Health Legislation: a carbon emitter?

As speculated by some over the weekend, and confirmed today by the Economist, Copenhagen currently appears to be nothing more than a venue for which policy makers will agree to consider a future agreement on Carbon Emissions.

Undoubtedly there exist links between the U.S.’ relaxed approach to the summit and the Obama administrations efforts to pass universal healthcare; for the latter to pass the support of those contributing to the former is required. This is nothing new. What is interesting to note, however, is that such an attitude to favor health over emissions has been indirectly present within the U.S. for some time.

Earlier this year Boston became the second city (following San Francisco) to pass legislation banning the sale of cigarettes in ‘drug’ stores.  Within this legislation there exists a further directive restricting the sale of cigarettes on college campuses. This is where things become interesting. Consider a representative smoker. The impact upon this agent from said legislation results in further effort (i.e.; distance traveled) to obtain cigarettes. As such, the ‘carbon footprint’ of each cigarette has increased within the city of Boston; not too mention the shadow price of the cigarettes themselves.

The question is now posed; are carbon emissions an indirect consequence of health legislation?

Taking unilateral action

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.

Going vegetarian?

A friend of mine who is passionately vegetarian pointed me to this report as a good economic reason to eschew meat:

…two World Bank environmental advisers claim that instead of 18 per cent of global emissions being caused by meat, the true figure is 51 per cent.

So am I thinking about becoming vegetarian since meat is known to be more costly than I previously thought? Of course not. As tempting as it is to see these things in black and white, it’s very unlikely that the cost of meat will ever get high enough that we cease to eat it. Rather people will substitute away from eating as much meat as the price rises.
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A Stern admonition to carnivores

Kiwiblog and others are bothered by Nicholas Stern’s pronouncement that:

Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.

[Stern] predicted that people’s attitudes would evolve until meat eating became unacceptable.

Matt talked recently about why subsidising agriculture is a bad idea, so I don’t want to rehash those arguments. What really baffles me is why Stern feels that changes in peoples’ attitudes are important. If we price greenhouse gasses, and other natural resources, appropriately then there is no need to worry about peoples’ attitudes. As Stern says, meat is far more environmentally costly to produce, so its price will rise. Meat will become a luxury that most can’t afford to eat on a daily basis. That’s something that will happen whether people consciously make a choice to become vegetarian or not.

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Space mirrors, carbon permits, and global warming

Could it be.  Could technology save us from global warming through “space mirrors” and ” carbon absorbing rocks” (source).

Maybe.

In that case, should we not worry about pricing carbon.

No.

Why?  Well, if it turns out that countries can cheaply get below the appropriate carbon producing targets with these technologies, then the price of carbon permits will collapse.  The price will adjust to capture this technological change.

As a result, we should keep running with a scheme to limit the quantity of carbon emissions (in order to avoid or limit the damage of a global warming event) and we should realise that technological progress will get captured in any price adjustment – in fact the very existence of such prices will increase the incentive for people to develop these technologies.

NZIER on emissions targets

So NZIER thinks it doesn’t matter whether we reduce local emissions or just pay off third-world countries to reduce them for us. Apparently the only important issue is whether we satisfy our responsibilities that we’ve committed to. The money quote is:

It allows emissions reductions to take place in the country where it is cheapest to do so. The climate doesn’t care where the emissions reductions occur, so nor should we.

Economists just love to assume the world’s a perfect place but, so often, reality bites them on the ass. Yeah, I’d like to THINK that when I bought a credit from Somalia they were implementing a project to reduce their forecast emissions. In reality they probably spent the cash on guns and powerboats, and forged the certificate of additionality. The fact is that a lot of credits available on the international market either have dubious additionality value, or cheaply reduce GHG emissions by destroying the environment in other ways. When you buy on the international market instead of reducing your emissions domestically that’s the sort of thing you’re buying into. If you don’t believe me then ask the gospel 😉

Ultimately, the environment doesn’t care if NZ satisfies its international obligations, it only cares how damaged it gets. When you buy on the international market you just have to accept that you’re not doing it to help the planet, you’re doing it to meet the letter of the law. If that’s the way you want to play international diplomacy then fine, but don’t pretend it’s because you’re a greenie at heart!