Category: Climate change

How does a permaculture designer talk shop with an environmental economist? 

I am a permaculture designer and now I work for an environmental economist. Both ways of thinking are part of the larger conversation about sustainability so they have a lot in common but I sometimes wonder how permaculture and economics can talk. What they have in common:

  • Systems thinking
  • Working intensely with data and maths
  • Understanding complicated relationships
  • Observing social and environmental change
  • Help people make decisions 

There is contrast too. From my point of view, permaculture design is inherently economical but also social. First let me explain that people tend to think permaculture is some kind of landscape design or gardening method. Landscape design and gardening are just aspects of applied permaculture that people will pay for. Really, it is about energy and the flow of it through an intricate web of relationships. Often dubbed “ecological design” the process of permaculture design invites people to co-create changes in their habitation (think development) with regenerative principles. It has an ethical framework too that allows it to scale up and down.(1) The reason that I think it is so innately economical is that it uses economies of space, time, proximity and scale. In the process, people can also re-identify with place and radically change how they think about the environment and their role in it (i.e. personal agency). I like to think it is a massive multimedia offline role playing game, but I digress.

Both permaculture and environmental economics are a means to help people solve problems and make decisions. If we look at them both with the Cynefin framework,(2) one could say that permaculture lives in the domain of complex adaptive problems; It deals with emergence and living systems. Cause and effect are not discernible at all because the problems are whole cultures expressing themselves. The design process can illuminate patterns, if there is diversity, and people can play and experiment to learn where the leverage points for change are. 

Sticking with the Cynefin frame, environmental economics seems to inhabit the domain of complicated problems; It deals with data in an ordered world. It takes mathematical expertise to tease apart causes and effects, but there are correlations to illuminate. Economists can decipher costs, benefits and value. Policy makers like to pay economics to do summative analysis, so that they can respond to it to solve a problem. My sense is that this creates more distance between living systems and people in real time. 

With permaculture, there is real-time action to meet my sense of urgency. I can at the scale that matches my influence, I can innovate and get feedback right away. Actively healing disturbances in the ecological web of life is out of scope in economics and potentially politically sensitive.(3) That’s okay; there are many niches to fill in the rapid restoration of the planet and economy.

It is said that eco-, the prefix of both economics and ecology (and ecumenical), comes from the root word “oikos”.(4)  While “oikos” is a rich wormhole to explore, “home or household” is a fair starting understanding. Designing for energy efficiency at the scale of home with permaculture requires zone and sector planning, which is another whole conversation, but zones and sectors in permaculture is about planning and development generally. Permaculture has emerged conceptually rooted in the norms of the colonized world where land ownership and stewardship shape policy to the exclusion of more indigenous ways of habitation.(5) In this regard, designs are often centered around human habitat, (which carries in a degree of separation and supremacy). Whereas an indigenous design would participate in what nature is already providing and doing. They might work with emergence to expand the habitat of an existing food source for instance, instead of clearing a forest habitat to their own preferred agricultural production.(6) 

Human habitation and our habituation on the planet is at a critical turning point,(7) where participation in the flow of energy defines our capacity to succeed as inhabitants into the future. I am still learning about the field of environmental economics but it seems to me that it is using economic analysis to observe the impact of climate, pollution and land use changes on real estate, housing, industry and jobs, development and revitalization efforts. Since it can assess the value of policies or projects, in a given place with a triple-bottom-line view, at least when there is data available. 

Economists carry a certain authority that can bring in the dominant culture while permaculture seems countercultural at times. The economist’s expertise has an authority to it; a cachet. So does their client; the org funding their work. That kind of social capital can reinforce systems of patriarchy if not checked. The risk is that patriarchy is sort of how we got into the permacrisis that we are in (ecological, social and economic crisis]. If this seems harsh, consider how taboo it is to talk about the limits of economic growth, still. It is easier to talk about limiting population than to correct hockey-stick wealth distribution.

One thing you need to know about my view of permaculture is that it is cybernetic, not academic knowledge. Meaning that knowing what to do, to live indefinitely or just survive the winter, is a system of communication that is biologically codified and automatically steers our behavior. However, the dominant culture perpetuates a separateness that gets in the way of our innate capacities in this regard, (and our relationships with ancestors of place and heritage that can help us, and indeed do help us survive).  

Where we, the living human organisms, embody connection with natural systems, we participate in the ongoing self-organization of the whole. At various scales (self, family, friends, community and Earth) we live by cooperation and reciprocity.(8) My point is that it is not expertise that got us here, or the means of production. Social and biological interaction and exchanges weave an integral web of relationships that sustain the wellbeing of the home, a community, a place. In permaculture you just need to make use of the energy that comes into the system and be mindful of what is put out as waste. 

