraging online responses and extending in-field operations by two months.2 

Partisan interference is a long-standing tradition of the Census, and the 2020 Census was no exception. Interference in the 2020 Census came in the form of a directive from the Trump Administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census form. The Administration claimed that the directive would assist the US Department of Justice in applying the Voting Rights Act. The directive went against the recommendation of the Census Bureau and sparked a fierce debate. The Bureau held that the question would both increase costs and result in a significant increase in non-response rates about immigrants and non-citizen households. It was expected that, if this question were to be added to the 2020 Census form, major cities with large immigrant populations could lose up to billions in federal funding. Many also feared the addition of a citizenship question would have significant implications for both disaster relief funding and disaster planning. Without an accurate count of the population, planners and emergency responders would struggle with both identifying vulnerable populations and effectively allocating resources. The Trump Administration did ultimately drop its efforts to add a citizenship question due to legal challenges, however, it is possible that the Administration’s efforts had lasting effects on the public’s view of the Census. The heated political debate both increased public concerns about the use of the Census as a government surveillance tool, as well as throwing the topic of the Census into a fiercely politically polarized debate. 

Quality of the 2020 Census 

In March of 2022, the Census Bureau released the results of its analyses of the quality of the 2020 Census. The Census conducts two analyses, a Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) and a Demographic Analysis (DA). Both of these analyses estimate the accuracy with which the Census has counted the nation’s population and population groups. The PES uses a sample survey to estimate the population size while the DA uses vital records and other types of data.  

Nationally, only 0.24% of the entire population was missed in 2020. Some states, however, experienced higher miscounts than others. The map below shows which states had undercounts and overcounts. Six states had undercounts, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. Arkansas and Tennessee had approximately 5% of their populations missed, about 1 in 20 residents, and undercounts in Florida and Texas cost the state’s congressional seats.3 States that were overcounted include Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Utah. Overcounts in Minnesota and Rhode Island have appeared to have gained the states congressional representatives. 

Diagram

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Certain demographic groups were also undercounted and overcounted. By race or Hispanic origin, the Census undercounted those who self-reported as Black, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, and “some other race” American Indians or Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted at the highest rate. Racial groups that were overcounted include those that reported as non-Hispanic white alone and Asian. When compared with the 2010 Census, groups that were undercounted or overcounted at statistically significant rates include non-Hispanic white alone, black, Asian, some other race, and Hispanic or Latino. 

Source: United States Census Bureau4

By age and sex, those 50 years and over were overcounted. Children aged 0 to 4, both males and females aged 18 to 29, and males 30 to 49 were undercounted. 

Source: United States Census Bureau5

Additionally, homeowners were overcounted in the 2020 Census by 0.42%, while renters were undercounted by 1.5%.

Many researchers, including us at rbouvier consulting, rely on Census data for accurate information regarding the sociodemographic characteristics of the region we study. While any undertaking as large as the Census is bound to have its issues (and the Census has attempted to rectify some of its prior errors), it is unsettling to see traditionally underrepresented groups continue to be underrepresented. This concern is compounded when we consider “differential privacy,” a practice by which the Census Bureau attempts to preserve the anonymity of residents from small geographic areas, a topic of one of our upcoming blog posts. The decennial Census is one of the best and most reliable sources of sociodemographic statistics we have. Nonetheless, it is worth “ground truthing” it with local results wherever possible.

References

1Prewitt, K. (2019). The 2020 Census: Unprecedented Challenges & Their Implications. American Academy of Arts & Sciences. https://www.amacad.org/news/2020-census-challenges-implications, retrieved on May 19, 2022.

