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I have been visiting Matthew Kahn’s blog again, and he always provides interesting thoughts and opinions for environmental economists. This time he suggests that it is useless for the individual to act green since the overall impact is negligible, or, in his words, a “drop in a bucket”. To be fair, he uses this argument for economists that decide not to go to international conference for environmental reasons (carbon footprint), but his argument is certainly applicable to most green activities of individuals.

Here is why I do not like this sort of argument: So yes, he is correct from the perspective of a single person. If I decide to not fly then my impact on the world’s GHG emissions is so close to zero that any cost accruing to me should outweigh the benefits. Hence, if I were to rely on a standard Cost-Benefit Analysis using only self-centred preferences, then I should always fly and never act green (unless the green activity is an in-my-backyard activity).

Of course, much of the public good literature suggests this is precisely the reason for which public goods tend to be underprovided. But, obviously, in reality individuals are well-aware that their actions do have an impact well-above the immediate one, and this may be the reason for which they actually act green. One of these indirect impacts is, for example, a potential spillover effect, or network effect, which then induces others to think more carefully about their own choices, too. This spillover effect may be sizable, and there is a growing literature that studies this transmission of green behavior across generations or networks. The basic result of that literature is that, if there are enough individuals who actually do act green, then their actions may induce further green behavior by others and subsequently we may become a society that is strongly green oriented.

But, more importantly, an argument as the one raised by Matthew Kahn is dangerous insofar as it implies that green action by individuals is not worthwhile at all. If people start to believe this, then they will tune down their pro-environmental attitude, and instead expect the government to take over the role of the green actor. Of course, everyone is becoming more and more aware that, without a sufficiently strong grassroots movement, e.g. in the form of Agenda 21, it is undoubtedly clear that we would ruin this planet even faster than we currently are.

 

A new report, by order of the European Commission, studying the Subsidies and costs of EU energy just came out (published by Ecofys. KPMG and the Centre for Social and Economic Research). This study is particular noteworthy since it is one of the first that attempts to provide useful data on energy costs and subsidies for all EU Member States and for all technologies. Here is a quick summary of the most interesting findings as well as some thoughts and discussions.

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This is a Weakends (pun intended…) post, so bear with me please. I am asking the following: Is the European Institution (Union, Commission, etc.) a weak institution? What lessons should we take away from this?

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Circular Economy is one of the phrases that you’ll nowadays most often hear at any sustainable development debate. It is basically a new catch phrase for anything that was previously associated with sustainable development. Since still nobody really knows how to make an economy sustainable, circular, square or rectangular, now, for yours truly, the EEA managed to come up with a very simple solution to the problem.

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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.

Saṃsāra means “to perpetually wander”.

 

Earthlings means “those that inhabit the planet Earth”.

(or slightly better quality the original: http://earthlings.com/?page_id=32)

By choosing what you do,
You choose who you are,
And what you will be.

In the year 1967, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and subsequently one of its most vicious opponents and toughest nuclear power regulators, died of thyroid cancer. That same year also saw one of the most far-sighted, ingenious lectures on the topic of nuclear power in front of the National Society for Clean Air in London. The speaker, none other than Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, subsequently published a slightly re-written version of that lecture in his “book of heart and hope and downright common sense about the future”, entitled small is beautiful. In 1995, The Times Literary Supplement ranked this book among the 100 most influential books since World War II.

So what were the main insights by E.F. Schumacher already in the year 1967? He wrote that “[o]f all the changes introduced by man into the household of nature, large-scale nuclear fission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and profound… The point is that very serious hazards have already been created by the `peaceful use of atomic energy’, affecting not merely the people alive today but all future generations, although so far nuclear energy is being used only on a statistically insignificant scale. The real development is yet to come, on a scale which few people are capable of imagining… A serious accident, whether during transport or production, can cause a major catastrophe; and the radiation levels throughout the world will rise relentlessly from generation to generation. Unless all living geneticists are in error, there will be an equally relentless, though no doubt somewhat delayed, increase in the number of harmful mutations… Yet all these weighty opinions play no part in the debate on whether we should go immediately for a large `second nuclear programme’ or stick a bit longer to the conventional fuels which, whatever may be said for or against them, do not involve us in entirely novel and admittedly incalculable risks.”