In conclusion, permaculture is a design process where people make decisions to co-create abundance and organize around sharing the surplus, and participating in the circular economy as time, money and energy allow. Environmental economics is an assessment process that helps people look at complicated systems for the patterns to inform decisions. Both can shift people’s mindset about the future and that is valuable in face of looming climate and energy disruption.

by Rachel Lyn Rumson


  1.  The three ethics of permaculture are care of the earth, care of people and future care. For more on the theory of permaculture see my post on Medium. https://medium.com/@rachellynrumson/regenerative-foundations-ethics-principles-of-permaculture-f9ecb808e32
  2. Cynefin (kuh-nev-in) is a Welsh word meaning haunt, habitat acquainted or familiar. David Snowden articulated the Cynefin Framework as a theory of anthro-complexity. It is meant to help people make decisions.
  3. This is beating around the bush a little. Permaculture openly acknowledges peak oil and descent from it as another impactful change that is occurring in real time. That subject is taboo in neoclassical economics as it suggests a limit to growth, so much so that the energetic foundation of capitalist economics is buried in jargon and privilege. 
  4. Oikos refers to three related but distinct concepts: the family, the family’s property, and the house. Distilled from all three could be the notion of a home in common. The term is connected deely to both agrarian and slavery economics, as the smallest unit of taxation in Greek urban centers. (Think “head of household” on your current tax forms.) It also means family; connected to generational lines which we all carry epigenetically into this moment from the past and the future simultaneously. The word is also used today to refer to a social group, or home culture, suggesting that relationships are leverage points as well.
  5. More should be said about the historical impact of colonization on first peoples including the horrors of genocide, ethnic cleansing, enslavement that transpired. The origins of permaculture are cis white men Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, sitting in a British colony on aboriginal land, making protracted observations in nature without land acknowledgment and borrowing experiential wisdom from Japanese farmer Fukoka Manitoba, Author of One Straw Revolution, without attribution.  More still should be said about the ongoing culture of colonization that continues in ever new forms today and contributes to the current ecocidal path we are on.
  6. In her recent TED Talk, “3000-year-old solutions to modern problems” Lyla June discusses several ways that the Dene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH5zJxQETl4)
  7. oanna Macy first coined the term the Great Turning in the Work that Reconnects. She is a personal inspiration and a wellspring of how to engage in change work for the planet. (https://www.ecoliteracy.org/article/great-turning)
  8.  In the book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (2010), the author Jeremy Rifkin argues that Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest was more nuanced than paternalistic history has accounted for. He observes, “Darwin came to believe that survival of the fittest is as much about cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity as it is about individual competition and that the most fit are just as likely to enter in cooperative bonds with their fellows.” 
Fourth quarter 2021 and first quarter 2022 journal roundup!

Fourth quarter 2021 and first quarter 2022 journal roundup!

This quarter, I focus on three recently published articles that highlight the value of environmental goods and services: regulations to combat the emerald ash borer, the value of agricultural land, and the value of wetland restoration. 

Hope, Emily; McKenney, Daniel; Pedlar, John; Lawrence, Kevin; MacDonald, Heather. 2021. “Canadian efforts to slow the spread of Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire) are economically efficient.” Ecological Economics, vol. 188. 

Emerald ash borer” by NatureServe is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0, via Openverse.

The emerald ash borer is an invasive insect that kills most species of ash tree. Managing the spread of the pest can be very expensive, with inconsistent results. The United States Department of Agriculture has actually removed federal regulations designed to slow the spread of the emerald ash borer, citing the high costs and the uncertain benefits. Canadian agencies have likewise been attempting to determine whether the benefits of regulation exceed the cost. The authors developed a model simulating the spread of the emerald ash borer under various conditions, and then modeled the likely effect of different regulations on that spread. Finally, they determined the economic impact of the emerald ash borer by calculating the cost of removing trees in urban areas and replacing 50% of them. (They did not model the cost of insecticide application due to the complexity of modeling such application at a national level.) For rural areas, the authors calculated the cost of the emerald ash borer by using the stumpage value of the trees. 

Regulations designed to slow the spread of the emerald ash borer include limitations on transporting products containing wood from ash trees, treatments for products that are transported, and periodic audits. As the “true” efficacy of the regulations is unknown, the authors modeled the regulations at varying levels of efficacy. Finally, they then determined the net present value of the regulations. Results demonstrate that, even if regulations are only 25% effective at slowing the spread of the emerald ash borer, benefits outweigh the costs. This is the case even though the authors did not include the economic value of a healthy forest. If that were included, the benefits of those regulations would likely be much larger.

Agricultural landscape certification as a market-driven tool to reward the provisioning of cultural ecosystem services

Borrello, M.; Cecchini, L.; Vecchio, R.; Caracciolo, F.; Cembalo, L.; Torquati, B. 2022. Ecological Economics vol 193. 

File:Bessac 16 Polyculture 2013.jpg” by JLPC is marked with CC BY-SA 3.0.

One of the primary difficulties that agricultural landowners face is the high cost of keeping their land in agriculture, relative to other land uses. And yet, agricultural land provides benefits to society beyond just the value of the food produced on that land. It is a classic example of an environmental externality. This article examines the potential of issuing a “traditional agricultural landscape certification” for the preservation of olive groves in Italy. They found that such a certification commanded a price premium in the market, indicating that the cost to farmers of keeping their land in agriculture could be partially rewarded through the market. 

Richardson, M.; Liu, P.; Eggleton, M. 2022. “Valuation of Wetland Restoration: Evidence from the Housing Market in Arkansas,” Environmental and Resource Economics 81:649–683.