2Jennifer Reichert & Dale Kelly. (2021, March 1). Adapting Field Operations to Meet Unprecedented Challenges. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2021/03/unprecedented-challenges.htmll

3Mike Schneider & Associated Press. (2022, May 19). In 2 states, 1 in 20 residents were missed during U.S. Census. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/in-2-states-1-in-20-residents-were-missed-during-u-s-census

4,5 United States Census Bureau. (2022, March 10). Census Bureau Releases Estimates of Undercount and Overcount in the 2020 Census [Government]. Census.Gov. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2022/2020-census-estimates-of-undercount-and-overcount.html#:~:text=The%20PES%20found%20that%20the,not%20statistically%20different%20from%20zero

Blog post by – Averi Varney

What You Need To Know About Maine’s Recycling Reform

What You Need To Know About Maine’s Recycling Reform

By Kayley Weeks

Maine lawmakers have passed the nation’s first extended producer responsibility law for packaging materials made out of materials such as plastic, cardboard and paper. The new law will require producers of products that are sold in Maine to pay a fee based on the type of packaging material they adopt for their products. While the law targets all types of packaging material, it is primarily meant to mitigate the impacts of plastic. 


Photo: Plastic waste on the ground” by Ivan Radic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Plastic is currently the most common material used for packaging. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year worldwide. Plastic was mass-produced for the first time after World War II.1 Companies preferred manufacturing plastics over traditional materials due to plastics’ overall versatility and affordable cost, resulting in the “Plastic Boom.” The rapid rate of plastic production did not leave significant planning time for the proper disposal of this material. In most municipal waste processing facilities, the majority of plastics are not recyclable. 

Before Maine passed the extended producer responsibility law, municipalities were financially responsible for processing any waste created by packaging materials. Municipalities generally send their recyclable waste to a processing facility. These facilities contract brokers to sell the material on the raw material market.2 It has been common practice for difficult to recycle waste to be sold and shipped to other countries that have their own waste disposal and processing laws. There is a common misconception that all recyclable waste is ethically disposed of, but hard-to-recycle waste often ends up in landfills in developing countries or unregulated dump sites resulting in harm to the people and environment. 

Extended producer responsibility creates an incentive for producers to use packaging that is more sustainable and less costly to recycle or dispose of. Without such an incentive, producers will continue to use what is of least cost to them, leaving disposal costs to fall on the shoulders of consumers and municipalities. 

In July 2017, China, the country that until then had been the primary buyer of the United States’ recycling material, banned the import of many types of foreign waste under Operation National Sword. Other bans followed. The impact of those bans reverberated throughout the world.  

Waste disposal costs increased sharply. In 2019, according to a report conducted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, managing waste from packaging materials cost Maine municipalities between $16 million and $17.5 million each year.That cost is then passed on to taxpayers.

Maine’s new law requires private companies to pay in advance to cover the cost of the disposal of accumulated packaging materials. The stewardship program achieves this by requiring producers to pay into a fund based on the amount and recyclability of their products. The collected funds will be used to reimburse municipalities for eligible recycling and waste management costs. 

Since Maine’s law was passed, Oregon and Colorado have recently implemented their own extended producer responsibility laws, meeting Canada and many European countries who have had similar programs for years. This new legislation could help to decrease property taxes throughout the state, because taxpayers will no longer be responsible for covering the cost of packaging waste disposal. But, do not expect to see an immediate change. Due to the complexity of the reform and the large number of impacted stakeholders, the law will not formally go into effect for another 18 months. Municipalities will most likely receive their first payments in 2027. 

This is an example of what economists call “internalizing the externality.” By incorporating the cost of proper disposal into their production costs, producers are incentivized to develop packaging that is less costly to properly dispose of, and consumers may be prompted to buy products that are less damaging to the environment. Incorporating the full economic costs – financial, environmental, and social – into the price of a product will lead to more responsible long term decisions. 

Plastic was first mass-produced post-World War II. Then it surged again in the 1960’s and 1970’s 1. Consumers preferred plastics over traditional materials due to plastics’ ability to be produced in many different shapes and sizes, overall versatility, affordable cost and sanitation. These characteristics led to the rise of plastic, otherwise known as the Plastic Boom. The rapid rate of plastic production did not leave significant time to properly plan the best approach for disposing of this material. Today, plastic is the most common material used for packaging.

In the past, municipalities were required to pay for their own recycling or try to sell it on in the waste market. China, historically, has sorted waste and  reimbursed municipalities for valuable items. Now, municipalities have to pay other countries to take their waste, and the majority of that waste ends up in landfills in developing worlds, or unregulated dump sites. Not properly disposing of plastic waste is harmful to the environment. This is an unpleasant awakening to Americans due to the conjured up reality that there is a serious exportation problem. 