Now, where does the unbelievable twist to world’s fate come in? Remember that E.F. Schumacher gave the lecture when nuclear energy produced only roughly one percent of total electricity. Today, nuclear energy not only accounts for around 10% of world’s energy production, with a share of more than 50% in some countries, like France or Slovakia. However, it also more and more gets viewed as a necessary aid for reducing our man-made climate change problem. So, while in 1967 E.F. Schumacher believed that “[r]adioactive pollution is an evil of an incomparably greater `dimension’ than anything mankind has known before”, we now know that our consumption lifestyles and consequently energy demands have created an evil that is even greater than the “evil of an incomparably greater `dimension’ than anything mankind has known before”. Even more incomprehensible, we now seem to prefer the lesser “evil of an incomparably greater dimension”, and want to make increasing use of it in the future. This is a sentiment that is widely shared across the world. At the end of 2011, the European Parliament has put this most bluntly in its Energy Roadmap 2050: “Nuclear energy will be needed to provide a significant contribution in the energy transformation process… It remains a key source of low carbon electricity generation. As a large scale low-carbon option, nuclear energy will remain in the EU power generation mix.” This, indeed, is something that one should call an unbelievable twist to world’s fate.

So what are our main lessons that we should take away from this venture in the not-so-distant past? Firstly, it seems we way too easily forget about what we should have learnt from past disasters, like Chernobyl or Fukushima. The direct costs of Fukushima run into several hundred billions, while the most serious indirect costs may only arise in the more distant future. For example, recently every single bluefin tuna caught in California was radioactively polluted. How effects like these are accumulating in the food chain is impossible to predict. Similarly, the rate of thyroid cancer in Europeans, Ukrainians and White Russians increased, depending on the region, between threefold to tenfold, believed to be directly linked to the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl around 30 years ago.  If this disaster trend is to continue, with a serious incident every 25 years, we will soon be living in a world where radioactive contamination may be the rule rather than the exception. Nevertheless, directly in the aftermath of Fukushima, a large number of nuclear power plants have been shut down, while they are now, step by step, being re-connected to the electricity grid. Economic, short-term considerations, nuclear lobbies, and the unwillingness to opt for a small yet beautiful option may very well turn out to be the downfall of mankind.

Secondly, with each passing generation, we seem to get hold of more and more evidence that our way of using nature, of living off nature, to our own benefit, involves risks that are extremely difficult to calculate and to predict. All our large-scale solutions have turned out to be problematic in some way, from environmental pollutants like coal, oil or nuclear for our energy needs, to taking the joy out of work by big mechanical aids like assembly lines. And this is not surprising, for our planet needed millions of years to evolve into a well-balanced ecosystem, in which species were able to live in a neat symbiosis. It is the impatience of mankind on which disastrous new scientific `solutions’ that support our insatiable lifestyle thrive. One may only wonder what further concerns may arise with the advent of the wicked wonders brought about nanotechnology or genetic engineering, which meddle with genetic codes that have suited the planet’s needs just perfectly for thousands of years.

Thirdly, we seem to be able to get used to living with risks and trying to trade-off these self-created dangers to an extent that, time and again, requires us to question where exactly we would like to take this planet. If yesterday we bedevilled one source of energy for being mankind’s most dangerous energy solution yet, and today we decide to increasingly rely on this source of energy to reduce another problem that we created ourselves, then this is an unmistakably dangerous journey that we are taking. Yes, it is true that we get used to risks, that our future generations will learn to accept radioactivity or climate tippings as part of their lives, but we have to continuously ask ourselves whether this is what we really want for them.

Let me conclude with E.F. Schumacher’s own words. “Man cannot live without science and technology any more than he can live against nature… What matters… is the direction of research, that the direction should be towards non-violence rather than violence; towards an harmonious co-operation with nature rather than a warfare against nature; towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant, and economical solutions normally applied in nature rather than the noisy, high-energy, brutal, wasteful, and clumsy solutions of our present-day sciences.” These words, although spoken roughly half a century ago, remain today as true as ever.

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