Planting live stakes in standing water” by WSDOT is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Continuing with the theme of valuing environmental goods and services, this article examined the value of wetland restoration (through the Wetland Reserve Program) by looking at the housing market in Arkansas. This article adds to the literature on the economic value of wetlands by looking at temporal variations in the housing market relative to the starting and ending date of wetland restoration projects. Therefore, rather than looking at the value of an already existing wetland, this article examines how improvements in wetland quality could impact surrounding property values. Their research finds a substantial increase in property values – an average of 6 to 10%!  They also find that the wetland size and type were likely to influence the magnitude of the effect, with forested wetlands having a larger positive impact on housing values than pond, lake, or emergent wetlands. Interestingly, open water wetlands had a much smaller effect than non-open water wetlands. The reasons why are unclear.

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.

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. 

Defining Safety Levels for Particulates Could Hurt Your Health – and the Economy

Defining Safety Levels for Particulates Could Hurt Your Health – and the Economy

You’ve probably heard about some of the recent changes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But you might have missed the proposal about particulate matter (PM), since it didn’t get as much press. Or even if you saw it, you might not have recognized all the implications because they’re not immediately obvious.

This proposal is to define a safety threshold for what’s called PM 2.5, and it’s a reversal of the EPA’s prior stance. Until recently, the EPA said that no amount of particulate matter can be considered safe. Changing that could have serious impacts on our health – and the economy.

What is PM 2.5, and where does it come from?

Even if you’ve never heard of particulates, you’re likely familiar with them. These are the fine particles of liquids and solids that contribute to haze-filled cities and poor air quality. In fact, another name for PM is particle pollution.[1] This is because the tiny size allows these particles to get everywhere – including deep in your lungs.

PM 2.5 is a specific kind, named because the particles are only 2.5 micrometers in size. For comparison, an average human hair is 75 micrometers in width.[2]

These tiny materials are everywhere, coming from a number of places, including cigarettes and fireplace smoke. But the vast majority come from two sources:

–          50% is from industrial production, with 20% of that from coal-powered plants

–          35% is from gas-powered vehicles of all kinds[3]

Costs and benefits with current policy 

Under the current policy, with no level of particulate matter considered “safe,” any reduction of PM 2.5 below current levels is considered a benefit, and can be included in federal cost-benefit analyses.

In other words, if regulations to reduce greenhouse gases simultaneously reduce PM 2.5 (as they would, given that they share many of the same sources), that reduction counts as a co-benefit. And those co-benefits can play a significant role in the cost-benefit analysis of any proposed regulation to reduce greenhouse gases.

For example, the Clean Power Plan from the Obama era had an estimated $20 billion in climate benefits. But the benefits go up when you consider that the same technology used to reduce power plant emissions would also cut PM levels. Those changes result in an additional $13 to $30.3 billion in health benefits, effectively doubling the benefits.

Similarly, the Mercury and Air Toxics standards save $4 to $6 million by reducing toxins. And in this case, the co-benefit from reducing particulates is even higher, coming in between $37 and $90 billion.[4]

Proposed change reduces benefits

Now, under the proposed changes, lowering PM levels below the suggested “safety levels” won’t count as a benefit. After all, if anything below the threshold is already considered safe, bringing it down even further won’t be helpful.

This means that moving forward, climate change initiatives like the Clean Power Plan wouldn’t be able to factor in the lower levels of PM 2.5. And without that, the initiative might not get implemented, because the cost would be considered too high without the co-benefit to offset it.[5]

Damages from air pollution

 The impact on regulations is a concern, but those aren’t the only considerations. Air pollution already causes damages between $75 and $230 billion annually. And PM 2.5 contributes more to that than their size indicates.

Even though these particulates only account for 6% of emissions by weight, they cause 23% of the damages. The damages from PM 2.5 alone are between $17.25 and $52.9 billion annually. [6]

Health and economic impact

Most of the economic damage caused by PM 2.5 is due to increased health costs.[7] Health issues associated with PM 2.5 include:

–          Respiratory illnesses like bronchitis

–          Premature death

–          Low birth weight

–          Higher risk of asthma

–          Greater risk of heart disease

–          More instances of lung cancer

These conditions all carry increased economic cost. Some of this is a result of increased medical care, such as hospital visits and medication. [8]

But the costs also come from lost work time and reduced productivity. People who need to take time off for appointments and medical care won’t be as effective. Similarly, those who can’t breathe as well have less energy and will be less productive, even if they don’t require urgent care.

In addition, since particulates contribute to poor air quality, people might be more likely to stay inside. This means lost revenue from outdoor recreation and the potential of reduced health from lower levels of activity.

Poor air quality actually could have a negative impact on region’s workforce. Putting a priority on quality of life is becoming more common – including looking at factors like air quality. If an area has a distinct haze, or higher levels of respiratory conditions, people may choose to leave, or to not move there to begin with.[9]

Conclusion

While it’s impossible to identify all the effects of the EPA’s proposed safety threshold, it’s clear that the negative impacts could be far-reaching. Given that, the EPA and other agencies should take all of the risks into account before accepting a change that could cause such extensive damages to our environment, our health, and our economy.