What exactly is producer responsibility? Producer responsibility will require that the companies that make products sold in Maine,  pay a fee per ton of packaging material that they create based on how recyclable the packaging is. The idea is that material that is easy to recycle will cost less, while harder-to-recycle materials will require a larger fee. The fees will then be reimbursed to municipalities. 

Producer responsibility creates an incentive for producers to use packaging that is more sustainable and easy to dispose of. Without any incentive, producers commonly cut corners to save money by using cheaper materials to package their products. 

Since January 2018, this practice has taken a toll on municipalities because China began to refuse to take any foriegn waste. Cities and towns have to pay more for recycling since China’s ban because there is no place for hard to recycle materials to go. 

In June 2021, Maine passed a new law requiring private companies to shell out the cost to dispose of packaging waste. Maine is the first state in the nation to pass this sort of legislation, meeting other countries around the world who have had similar programs for years. This new legislation could help to decrease property taxes throughout the state. But, do not expect to see an immediate change.

The law was originally drafted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in 2019, and was finally passed last summer. Due to the complexity of the reform and the large number of impacted stakeholders, the law will not formally go into effect for another 18 months. Municipalities will not catch sight of their first payments until 2027. 

Blog Post by Kayley Weeks.

1 Rogers, Heather. “A Brief History of Plastic – The Brooklyn Rail.” The Brooklyn Rail, May 2005, https://brooklynrail.org/2005/05/express/a-brief-history-of-plastic. Accessed 24 June 2022.

2 US EPA. “Recycling Basics | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency, 21 December 2021, https://www.epa.gov/recycle/recycling-basics. Accessed 13 July 2022.

3 Natural Resources Council of Maine. “New Maine Law Will Shift Recycling Costs to Producers of Packaging Waste.” 13 July 2021, https://www.nrcm.org/sustainability/new-maine-law-shift-recycling-costs-to-producers-packaging-waste/. Accessed 8 July 2022.

Rising seas, rising problems: Using locally relevant data to prepare solutions.

Rising seas, rising problems: Using locally relevant data to prepare solutions.

What is a Nor’Easter?

In January of this year, coastal communities on the East Coast were hit with a Nor’easter that set record snow falls in Boston. The storm brought more than just snow, with severe winds, power outages, and flooding. Nor’easters are a type of storm caused by low pressure moving along the coast. Pressures from a storm moving along the coast cause strong winds to push water toward the shore. Some coastal areas in the state were completely underwater around high tide from the storm surge flooding. Waves toppled over seawalls, flooding streets. The island of Nantucket saw the worst of it. There were even reports of young men using a canoe to travel through the flood streets of Nantucket. Storm surge from the nor’easter also caused significant erosion to the beaches along the coast. Local papers in Boston have reported on stories of storm surge erosion cases on Cape Cod where houses fall into the sea. One house in Truro, MA lost twenty 20 feet of Earth underneath it. It was standing on pilons for months as surge after surge eroded the remaining due, as local planning officials tried to decided how to move the historic building. It was moved at the time of this writing.

The Issue 

While nor’easters are an event that New England has long been familiar with, climate change has already begun to exacerbate the severity and frequency of these storm events, along with their consequences. Storm events, extreme high tides, and rising seas intensify flooding and put vulnerable communities at risk. The number of coastal flood days in Massachusetts, shown in the graphic below, increased drastically in the last two decades.

Findings from 2016 from at Climate Central study covered by the New York Times, via https://riskfinder.climatecentral.org/state/massachusetts.us?.

Solutions & Our Contributions 

It is becoming increasingly clear how important it is for communities to prepare for a changing climate. As the implications of climate change come to a head, effects will be felt disproportionately across populations, communities, regions, and industries. It’s vital that we assess the areas in which we are vulnerable and are resilient. 

rbouvier consulting recently partnered with the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (SMPDC) to assist in their economic resilience planning project for coastal York County, where we were tasked with conducting a socio-economic impact assessment of sea-level rise and storm surge to six coastal communities in southern Maine. 

