Reyer Gerlagh

Current position
: Professor of Environmental Economics at Tilburg University

Year of birth: 1969


IDEAS profile:


In 1999 Reyer Gerlagh received his PhD in economics. His research won him a prestigious scholarship, the “Vernieuwingsimpuls”, a grant of € 650,000 by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). He visited Oslo, January-June 2006, by invitation from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters to work at the Centre of Advanced Studies on the interaction between environmental policy and technology. From 2006 to 2009, he held a chair in Environmental Economics at Economics, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, UK. Reyer Gerlagh is now Professor at Tilburg University, associate editor of ERE and Energy Economics, and coordinating lead author of the fifth assessment report of the IPCC, WG III. He has published many articles on climate change policy, technological change, sustainability, natural resources, and the green paradox.

I got to know Reyer several years ago at a climate change conference in Paris. There were several speakers, but the most interesting one was certainly Reyer. He leaves the impression that he knows his stuff and that he asks the right questions. He can be tough on those that are presenting at conferences, not asking questions in the roundabout way like many others do but pointing straight out at the problems in the analysis that he sees. Reyer calls himself a math nerd – and the medals he collected from competitions in national and international maths and physics competition certainly show that. But he is more than that – I would think of him more as someone who also understands what are the important questions in environmental economics and has the tools to answer them.

#MeetTopEnvEcon – Reyer Gerlagh

  1. Could you please give me a brief background of yourself and your main research interests.

I guess I’m sort of an outlier. Whizkid, better at understanding and solving models, including those developed by others, and writing code than at communicating ideas. I needed a long development time learning how to be more effective as a scholar. Main research interests: too any topics, but I like to think on grand questions as this one: What is essential if we want to contribute to a better world for our children? Related questions are: the classic question of why some countries are rich and others poor, why do some countries develop and others stagnate? Also, which environmental losses are really worrisome, and which are of second-order?

  1. What article/book of yours would you call your best?

Long-term substitutability between environmental and man-made goods, with Bob van der Zwaan, JEEM 2002. The insight we got here is that the world is economically massively getting better (thanks to education and innovation), and in that context, what matters for the long run are the irreversible ecosystem losses that we cause today.

The paper that I think most readers would vote for as the best one (if they were to read them all), is Carbon prices for the next thousand years, with Matt Liski, under review. The insight we got here is that efficient climate policy cannot be induced from macro-economic indicators such as the rate of return on capital, even with perfect foresight, as has been advocated by Nordhaus and others. Social preferences are an essential part of optimal policies, and are NOT reflected in macro-indicators.

  1. Would you mind giving a list of essential articles that a young researcher in your line of research should read?

I don’t think in terms of separate essential articles. The connection between them is of interest. Take this series of papers/books. Start with Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (I have the book, you can borrow it), then read Profit maximization and the extinction of animal species by Colin Clark, to continue with Limits to growth by Meadows et al.. Now, jump to climate change. Read Cline WR (1992) The economics of global warming. Institute for International Economics, Washington, then Nordhaus W (2008) A question of balance: weighing the options on global warming policies. Yale, University Press, New Haven, then Stern N (2007) The economics of climate change: the Stern review. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. What do we learn? (1) Institutions that stimulate economic growth can also stimulate environmental destruction. (2) To think of whether or how much we want to prevent environmental destruction, we need to think of the weight we give to the future. (3) Researchers can’t agree on the principles for weighing the future. (4) In the end, it is a political question, a question of power, whether we succeed to reduce climate change sufficiently. Science will be almost irrelevant.

  1. And could you be so kind and give a reference for a policy-oriented article or book that sums the research in your field for an interested policy maker?

I fear there is no such book.

  1. In what direction would you like to see environmental economics develop? What would be the obstacles?

I’ve the impression the field is doing fine, e.g. we’re getting macro people interested. Obstacles: we need good young researchers and senior researchers with a network being interested in the environment.

  1. If you had to give young researchers in environmental economics some advice, what would it be?

Don’t specialize too quickly on the environment.

  1. How do you mostly get your ideas?

I read something, or talk with someone, and then often wonder whether the arguments brought forward really are the most relevant ones.

  1. Are you more interested in fundamental research or do you try to shape actual policy through your research? Which impact would you say does your research have on policy making? And how do you think environmental economists could increase their say in the policy agendas?

Sadly, I fear my research has very limited consequences. There is a huge gap between politics and research, and I disagree with those who blame researchers for their ‘ivory tower’ perspective. Let me reflect on my own experience. The IPCC makes a laudable effort, and I considered that important enough to contribute, spending some holidays (in the mountains while the family went hiking) on writing and editing, honestly. Still I’m not sure whether my effort was good enough. What I found troubling in the IPCC process was the disdain from some policy makers for research outcomes that do not fit their agenda. Dialogue needs a serious effort, on both sides, also from the policy maker. The final approval session of the IPCC AR5 WGIII report showed some deep disagreements between country delegates, where research could not mediate. After one week of dialogues and heated discussion, it was a sad (but also interesting!) experience to watch the firework explode at the end of the week, when some country delegates killed substantial content of the, for me most relevant, part of the summary for policy makers.

In short, there is no guarantee for real-life relevance. When I feel optimistic, then I foresee that students in the courses that I teach may have learned some small pieces partly thanks to me. We do a very good job when the next generation implements the insights that we produce in our research.

  1. And now for a bit of fun. Do you know the concept of holidays or do you take your papers to the beach?

I take the papers to the mountains.

  1. What is your favourite economics joke or anecdote from a conference?

I’m always serious!

  1. Please feel free to suggest someone else whose answers you would like to see.

I very much esteem my colleagues Sjak Smulders and Matti Liski. Their answers to 3 would be much more useful than mine.