Photo Credit:   Eltiempo10 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

[1] https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.particle

[2] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/kill-climate-rule-trump-s-epa-wants-redefine-danger-soot

[3] http://www.rff.org/blog/2007/what-do-damages-caused-us-air-pollution-cost

[4] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/kill-climate-rule-trump-s-epa-wants-redefine-danger-soot

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.rff.org/blog/2007/what-do-damages-caused-us-air-pollution-cost

[7] Ibid

[8] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/jobs/2011/05/06/we-are-what-we-breathe-the-impacts-of-air-pollution-on-employment-and-productivity/

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/05/29/how-the-air-quality-where-you-live-might-be-affecting-your-health/#2881f8b37017

Is the proposed hybrid/electric vehicle tax a good idea?

Is the proposed hybrid/electric vehicle tax a good idea?

Photo: Robert Scoble

In February, Maine’s Governor LePage proposed implementing a fee on the owners of electric and hybrid vehicles.[1]  He is not alone – 17 other states have already implemented similar fees[2]).  It may seem, at first glance, to be yet another slap in the faces of “liberal-minded environmentalists.”  But giving the Governor the benefit of the doubt, it’s actually attempting to solve a problem that’s been seemingly intractable for years: that the state highway trust fund is overextended, at a time when the state’s infrastructure is badly in need of investment.

Maine, of course, is not alone. The Federal Highway Trust fund, which is primarily funded by federal taxes on gasoline, is also underfunded and over-extended.  Much like other issues in Congress, though, potential solutions seem to be few and far between, and no politician wants to propose anything as unpalatable as a tax increase.

So, what’s the problem? The highway funds at both the federal and the state level are funded primarily through taxes on gasoline.  In Maine, slightly less than 70% of revenues earmarked for the State Highway Fund are from gasoline taxes.  Another 27% come from vehicle registrations and fees, leaving the remaining 3% to come from various other sources[3].  In 1991, the first year for which revenue for the highway fund is reported on the legislature’s web site[4] , the highway fund received approximately $197 million (or approximately $363 million in today’s dollars).  In 2015, the fund received approximately $308.5 million (or $327 million in today’s dollars).  That’s a decrease of about 10% in real terms, despite the fact that the Association of Civil Engineers has given Maine a D on roads, essentially unchanged since 2008.[5]

Moreover, whereas the federal government has supplemented its declining revenues with other sources (with questionable legality), Maine cannot do the same. So how did we get in this mess?

The answer is that the tax is poorly targeted and creates perverse incentives.  Let’s start with the targeting question.  Taxes are supposed to do several things, from an economic viewpoint: raise revenue and change behavior.  In this case, the tax is primarily to raise revenue for the highway system.  Some environmentalists would also like to see the gasoline tax used to reduce the demand for and usage of gasoline, as one of the culprits in climate change, but the two objectives are fundamentally at odds, for several reasons.

First, if the revenue from a tax is used to fund a particular program, then the tax should be designed to bring in a sustainable amount of revenue year after year.  In this case, the revenue from the gasoline tax has been declining year after year. This decline is due to both technological advances and changes in demand.  Average fuel economy for passenger cars has been generally rising since 2000, and the trend has been similar for trucks since about 2004.  Average fuel economy for both cars now stands at about double what it was in the 1970s, meaning today’s cars can travel twice the mileage on a tank of gas than they could back in the 70s[6].  That’s great news for the environment, but not great news for those who depend upon the revenue from the gas tax.

Second, even as the Maine population increases, the number of miles driven has not increased.  In fact, whereas you normally might expect to see people driving more miles as it becomes cheaper to do so, we aren’t seeing such a trend.  In fact, while Mainers drove about 14,925 in 2005, that number actually dropped to 14,838 in 2016[7]. So, the revenue from the gas tax has been hit doubly hard: the average miles per gallon has increased, while the number of miles driven per year has decreased.  We could of course increase the gasoline tax (it hasn’t been increased since 2011), but that is likely to further dampen the demand for purchases of gasoline.

So, what to do?  We could, of course, follow Governor LePage’s recommendation and impose a surcharge on hybrid and electric vehicles. In one way, that would address the “free rider” problem that some analysts have pointed out: that owners of hybrid and other fuel-efficient vehicles use the highways as much as others, but don’t pay their “fair share” to the highway fund.[8]

Ultimately, though, that would not solve the problem, because the gas tax is poorly targeted in the first place.  The wear and tear on our infrastructure is tied to the usage of the highway, which is only imperfectly proxied by gallons of gasoline purchased.  A better targeted tax would be to impose a tax on vehicle miles driven, like the one currently being studied by the Colorado Department of Transportation. [9]  Of course, such a system would require some method of tracking number of miles driven, either through electronic monitoring such as those already in place on tolled highways, or through some other system.

Such a tax would not, of course, create an incentive for individuals to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, which is one of the reasons why environmentalists like the gas tax.  The gas tax, in their mind, is akin to a cigarette tax, which aims to curb smoking by increasing the price.  But if the goal there is to reduce carbon emissions, a tax on the carbon content of fuel, not the gasoline itself, would be a more efficiently targeted tax.  But that’s a different blog post, for a different day. (You may view my blog posts on the carbon tax, here and here.)