Geospatial experts from GEI Consultants were also partnered on the project. With capabilities of today’s geospatial technology, GEI Consultants were able to provide us with the physical vulnerabilities of the project area at different sea-level rise and storm surge scenarios. They combined data on businesses, roads, and other important infrastructure with floodplains to produce geospatial layers and other data products that show what of the infrastructure in the area will be impacted at 1.6 and 3.0 feet of sea-level rise.This information allowed us here at rbouvier consulting to determine what culturally and economically significant infrastructure is at risk of flooding or impaired access, such as economic service areas or beaches that draw tourists into Maine. 

Using business-level data on sales revenue and employees, along with data on local demographic and economic conditions, rbouvier consulting was able to assess how sea-level rise will affect output and employment in the area. We determined what industries in the area are most at risk based on the businesses that are within floodplains, and related the risks posed to those industries to the health of the local and regional economies. Conducting a socio-economic impact assessment of sea-level rise tailored to the local conditions of the communities in the project area allowed us to pinpoint areas of economic vulnerability and resilience, and subsequently determine a number of adaptation and mitigation strategies we feel best prepares these communities for a changing climate. 

If you’re interested in talking to rbouvier consulting about climate change solutions and the types of services we offer, please send us an email.

Blog Post by Averi Varney.

The things we value

The things we value

Graywalls, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As an environmental economics firm, we are often called upon to assign a dollar value to something that doesn’t normally have a price tag assigned to it. This is often a confusing, and sometimes contradictory, idea to many people.  In the United States we live in a culture that tends to equate something’s value in terms of how much it can be sold for. It’s easy enough to say that the value of a forest is in the number of board feet of lumber that would be produced out of it, but that wouldn’t give you the value of the forest’s beauty, or the watershed protection benefits, or the clean air it provides.

To assign a value to these things we might look at the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in a beautiful place; increased mental and physical health can result in decreases in medical costs. A forest’s watershed protection can be measured in the cost savings of reduced levels of water filtration needed for drinking water, and clean air benefits can be seen in reduced rates of lung disease and the associated costs of treating it. And those dollar values can be presented to city councils, congress, or whomever else you might need to convince that protecting forest land has value beyond just the timber in its trees.

While this may be great for trying to persuade your local city council that a patch of forest is worth protecting, it rapidly proves inadequate when looking at the personal, more human value.

How do you put a dollar value on being able to look back on the memory of walking through the woods with your children and being witness to their joyful explorations of the natural world? How do we quantify the opportunities for human connection provided by parks, forests, and other open, and thus safer, spaces during a pandemic? How do we quantify the loss when the spaces in which we created memories, found peace, or took refuge are gone?

A poet might say we measure these things by the space they take up in our hearts or the hole they leave behind when they are gone. But then we aren’t really known for valuing the words of the poets either.

What if we expand beyond forests? How do we put a value on the feeling that comes with having a safe, warm place to live?  Or not having to choose between one’s health and the expense of a medical bill? What is the value of the absence of hunger?

Many of us don’t ever think to put a value on those things because we’ve always been safely housed, had access to medical care, and have never experienced food scarcity. These things have no value to us until we find ourselves without them.

Is the value of a safe place to live measured in the number of nights you go to sleep without worrying where you might sleep tomorrow? Can access to medical care be measured in the years of memories you are able to make, and the stories you can pass on because you lived instead of dying too early?  Is the absence of hunger quantified by the thoughts you are able to think when your brain is not busy figuring out where the next meal comes from, or how to feed your children?

The pandemic has made many of us realize the value of the things we couldn’t put a price on until they were made absent in our lives. Gathering with friends and family, being able to spontaneously hug another person, the enjoyment of previously innocuous activities like sharing a meal together, and a general feeling of being safe in the world. And for a whole lot of people, it was the first time that they experienced the thought that there might not be a tomorrow.  They were only able to assess and quantify things like human connections and what it means to feel safe by their sudden absence.

