Category: resiliency

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.

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

gardiner-flood-300x171

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.