[1] https://www.epa.gov/fuel-economy-trends/highlights-co2-and-fuel-economy-trends

[2] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2013/hm60.cfm

[3] http://www.thedrive.com/tech/18549/maine-and-colorado-struggle-to-tax-electric-cars-fairly)

[4] https://www.pressherald.com/2018/02/08/legislation-calls-for-new-annual-fee-on-all-electric-hybrid-cars-in-maine/

[5] https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/13-states-now-charge-fees-for-electric-vehicles#gs.y_6lSMM

[6] http://legislature.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/highway_fund/pie_charts/Hfpie1213.pdf

[7] http://legislature.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/highway_fund/rev_exp_history/index.htm

[8] https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Maine-Report_Card_final_booklet.pdf

[9] https://www.denverpost.com/2017/12/12/colorado-mileage-tax-experiment/

Keeping the Lights On Doesn’t Mean More Pollution

Keeping the Lights On Doesn’t Mean More Pollution

Photo – Creative Commons/Flickr Amy the Nurse

In August of 2017, Energy Secretary and former governor Rick Perry proposed to strengthen subsidies to coal- and nuclear-fueled electricity plants.  Why?  According to his proposal, coal and nuclear power plants are indispensable to our national security by virtue of the fact that they can store energy on-site. And, since the past few years have seen declines in both coal and nuclear facilities in the United States, the concern is that the nation’s electricity grid will be less reliable in the future. The proposal would have guaranteed cost recovery and a fair rate of return for generators that can store at least 90 days’ worth of energy on site.  Fortunately, the Federal Regulatory Commission rejected it.  Even so, it’s still worth looking at the pros and cons of such a proposal.

More power outages and more disruptions would, of course, harm our energy-intensive economy. As the recent spate of hurricanes (including high winds in my home state of Maine) have shown, such energy disruptions can be costly. In fact, 2017 was the costliest year in terms of economic damages from natural disasters in the US.

Would subsidizing coal and nuclear facilities really have been the best solution? To answer that, we need to take a deeper look.  When I teach cost-benefit analysis, I encourage my students to consider the baseline – what would have happened in the absence of the policy or proposal in question. The number of coal and nuclear plants in this country has been declining for decades. The decline can be attributed to several factors, including environmental regulations, but mainly the declines are due to market forces (low electricity prices, declining electricity demand, and new supplies from natural gas) and aging infrastructure. Without taking a close look at the finances of the plants in question, we can assume that at least some of these plants would have been likely to follow.  Increasing subsidies to already struggling nuclear and coal plants would likely have been just another case of throwing good money after bad.

When considering the costs and benefits of the proposed plan, there would have been several different categories, each accruing to different groups.  The beneficiaries of the plan would likely have been owners and shareholders of the qualifying coal and nuclear plants.  Their consumers, as well, may have benefited from a lower average wholesale price of electricity; however, the proposal recommended adding a surcharge to consumers’ bills in order to cover the costs. According to the analysis done by Resources for the Future, the drop in the wholesale price of electricity would not have been enough to cover the surcharge.

Moreover, practitioners of cost-benefit analysis need to carefully consider all the costs and benefits of a proposal, not just those that are easily monetized.  A complete analysis of the costs and benefits of Secretary Perry’s proposal should include the damages caused by pollution from coal and nuclear-powered plants to humans and agriculture. (While the generation of electricity from nuclear plants does not create air pollution, the mining for uranium does create environmental destruction.) Such external costs are in reality a passive subsidy that coal and nuclear plants have enjoyed for decades. An additional subsidy would exacerbate the problem. According to the analysis done by Resources for the Future, the proposed plan would have immediately increased sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two pollutants generated by the combustion of fossil fuel.  This increase in emissions is linked to an increase in premature deaths caused by respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Once environmental costs are factored in, net benefits to society would have been decidedly negative.

The next question is: would the subsidies have alleviated the problem of grid instability? The answer to this question actually lies in the question itself.  Is there really a problem of power disruption caused by declining coal and nuclear plants? Some recent research by the Rhodium Group says no.  Researchers examined the data collected by the Department of Energy whenever an electricity generator experiences an outage or a disturbance.  Results indicate that disruptions in fuel supply were responsible for less than 1 one hundredth of one percent of lost customer service hours between 2012 and 2016.  The remainder were caused by disruptions to energy distribution  Primarily, those disruptions were caused by severe weather, not by supply disruptions.  The FERC ultimately agreed when it rejected Secretary Perry’s proposal.

However, the FERC did agree that the reliability of the grid was an issue looking into.  If the goal of Secretary Perry’s proposal was to increase the reliability of the grid – not just to prop up nuclear and coal – there are several less costly and ultimately beneficial ways of doing so.  One such possibility is to replace our nation’s aging energy-related infrastructure, much of which dates to the 1950s and 60s. Energy infrastructure actually received a “D+” on the 2017 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Upgrading the energy infrastructure would come with many ancillary benefits.

A second alternative would be to invest in distributed energy and microgrids.  Distributed energy is the use of small, decentralized power generation and storage systems. While larger utilities consider the rise of distributed energy to be a threat to the existing system, the greater use of distributed energy could actually increase the resilience of our current, outdated system.  However, doing so will require innovations in monitoring, modeling, “smart switches,” and other technologies to manage peak demand and integration.