There is one more step in assigning a value to something, and that is using that value to communicate the need for action. Just as we might use the value of watershed protection to communicate the need for the protection of forests, we can use our new understanding of the value of safety, connection, and hope to advocate for others.  We can remind ourselves that while this feeling was new to us, there are many people who live entire lifetimes where the possibility of tomorrow is not a given.

The value of human experience isn’t measured in a dollar amount but in what we choose to do with it. Let’s make 2022 the year we take what we have learned and use it to make sure that tomorrow is something we all have the opportunity to look forward to.

Point-Nonpoint Nutrient Trading in the Long Island Sound Watershed

Point-Nonpoint Nutrient Trading in the Long Island Sound Watershed

Photo credit: Long Island Sound Study

rbouvier consulting is proud to announce the publication of Feasibility of Point-Nonpoint Nutrient Trading in the Long Island Sound Watershed, the culmination of a year’s long project with NEIWPCC (formerly known as the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Council). The report summarizes the potential for nutrient trading to meet the goals of the Long Island Sound Study.

Our work, together with the work of folks from NEIWPCC and Footprints in the Water LLC determined that “expanded water quality trading is unlikely to be an effective tool to meet water quality goals under current ecological, economic, and regulatory conditions in the Long Island Sound watershed.”

To read more about the project, including our report, here.

Towns prepare for sea level rise

Towns prepare for sea level rise

photo SMPDC

In 2019 rbouvier consulting worked with the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (SMPDC) to assess the economic and social impacts of sea level rise on three towns in Southern Maine – Kennebunk, Wells, and York.

This work was integrated into Tides, Taxes, and New Tactics, a report published by SMPDC in July of 2020 that provided an assessment of the impacts of sea level rise on people, property, and businesses for each town.  

It was great to see this work referenced in this article from the Portland Press Herald about similar work being done by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Infrastructure: It’s more than roads and bridges

Infrastructure: It’s more than roads and bridges

John Buie, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Infrastructure seems to be the word of the hour. With Democrats and Republicans having spent a good portion of the year wrangling over the size and scope of the infrastructure plan, it seems that everyone is talking about it. But we at rbouvier consulting have a slightly different perspective on what the term “infrastructure” includes.

Most people think about infrastructure from a physical or manufactured perspective: roads, bridges, transportation systems, and the like. From an economist’s standpoint, infrastructure also includes the necessities of a well-functioning market: clearly defined private property rights, a robust and transparent legal system, a structure to support the flow of information, and even trust among market participants. 

Environmental and natural resource economists expand the definition of infrastructure to include natural capital: assets provided by nature that support and provide ecosystem services: carbon sequestration, soil stabilization, natural flood control, water filtration, and the like. Just like manufactured infrastructure, natural infrastructure provides the underpinnings of a well-functioning economy. Even more so than manufactured infrastructure, natural infrastructure is almost invisible, only coming to our attention when it fails. 

Part of this is because of the “public good” nature of infrastructure. Much infrastructure (though not all) is characterized by two qualities: non-excludability and non-rivalness. Non-excludability means that once the good is provided, it is very difficult to “exclude” others from partaking of that good. Non-rivalness means that once the good is provided, one more user can enjoy the good without affecting others’ use of the good. The difficulty here is that private companies have no incentive to provide goods with such characteristics. You cannot use the price to exclude people from participating in the good, and one more user does not affect others’ use of the good, both of which destroy the profit motive. That is why many public goods are provided by the government – think national defense, or the national highway system. (The highway system can be thought of as a congestible good: non-rival up to a certain point. Most goods run on a spectrum from pure private goods to pure public goods.)

Natural infrastructure faces a double whammy: not only is most natural infrastructure characterized by non-rivalness and non-exclusivity, it is also seen as freely provided by nature. In our market-based society, things that are seen as freely available are also likely undervalued. In turn, things that are undervalued are not well managed. Just like physical infrastructure, natural infrastructure can be degraded or even destroyed. But by taking account of the services provided by natural infrastructure, we can make better decisions that will improve the functioning of our economy, and save us a little money at the same time. 

