Blog: Mother Earth Heals
by Liora Leah

"Green" Economics

"Green" Economists, formerly known as environmental economists, use economic arguments to persuade companies to clean up pollution, conserve natural areas, protect endangered species and wetlands, and address climate change, global warming, and water shortages.

Date:   8/23/2005 11:07:19 PM   ( 10 y ) ... viewed 1128 times

The Wall Street Journal

Green Groups See Potent Tool In Economics

August 23, 2005


Many economists dream of getting high-paying jobs on Wall Street, at prestigious think tanks and universities or at powerful government agencies like the Federal Reserve.

But a growing number are choosing to use their skills not to track inflation or interest rates but to rescue rivers and trees. These are the "green economists," more formally known as environmental economists, who use economic arguments and systems to persuade companies to clean up pollution and to help conserve natural areas.

Working at dozens of advocacy groups and a myriad of state and federal environmental agencies, they are helping to formulate the intellectual framework behind approaches to protecting endangered species, reducing pollution and preventing climate change. They also are becoming a link between left-leaning advocacy groups and the public and private sectors.

"In the past, many advocacy groups interpreted economics as how to make a profit or maximize income," says Lawrence Goulder, a professor of environmental and resource economics at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. "More economists are realizing that it offers a framework for resource allocation where resources are not only labor and capital but natural resources as well."

Environmental economists are on the payroll of government agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency had about 164 on staff in 2004, up 36% from 1995) and groups like the Wilderness Society, a Washington-based conservation group, which has four of them to work on projects such as assessing the economic impact of building off-road driving trails. Environmental Defense, also based in Washington, was one of the first environmental-advocacy groups to hire economists and now has about eight, who do such things as develop market incentives to address environmental problems like climate change and water shortages.

Environmentalists consider themselves careful watchdogs of government policy and continue to protest what they see as the Bush administration's inaction on issues such as protecting wetlands and curbing global warming. President Bush faced the wrath of protesters when, in 2001, he rejected the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate treaty.

But frustrated by their slow progress and turning increasingly pragmatic, environmental groups are finding economics a powerful tool. As state and federal governments face pressure to rein in spending, officials are weighing environmental measures against other priorities such as welfare and health care, and environmentalists are realizing that their policies have to be cost-effective to be feasible.

"There used to be this idea that we shouldn't have to monetize the environment because it is invaluable," says Caroline Alkire, who in 1991 joined the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., as one of the group's first economists. "But if we are going to engage in debate on the Hill about drilling in the Arctic we need to be able to combat the financial arguments. We have to play that card or we are going to lose."

The field of environmental economics began to take form in the 1960s when academics started to apply the tools of economics to the nascent green movement. The discipline grew more popular throughout the 1980s when the Environmental Protection Agency adopted a system of tradable permits for phasing out leaded gasoline. It wasn't until the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, however, that most environmentalists started to take economics seriously.

The amendment implemented a system of tradable allowances for acid rain, a program pushed by Environmental Defense. Under the law, plants that can reduce their emissions more cost-effectively may sell their allowances to more heavy polluters. Today, the program has exceeded its goal of reducing the amount of acid rain to half its 1980 level and is celebrated as evidence that markets can help achieve environmental goals.

Its success has convinced its former critics, who at the time contended that environmental regulation was a matter of ethics, not economics, and favored installing expensive acid rain removal technology in all power plants instead.

Greenpeace, the international environmental giant, was one of the leading opponents of the 1990 amendment. But Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA, said its success and the lack of any significant action on climate policy throughout early 1990s brought the organization around to the concept. "We now believe that [tradable permits] are the most straightforward system of reducing emissions and creating the incentives necessary for massive reductions."

Environmental activists are finding economics a powerful ally on the federal level, too. In 2001, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, an advocacy group that promotes utility regulation, successfully pushed through a law mandating higher efficiency standards for residential central air conditioners by pointing out that the additional $300 consumers would have to spend for a more efficient unit would be more than offset by the money they would save on electricity over the product's lifetime.

Organizations are also applying economic reasoning toward saving wildlife. In response to arguments that undeveloped land hurts economic growth, Defenders of Wildlife founded a conservation-economics program in 1999 and recently oversaw a study of how much tourists would be willing to pay to visit a red-wolf reservation and educational center in Columbia, N.C. The finding that the center's $2 million price tag would be paid by tourism revenue in five to 10 years is helping raise money for the center and being used by advocacy groups attempting to reintroduce the population in the area.

Environmentalists have also come to recognize that if they can couch their arguments in economic terms, not only governments but also corporations are more likely to listen. Since 2001, the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network has persuaded J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. to account for the cost of pollution in their loan-underwriting processes and, in some cases, to avoid investing in industrial logging companies.

The campaign for promoting sustainable investments also involved traditional methods of campaigning such as protesting and letter-writing. But it was designed to target the banks' finances by highlighting the double-digit growth rates in renewable-energy industries and the exorbitant costs of pollution-related litigation.

"Companies are looking for certainty and stability," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network. "They can do that by investing in sustainable energy, where they don't run the risk of lawsuits or federal regulation or the reputation of being associated with environmentally controversial projects."

Related Links:
   · Old Growth Campaign
   · Global Finance Campaign
   · Ford Campaign

Rainforest Action Network 

Info:  Take Action:

Defenders of Wildlife

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Environmental Defense


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Wilderness Society

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