In this article I look at air pollution levels within Europe and among the G-20, discuss some of the recent academic research and potential solutions at the national and individual level.

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My article entitled “An Empirical Study of the Determinants of Green Party Voting” is now forthcoming in the journal Ecological Economics. In this article I show the following:

I empirically study the determinants of individuals’ green voting behavior. For this I make use of three datasets from Germany, a panel dataset and two cross-sectional datasets. The empirically strongest determinants are the voters’ attitude or distance to nuclear sites, the level of schooling and net income. I show that those voters with deviant attitudes or alternative world views are more likely to vote green, a result of the fact that the green party has always had the position of a protest party. I nd little role for demographic variables like gender, marital status or the number of children. This is in contrast to the stated preference literature. Age plays a role for explaining voting behavior only insofar
as it proxies for health.

You can find the version that is forthcoming HERE.

A new European Environmental Agency report about pollution levels in 2012 just came in. And this may interest my fellow country residents:

Luxembourg is Europe’s ozone pollution beast of 2012!

From the 11 countries that breached air pollution limits, it is Luxembourg that was among the worst, exceeding the ceiling for non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) as the only European country, and exceeding the mono-nitrogen oxides(NOx) threshold by more than 50%.

NMVOC is a measure for indoor air pollution or smog, while NOx is a compound that arises due combustion (e.g. a measure of pollution through traffic). Both NMVOC and NOx react together nicely to form ozone, and you can check out this post to know what they do to you. And I can tell you: You won’t like what you will find…

However, the good news is that this breach of the regulatory limits occurred only in Luxembourg city. Then again, the bad news are that one-out-of-five of Luxembourg’s residents live in Luxembourg city, and there are roughly 360,000 cross-border workers daily, a large part of them also work in Luxembourg city.

So the solution is obvious: Make driving into Luxembourg city more expensive. This increases incentives to take the train from train stations close-by.The question is: Who really wants that? Is the public transport system up to the task? And when are we going to see a useful and clear response from the politicians that are supposed to deal with this issue?

exxon-valdez-540x304On this day, 25 years ago, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef and 40.000 tons of crude oil (or 0.3% of today’s world daily production) spilled into the ocean, leading to one of the largest human-caused environmental disasters. After only one week, 90 miles of coast were affected, and after two months roughly 400 miles.

2008912055In the aftermath of this event, several environmental laws were passed, like the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. But the main question at that time was about Contingent Valuation (CV). CV tries to estimate the non-market value of goods. Obviously, since the beaches and the ocean do not have a price attached to them per se, it was important to quantify the costs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on these natural resources.

A regulation that had just passed a couple of years before that, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, gave the US government the right to sue for non-market values. But what really is the non-market value of “100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 Bald Eagles, and 22 orcas, and an unknown number of salmon and herring,” as well as an oil spill that “covered 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline,and 11,000 square miles (28,000 km2) of ocean” with significant amounts of oil still being found as of today?

After several court rules, appeals, re-appeals, judgements, re-judgements, as of Dec 2009, Exxon “paid all owed $507.5 million punitive damages, including lawsuit costs, plus interest,” and had spent “an estimated $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges.” I could not find information on the non-market value that the CV had estimated, but it would certainly be interesting to know what number the US government came up with.

In any case, after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Department of Commerce organized a panel discussion to address the following question: Can CV give reliable estimates of non-market values?

And if you really want to know how the CV methodology is holding up these days, you should go over to our cromulent 🙂 defenders and main contributers to the CV method in environmental economics at What is clear is that, after now 25 years of substantial efforts, CV has become a tool of even mainstream economists and is THE tool to quantify non-market values.

Nevertheless, a lesson to take away is:
Only through a disaster do we tend to become aware of the value of what we have affected or lost. We then try to place a price on it and hope that it corresponds to this value. But the point is that through the disaster we have already lost what we have just valued. It might thus be reasonable to invoke the precautionary principle for any technology that potentially leads to extreme consequences until a thorough Cost-Benefit Analysis has been undertaken.

The Exxon Valdez is the base of the Smokers in Waterworld.

P1012000The European Union is trying to be the workhorse when it comes to environmental regulations. But despite this it faces, over and over again, the hard constraints it sets itself:

  • Particulate Matter (PM10) In the period 2001-2011, 20-44 % of the urban population in EU-27 was potentially exposed to ambient concentrations of PM10  in excess of the EU limit value set for the protection of human health
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) In the period 2001-2011, 5-23 % of the urban population in EU-27 was potentially exposed to ambient NO2  concentrations above the EU limit value set for the protection of human health
  • Ozone (O3) In the period 2001-2011, 14-65 % of the urban population in EU-27 was exposed to ambient O3 concentrations exceeding the EU target value set for the protection of human health

So while the basic incentives via different kinds of regulations are set, it seems that policy makers either do too little to improve overall air quality, or cannot control peak concentrations.

While overall trends for air quality tend to improving across the EU, large agglomeration centres, like Paris, are the troublemakers. During most of the year the air quality in even those larger cities meets the European regulation, but when the weather is just right and Parisiens are not on strike or holidays, then air pollution reaches unsafe levels.

Thus, policy makers tend to have trouble to control peak concentrations. In order to control these, a variety of tools are in their toolbox, but they all rely too much on short-term measures.

For example, one of these very short-term measures to curb air pollution is `car number plate alternation’. Basically, if the air quality in some area decreases below a certain threshold, then many countries/cities implement the regulation that only cars with odd number plates are allowed to drive into urban centres on certain days, while cars with even number plates are allowed to drive on the other days.

However, this regulation is implemented if the regulatory thresholds are already crossed. In a sense, this is like going to the dentist when the tooth hurts and not when the semi-annual control demands it.

What is thus needed is a predictive model of air pollution, which is able to say that under certain weather conditions the likelihood that a regulatory threshold will be crossed is sufficiently high so that the regulator can act preemptively.

And this is entirely possible. We now have very detailed data on air pollution, we have a good knowledge of traffic congestion, and we have weather forecasts which are reliable at least for a couple of days ahead. Combining these information should be a simple task and the result could be that a regulator could now act before a threshold is crossed.

Or, in the words of The Hollies:

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