Infrastructure can be roughly divided into two types: green infrastructure and gray infrastructure. Green infrastructure is what I have been referring to as natural infrastructure, while gray infrastructure is manufactured infrastructure. In many cases, natural infrastructure can provide the same service as gray infrastructure, while providing other environmental benefits and avoiding environmental costs.

Think about flood control. Part of the reason why recent hurricanes have become more economically costly in the past few decades is because the natural wetlands – the marshy interface between the ocean and the land – had been destroyed or degraded. Recently, there has been a lot of interest in restoring wetlands to protect property from storm surges that come from hurricanes or other storms. Not only would restoring those wetlands provide flood control services, but they also could provide other ecosystem services in the form of habitat for aquatic creatures and other sea life.    

Or, take stormwater filtration. One of the recent projects that we are working on here at rbouvier consulting is about nutrient pollution: excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farms and urban runoff. Excess nutrients in water bodies can cause hypoxia, or “dead zones,” where algae growth from too many nutrients can lead to depleted oxygen levels in water.  Some states are allowing municipalities to receive “credits” for nutrient pollution reduction by restoring formerly degraded wetlands, which allows those wetlands to trap and filter out pollutants before they reach the river, ocean, or bay. 

Finally, some drinking water utilities are purchasing forested land in their watershed. By investing in this natural capital, water utilities may be able save on expensive filtration processes through the forests’ natural filtration services.      

Green infrastructure is not always a substitute for gray infrastructure; in many cases, it can be a complement to it. Regardless, the infrastructure bill that emerges from Congress should pay attention to both kinds of infrastructure: green and gray.

Quarterly Journal Review

Quarterly Journal Review

It’s been a while since I’ve shared quarterly journal reviews! In this post I review interesting journal articles from the first three quarters of 2021.

  1. Banerjee, P., Pal, R., Wossink, A., & Asher, J. (2021). Heterogeneity in Farmers’ Social Preferences and the Design of Green Payment Schemes. Environmental and Resource Economics, 78(2), 201–226. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10640-020-00529-7

The first article to catch my attention was Banerjee et al. on the design of green payment schemes.  The article discusses “green payment schemes,” or payment programs designed to give an incentive for farmers to produce “public goods” – to provide more conservation areas, for example, or to practice no-till farming methods to reduce soil erosion. However, the authors point out that typical green payment schemes ignore differences among farmers, and assume that all farmers are solely motivated by profit. Banjeree et al develop a model that takes into account farmers’ different motivations, and the existence of a social norm for environmental preservation. They conclude that coupling a monetary payment with a “social award” would entice more farmers to take advantage of green payment schemes. 

  1. Corona, J., Doley, T., Griffiths, C., Massey, M., Moore, C., Muela, S., Rashleigh, B., Wheeler, W., Whitlock, S. D., & Hewitt, J. (2020). An Integrated Assessment Model for Valuing Water Quality Changes in the United States. Land Economics, 96(4), 478–492. https://doi.org/10.3368/wple.96.4.478

I was also fascinated by an article written by several economists (plus a biologist and an engineer) at the US Environmental Protection Agency. It discusses an integrated assessment model (IAM) to measure the effects of policies designed to improve water quality. (IAMs have been used most popularly to look at the effects of climate change mitigation policy on economic outcomes.) For an economist like me, this model could potentially fill a huge hole. We may know the pathway from an environmental policy to water quality, and we may know some information about the connection between improved water quality to social and economic benefits, but an IAM links the two, making cost-benefit analyses easier to perform and understand. As the authors explain, the modeling platform is designed to quantify the economic benefits of water quality improvements to the nation’s freshwater rivers and streams” (page 479). After describing the model, they apply it to a case study in the mid-western United States. Although the model is still being developed, they hope to make an open source version of it available in the near future. 

  1. Dunning, K. H. (2020). Building resilience to natural hazards through coastal governance: a case study of Hurricane Harvey recovery in Gulf of Mexico communities. Ecological Economics, 12.