A third possibility is to invest in better long-term energy storage. Lithium ion batteries may be our best choice for now, but other storage technologies, such as flow batteries or zinc air batteries.  But by far the best alternative – one that should be a crucial part of any solution – is energy conservation.  A unit of energy conserved is one that doesn’t need to be generated.  You don’t get much more reliable than that.

The Rising Cost of Hurricanes

The Rising Cost of Hurricanes

The hurricane season of 2017 has been a severely damaging one. Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas, Maria savaged Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Irma dealt a punishing blow to an already-reeling Florida (not to mention Nate and Jose). As I write this, Hurricane Ophelia – the tenth named storm in a season that was predicted to be “less active than usual” – is brewing in the eastern Atlantic. Whatever the cause of this increase in hurricane frequency, though climate change is a likely culprit, no one can deny that these storms are growing more costly

The World Health Organization estimates that the global cost of hurricane damage per season is rising by 6% a year. (That’s in real dollars, not nominal, by the way, so inflation doesn’t factor into it.) If storms are increasing in strength and frequency, why is more not being to mitigate the costs?

Two words: incentives and avoidance.

Economists believe that people respond to incentives. Make an activity less expensive, and more people will engage in it. Make an activity more expensive, and the level of activity will drop off. Why is that important here?

It turns out that if policy makers make it relatively inexpensive to build your house in a floodzone, lo and behold, more people are going to build their houses in floodzones. Houses that are built in floodzones are, no big surprise, more prone to flooding. According to the Economist magazine’s recent article, Harris County, Houston’s home, has allowed 8,600 homes to go up in the 100-year floodplain. (The 100 year floodplain is not, despite its name, an area where a flood is expected to occur every 100 years. A 100 year floodplain is an area that has a 1 percent chance of being flooded in any given year. That means, over the life of a 30-year mortgage, the change of a such a flood occurring is just about 26 percent.) The more houses located in a floodplain, the greater the expected cost of such a flood. Simple math.

Not only that, but by developing in the floodplain, much of that land was converted from prairie land to impermeable surfaces, like roads, driveways, and sidewalks. Coastal prairie land can absorb large amounts of rainfall. Concrete and asphalt cannot, leading to more flooding and more runoff, and more erosion of existing soil, as the velocity of the water is increased by those impermeable surfaces. The act of putting more development in vulnerable areas is a double whammy – you’re putting more homes in harm’s way, and you’re taking away the natural infrastructure that helps protect against flooding in the first place.

I also mentioned “avoidance” as one of the reasons why hurricane costs have been increasing. It’s no surprise that most people tend to avoid thinking about negative information, and that applies to getting insurance. According to the Insurance Information Institute, only 12 percent of American homeowners had flood insurance in 2016. While most banks and mortgage companies require flood insurance if your home is in a high-risk area, federal law does not require coverage in a moderate to low risk area and almost 25% of all flood-related claims come from those areas. Why is that? Maybe they see it as too expensive, or they’re putting it off. Maybe they’ve simply made a bad bet. Or perhaps they expect the federal government to foot the bill. Even if the government does cover some of the damage (and the federal government did cover about 80% of Hurricane Katrina’s damages), that still means that taxpayers may be subsidizing an increasingly risky bet.

And those bets are becoming riskier. What was once considered a 100-year storm – that is, where the probability of one occurring is one percent annually – is now occurring more frequently. Scientists estimate the likelihood of a storm of a certain size occurring based on historical figures – and we know that more intense storms are happening more often. (For a great discussion of how the US Geological Survey draws the “flood maps,” see this piece from Five Thirty Eight.)

It’s not only the insurance companies, the homeowners, or the federal government who shoulders the increasing costs of hurricanes and other natural disasters. Municipalities can see a blow to their tax base, a rise in the cost of borrowing, and even the possibility of litigation if it’s found that the municipality issued building permits or approving subdivisions that increase the potential of flooding.

What can be done to stop these costs from continuing to increase? Well, for a starter, communities need to take a good long look at their land use regulations. We need to stop subsidizing bad risks. It should be more, not less, costly to build in flood plains. We need to stop subsidizing the conversion of wetlands and other buffer zones to development. We need to preserve our natural infrastructure. And, we need to implement more resiliency efforts.

Municipalities should also make sure that businesses and homeowners fully understand the potential costs of not having flood insurance We need to make sure that the people involved in these kinds of decisions have a clear understanding of the full social and environmental costs of their actions. These moves make economic sense as well as environmental sense.

rbouvier consulting’s mission is to promote a more transparent economy by making sure that social and environmental costs are included in economic decisions. Visit our website to find out more.

Economic Resiliency in the Face of Climate Change

Economic Resiliency in the Face of Climate Change

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Climate change is expected to have a number of effects in Maine, including coastal flooding, sea level rise, and changing precipitation patterns, among others.  Many efforts are already underway to help protect communities from those effects, including zoning changes, new building requirements, armoring or elevating critical infrastructure, and the like. These efforts all fall under the heading “climate resiliency planning,” as they make a community more resilient to the disruptions wrought by changing weather patterns.

Ensuring that a local economy is resilient to climate disruption is nearly as important as physical resiliency. The local economy is a complex web of interactions between customers, workers, businesses, non-profits, and government agencies within the region. Economic resiliency planning can help to make sure that that web does not break – or, at least, is easily rebuilt – after a disaster.

