When it comes to climate change the biggest argument against unilateral action is the lack of any tangible benefit. What can a single country really do to mitigate climate change? However, an article by Akira Yakita suggests that there are welfare benefits to action outside of the benefits to the climate.
His central argument is that preferences are not stationary and can be influenced by publicly expressed attitudes. So, if the government subsidises green technologies as part of its climate change policy, then people’s preferences shift towards green products. Because the subsidy increases the production of green products, which are now preferred, total welfare might increase. Obviously the final welfare outcome depends on the coefficients on each effect, but Yakita shows that an increase in welfare is possible.
While that’s all well and good in theory it’d be nice to have some evidence of the effect. After all, it could get awfully close to saying that anything the government does is good because people will grow to love it. Yakita’s evidence for the effect comes from two industries. First, he points to the explosion of interest in hybrid cars, where sales growth has been huge despite the 50% price premium they command. Sales of hybrids in Japan have grown by 19%pa from ’98 to ’06, while the overall growth in car sales is ~1%pa.
Secondly he points to sales of organic food. While there may be dispute over whether organic foods are actually environmentally friendly, there is no doubt about how they are generally perceived. He reports that the organic food market has grown 15%pa over the last decade as the environmental movement has taken hold.
Those two pieces of evidence together do suggest that preference shifts have taken place. However, it’s a bit of a jump from there to suggesting that government action can instigate a preference shift. I’m willing to believe that preference shifts could make it worthwhile for the government to promote green activities to boost welfare, but I’d suggest the causation has to run from preference shift to government action rather than the other way around. Nonetheless it’s a novel way to look at the benefits of unilateral action on climate change.