Another article that speaks directly to one of the projects that we are working on now is this article, which asks, “how [do] institutions for coastal governance respond to hazards, and how do those responses relate to resilience of human and natural systems?” Essentially, the author’s key takeaway is that higher levels of government take longer than is necessary to respond to disasters. Because of this, she recommends the formation of “sub-national” collaborations, including charity and non-profit groups. While coordination among such groups can be challenging, planning and assigning roles before a disaster strikes can save crucial time, money, and resources.   

  1. Da Rocha, J. M., García-Cutrín, J., Gutiérrez, M.-J., Prellezo, R., & Sanchez, E. (2021). Dynamic Integrated Model for Assessing Fisheries: Discard Bans as an Implicit Value-Added Tax. Environmental and Resource Economics, 80(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10640-021-00576-8

Switching gears a little to another area that I am interested in and that is relevant to my adopted home state of Maine is this article on banning “discards” in commercial fishing. The “bycatch” issue in commercial fishing has always been a problem: as fishermen are focused on catching high value fish, any fish they catch “incidentally” may be discarded as bycatch. Most of the time, that bycatch does not survive. Several countries have implemented discard bans in various forms. This article examines discard bans using an integrated assessment model (see above). They find that discard bans not only improve the sustainability of a fishery, but can also increase economic welfare in the long run. 

  1. Carlsson, F., Gravert, C., Johansson-Stenma, O., and Kurz, V. 2021. “The Use of Green Nudges as an Environmental Policy Instrument,” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 15:(2). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/715524

If you follow behavioral economics at all, you’ll recognize the term “nudge.” A “nudge” in terms of economics is defined as “a change in the [decision-making] environment that influences people’s behavior without prohibiting any choices or significantly changing the economic incentives”.* Economics is all about incentives – subsidizing behavior we feel is important or beneficial to society, while taxing those behaviors we feel are harmful to society. A nudge is a bit different – the idea here is that policy makers can change people’s decisions by simply changing the environment within which they make those decisions. Probably the most famous example is that of contributions to retirement accounts, whereby businesses discovered that people contributed more to their retirement accounts if they had to “opt out” (i.e., actively choose not to participate) than when they had to “opt in” (i.e., actively choose to participate. According to standard economic theory, that context should not matter to an individual’s decision-making process. But evidently it does. 

The authors divide green nudges into pure green nudges, and moral green nudges. A pure green nudge simply makes it easier for an individual to choose a more environmentally-friendly option (for example, making the “green energy choice” the default rather than an alternative, or, making the environmentally friendly options more prominent on a menu or in a grocery store). A moral nudge rewards individuals for “doing the right thing” by intentionally triggering a psychological response such as pride or shame. Examples of moral nudges might be moral suasion, social comparisons, or goal setting and commitment. 

Research that compares the effectiveness of green nudges versus more conventional economic policy instruments is still in its early stages, but it is a fascinating area of study. 

* Thaler, R., and C. Sunstein. 2009. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New York: Penguin.

  1. Gawith, D., Hodge, I., Morgan, F., & Daigneault, A. (2020). Climate change costs more than we think because people adapt less than we assume. Ecological Economics, 173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106636

Finally, I was also intrigued by this article, as rbouvier consulting is currently working on a project estimating the economic costs of sea level rise in a county in southern Maine. This article discusses how the current estimates of the cost of climate change may actually be too low, because those costs assume that people will adapt to climate change (for example, planting different crops, changing occupations, or moving locations) if they can. However, literature in behavioral economics (see article above) points out that individuals are much less pliable in their behaviors than traditional economists would like to believe. The model and empirical is rather technical and probably inaccessible to those not familiar with sophisticated environmental and economic modeling. The basic idea though, is simple: because of barriers to behavioral change, individuals may not adapt to climate change as much as economic models assume, and therefore climate change may be even more damaging to the economy than previously thought.     

~ Rachel Bouvier

Tides, Taxes and New Tactics Report

Tides, Taxes and New Tactics Report

The Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission (SMPDC) has released their final report  Tides Taxes and New Tactics: Adaptation Planning for the Impacts of Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge . rbouvier consulting worked with SMPDC and GEI Consultants to review the impacts of sea level rise on the three Southern Maine towns of Kennebunk, York, and Wells. Rbouvier consulting assessed the economic and social impacts for each town and the people who reside there.