Current approaches to assessing the impact of climate change too often ignore economic changes that are likely to occur.  Climate change poses physical threats to current businesses, true, but it also poses economic ones, as supply chains dry up, input prices rise, or competitive advantages shift. Focusing on preserving the economic status quo will do little good if advancing sea level rise and increasingly variable weather patterns result in a markedly changed economic landscape.

The first step in developing an economic resiliency plan for a local economy is to anticipate the likely physical changes that will accompany climate change, by taking a look at what areas of a particular municipality are likely to be impacted by certain events.  If you’re located on the coast, or if your town center is situated near a river, as is the case for many Maine towns, flooding from hurricanes or other large storms might be a priority.  Or, access may be more of an issue.  If your town has one or two main routes in and out of town, how likely are these routes to be block by high water, or by downed trees from wind damage? Many communities have already begun this work, through projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  Through this work, communities can get an idea of what physical assets are at risk from climate-related events.

Next, establish a baseline.  What are the largest employers in the municipality? What are the largest sources of tax revenue? What are the key industries, and what is the sectoral composition of the economic base? Where do most of the non-resident employers live, and what routes are they likely to take to work?  This will create a starting point to assess the local economy’s vulnerability to climate-related disruption.  The results may not always be what you think.

For example, many of Maine’s historically most important industries – agriculture, forestry, fishing, and tourism – depend heavily on the climate.  The output from these industries is likely to be directly impacted by any climate disruptions.  Agriculture, for example, could be both positively and negatively affected by climate change, as higher temperatures lead to a longer growing season, but also to increased need for irrigation.  These are the industries that are deemed “climate-sensitive in supply” by economists.

But there are also industries that are “climate-sensitive in demand” – where consumer demand for goods and services is likely to be affected by changing weather patterns or the physical effects that come with them.  Tourism, certainly, is one of these (both positively and negatively).  Energy is another.

Less obvious, perhaps, are the effects of underlying price changes and linkages between industries.  Let’s give an example.  Suppose that an increase in hot, humid weather in the northeast leads to increased demand for air-conditioning.  (Most areas in Maine now see fewer than four days a year when the heat index rises above 95 F, but that is predicted to change under most projections.)  The increased demand for air-conditioning will likely lead to increased electricity prices.  Those higher prices will ripple through the economy, affecting everything from family’s budgets to food prices to costs to businesses.

Finally, labor productivity might be affected by climate change.  Why? For those of us who have jobs in air-conditioned buildings, and as such are relatively shielded from the climate, the outdoor temperature might not affect our productivity.  But for the proportion of Maine workers who work outside, or do not have access to air conditioning, heat-related stress can be a factor, much as it is for livestock in Maine. Moreover, the effect of warmer temperatures on growing seasons works for pollen-producing plants as well, leading to increased rates of asthma and allergies. The spread of insect-borne diseases, such as Lyme, may affect productivity as well (not to mention impacting the health care sector).

Once the likely changes to the local economy are anticipated, policies can be put in place to help reduce risks.  Some of these policies might include encouraging local businesses to engage in disaster preparedness with others rather than in isolation, developing a directory of local businesses that can assist in rebuilding after a disaster, and identifying alternative procurement routes in case of a disruption in transportation infrastructure.

Planning for economic resiliency is less about rebuilding the day after a disaster, and more about planning so that economic disruptions are minimized should a disaster occur.  And it doesn’t have to be a stand-alone process.  In fact, it shouldn’t be.  Planning for economic resiliency should be integrated into planning efforts at all levels, from economic development to housing and infrastructure planning. While a disaster almost by definition is unpredictable, we do have the ability to anticipate the changes that will come with a changing climate.  We should take the time now to ensure that those changes don’t derail the local economy.

*Photo Credit: Maine Emergency Management Agency. Flooding in Gardiner, Maine. 2013.

The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Maine (Part II)

The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Maine (Part II)

My most recent blog post, “The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Maine (Part I),” went into some of the details behind calculating the social cost of carbon – a number that is used to illustrate the economic damages anticipated by climate change and therefore linked to carbon dioxide emissions.
This blog post will be a bit more policy oriented.  Once we arrive at a social cost of carbon, what do we do with it?  How can we use it to reduce the amount of carbon that’s emitted into the atmosphere?

Essentially, there are three policy options to reduce climate change.  One is what economists like to call “command and control.”  This is standard regulation – where each company or industry is given a standard beyond which they are not allowed to pollute.  If they are found to have polluted beyond that standard, they are then (typically) fined a certain amount.

The second and third option are what economists call “incentive-based regulation.”  Rather than give companies or industries a hard and fast limit, this type of regulation gives the regulated community an incentive to reduce emissions.  The incentive could be in the form of a subsidy for each unit of pollution reduced, or, alternatively, a tax system could be put in place.  In that case, the firm’s incentive to reduce pollution is the avoided tax on each unit. (From an economic perspective, there is actually no difference between a tax and a subsidy when it comes to determining the “efficient level” of pollution.  From a political perspective, of course, there is a huge difference.)