The results were presented to each town in a series of three virtual workshops.  After the presentation attendees were then able to make suggestions on ways to mitigate some of the impacts, and how they’d like to see those efforts prioritized. 

Assessments such as this provide towns and residents with the information they need to be better able to plan for, and potentially mitigate, the impacts of sea level rise. 

2020 sucked…but there’s good news

2020 sucked…but there’s good news

A week ago, I sat down to write an end of year blog post. My colleague Joie had assigned me the task, “2020 sucked but here’s some good news.” It felt overwhelming and impossible. What good news could I possibly write about, during a raging pandemic, ongoing environmental gloom, protests against injustice all over the country, gridlock in Washington… You see my dilemma. My first thought was to give up, and email Joie to say that I just couldn’t do it.

But I hate letting Joie down. So I did what anybody would do in this situation, and googled it: “positive environmental news 2020.” Turns out that there are several sites out there that are devoted to posting positive environmental news stories – not in a Pollyanna-ish, stick-your-head-in-the sand kind of way, but more as a counter to the persistent doom-scrolling many of us have been engaging in lately.

I read about the founder of one of these sites, Grant B. from Happy Eco News . He writes, “I found that when I really started looking, I could see in between all the doomsday articles and posts, were a few that were actually very positive. And so I started saving them with the intention of sharing with friends to let them know that there is some good news.” One thing lead to another, he says, and now he posts on average five times a day, and rounds up the week’s news with the weekly Top 5. Clicking on random posts within the website, I realized that there is a lot of good news out there, but our minds get hijacked by the constant doom-mongering. Outrage gets more clicks than hope. News networks and social media algorithms know that, and they take advantage of it.

So here are a few positive developments from the past year that focus on the intersection between economics and the environment:

1. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to return to the Paris climate accord, and has appointed John Kerry as “climate envoy” and Gina Mccarthy as climate czar (Kerry’s focus will be international, while Mccarthy’s focus will be domestic) Biden’s Twin Climate Chiefs, McCarthy and Kerry, Face a Monumental Task). While we try not to be too overtly political in this blog, the fact that the climate will be elevated to such a high level in the incoming administration gives me a little hope. Not too much- I’m not going to go crazy or anything – but some. Plus, as I’m always reminding my students, real climate action takes place at the state and local level, and there’s a lot going on in Maine (where we’re located) right now.

2. Renewable energy is gaining ground. Coal is finally on the decline. Britain is ending subsidies for fossil fuel industry. While I am mindful of the difficult transition those who work in the fossil fuel industry are facing, ultimately this is good news both for the climate and for air quality.

3. Past and current injustices are being uncovered. The shooting of Breanna Taylor in March and the horrific murder of George Floyd in May served as (yet another) wakeup call to the reality of structural racism in this country. While there’s a real temptation to think that things are getting worse, perhaps they are finally being uncovered, to paraphrase adrienne maree brown. We cannot create a more sustainable future without acknowledging and reckoning with our past. 

4. The Great American Outdoors Act. Not only is the Great American Outdoors Act one  of the biggest pieces of federal environmental legislation since the Clean Air Act, it is also one of the few examples of successful bipartisanship that we can point to. The legislation provides badly needed funding to restore crumbling infrastructure in our national park system, and guarantees a steady stream of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

 5. Technology. Advances in lithium batteries could soon make the “million-mile” battery within reach. Advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology, as well, could help us in our quest to decouple the economy from fossil fuel use

6. Socially responsible investing hits the big time. 2020 actually began with a letter from Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, to his investors. In that letter, he called for a fundamental reshaping of finance, recognizing that climate risk is financial risk. BlackRock is now, in their own words, putting sustainability at the center of their investing. It remains to be seen whether this gesture marks a seachange. But when the world’s largest investment firm makes a commitment to sustainability, others will sit up and take notice.

So, yes. 2020 was a dumpster fire of a year, no question. And yet, there is some positive news on the environmental / economic front. We just need to remind ourselves to look.