A third option is to implement a trading scheme.  The idea is simple: firms are distributed a certain number of permits or “rights” to pollute. (The permits could be initially distributed free of charge, or the permits could be auctioned off.)  Firms that could then reduce a unit of pollution more cheaply than the permit price would do so, and sell the unused permit on the market to other firms that have a more difficult time reducing pollution.  The firm’s incentive to reduce is the price that they get from selling their permit.  Creating a market like this is not without its difficulties, and markets for pollution have met with varying degrees of success.  One pollution market close to home is RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is the topic of one of my earlier blog posts.  The revenue gained from auctioning off the permits goes to energy-saving initiatives.

One of the major difficulties in both of these is to set the “right” price – too low, and not enough firms will reduce their emissions; too high, and it can create political dissatisfaction and a drag on the economy.  (A side note: unbridled carbon emissions are already creating havoc with Maine’s economy – but that will be the topic of a later blog post.)

A second major difficulty (what I like to call the “liberal’s paradox) is that implementing a carbon price will necessarily be regressive – the burden of the tax will be felt disproportionately among lower-income households.  A price on carbon – whether it’s a tax or a permit system – will raise the price of carbon-intensive goods and services, such as fossil fuels and conventionally-generated electricity.  Low-income households spend a higher percentage of their income on fuel and electricity than do higher-income households.  What to do? It turns out that what you do with the revenue from the tax (“revenue recycling”) can moderate or even negate the regressivity of the tax.

The think tank Resources for the Future (RFF) has published a series of articles addressing this very topic.  I’m going to address three possibilities for revenue recycling.  Two of them have to do with reducing taxes on other things – shifting the burden from taxing economic “goods” (like income and labor) to taxing economic “bads” (like pollution).  (After all, if part of the point of a tax is to alter behavior, why tax good things like income and employment?)  The third has to do with returning the revenue directly to the people.  So I’m going to focus on three alternatives: tax carbon, but lower the tax on labor income; tax carbon, but lower the tax on capital income; and tax carbon, but return the revenue to the people in the form of a dividend or a lump-sum rebate.

RFF analyzed these three alternatives for their impact on different income groups to see which groups were “better off” after the tax and revenue-recycling scheme, and which were “worse off.”  (It’s important to note that RFF did not analyze the effects of reducing carbon emissions – the primary goal of the tax, after all! – on the welfare of each of these groups.  It’s well-known that low-income populations are the most sensitive to climate change, and therefore the group most likely to benefit from a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.)

What they find, summarized, is this: the labor tax recycling scenario found that almost all groups ended up slightly worse off (the groups’ welfare or well-being declined by less than a half of a percent), but that the highest income group ended up with the biggest decline in welfare.  The capital tax recycling scheme benefited the highest income group, while generating a reduction in welfare for all other income groups of less than one percent.  And the lump sum rebate scheme benefited the lowest income group by more than three percent, while harming the highest income group by almost two percent.  From an efficiency perspective, the capital tax recycling scheme is the most efficient (that is, the policy that “distorts” the economy the least).

I’ll replicate RFF’s graphic here:

Source: 2015. Williams, Roberton C., Burtraw, Dallas, and Morgenstern, Richard. “The Impacts of a US Carbon Tax across Income Groups and States.” Washington, DC: Resources for the Future).

Why such differences?  Largely, it has to do with where individuals earn their income.  Generally speaking, high-income households get a larger percentage of their income from capital (stocks, bonds, and property), while middle-income people rely more heavily on income from labor.  Low-income people typically get a larger percentage of their income from transfer payments, which not only include food stamps and unemployment insurance but also Social Security.  That explains why lowering the tax on capital would exacerbate the regressiveness of the carbon tax, while lowering the tax on labor would be slightly progressive.

What about here in Maine?  I wasn’t able to get data directly for Maine, but only for New England as a whole.  As it turns out, all the schemes end up diminishing the welfare of New England residents, but the lump-sum rebate actually performs the worst.  Why?  The answer mainly has to do with the fact that, overall, New Englanders receive a relatively high percentage of their income from capital as opposed to labor.

How about Maine, though?  Is that the case? Looking at the Bureau of Economic Analysis for 2015, I noticed that Mainers as a whole received about 60% of their personal income from wages and salaries.  An additional 22.5% comes from personal transfer receipts, which include Social Security benefits, medical benefits, veterans’ benefits, and unemployment insurance benefits.  (By far the majority of these personal transfer receipts are retirement income and income from other benefits, excluding unemployment insurance benefits and income maintenance programs such as general assistance.)  A little less than 18% comes from capital and property income.

By contrast, Connecticut receives about 66% of its personal income from wages and salaries, 12.8% from transfer payments, and over 21% from capital and property. This implies that lowering the tax on capital would not benefit the average Mainer as much as the average person from Connecticut – but without doing the calculations, I can’t be sure whether the labor tax recycling scheme or the lump sum dividend would be more or less welfare changing.

Of course, the election on November 8 may have made this a moot point.  Passing a carbon tax (or fee, as some like to call it) has had a difficult time in the past, and the election of Donald Trump has made that possibility more remote.  Any action now is likely to arise at the state level – which is why state level analysis is crucial.  Climate change will likely have a disproportionate effect on those who are least able to protect themselves.  Any actions to mitigate climate change should not increase the injury.