Monday, September 14, 2015

Costa Rica and PES


One of the things we learn in natural resource economics is to look at problems in terms of their costs and benefits.  By asking questions about who gains and who loses (and when, and how) we can gain an important perspective on the causes of natural resource problems. 

When given access to private benefits from natural resources, people tend to take actions that promote their own well-being. This access comes in the form of our daily contact with open-access and common property resources as well as extraction and habitat conversion on private lands. We all pollute in numerous ways to promote our own benefits (comfort, convenience, standard of living), because it’s cheap and easy to do so. As individuals, the costs we pay for access to the world’s resources are low because they are shared by everyone. 

How do we change the calculus?  Let’s try everything and see what works. Education, an appeal to “do the right thing”, and legal mandates on acceptable use, all serve important roles.  Monetary incentives that affect individual costs and benefits also can be an effective tool in many situations. These incentives come in several forms, most of which we discuss in this course.
One incentive-based method that seems to be gaining favor in developing nations is PES. PES stands for Payments for Environmental Services. The basic idea of PES is to create incentives for conservation of natural resources by transferring dollars from those that benefit from conservation to those who bear the (opportunity) costs of conservation.  

In some PES arrangements government and/or NGOs pay landowners to engage in activities to conserve or restore biodiversity. This can be as simple as letting a cow pasture revert back to its natural state or setting aside lands that would otherwise be used for another purpose. 

Costa Rica is a leader in PES and a great example of the power of this approach. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Costa Rica had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.  As recently as 1987, forest cover in Costa Rica was as low as 21 percent of national territory, down from over 85 percent in the early 1900s. The principle causes of deforestation were incentives for the conversion of land to agricultural uses, such as preferable tax treatment for lands used to cultivate crops and support cattle, and heavier tax burdens for “unproductive” lands (i.e. lands not used to produce market benefits). People responded to the incentives they faced. Given the costs and benefits of land use it made sense to convert lands to other uses. 

In 1996, leaders in Costa Rica decided to try to reverse this path of biodiversity loss. The main idea was simple: reward landowners for conservation rather than rewarding them for land conversion. A series of forest laws were enacted, which gave favorable tax treatment to conservation and reforestation, banned the export of primary forest products, mandated that banks provide low-interest loans for reforestation, created a system of national parks and forest reserves and, in 1997, enacted a PES system.  

Costa Rica’s PES system involves direct payments to landowners in exchange for the adoption of land uses and management techniques that provide one or more of four services:  Greenhouse gas mitigation, provision of water or other hydrological services, conservation of biodiversity or provision of scenic beauty for recreation and tourism. Payments are provided by government. Revenues from a fuel tax (ala Pigou) are a primary source of funding. Other sources of funds include sale of carbon credits to other nations and international loans. Between 1997 and 2005, a half-million hectares of forest lands were enrolled in the program. Forest cover is now over 60 percent and rising.

While this progress is exemplary, the Costa Rican Minister of the Environment recently stated that it is getting increasingly difficult to conserve. Without a system of international carbon markets, such as that which might take place through large scale adoption of REDD and REDD+ schemes, he suggested that the Costa Rican path of conservation will soon be unsustainable.

Read more about Costa Rica’s PES experience here at PaxNatura.

Read more about PES here at UNEP and at Ecology and Society.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Welcome CERMES, UWI students!

Starting this week we will be joined by 15 masters students at the University of the West Indies - Cave Hill.  These students are enrolled in the MSc in Natural Resource and Environmental Management program at The Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES), and hail from 9 different countries:  Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Italy, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.

The CERMES students will be with us until around Thanksgiving. Their course follows the same basic outline and topic coverage. 


Friday, September 4, 2015

Standards and Incentives

As we move into discussion of correcting market failures, it’s important to have different perspectives and examples. Below are some links to excellent sources of information regarding standards (command and control) and incentive-based systems.

Here is some excellent reading from the US EPA on standards vs. incentives.

More detail is provided in this document (also from EPA. Note that Coase is covered on page 4-4). 

Here is a nice paper on the topic from the World Resources Institute.

Here is a link to a report on the use of economic incentives for pollution control in the US. You can use the "quick links" on the right to navigate the document.

Environmental Defense Fund has a short piece on how the use of incentives was a powerful solution to addressing acid rain.

The Environmental Literacy Council has a nice short article on standards vs. incentives.

Here's more from the World Bank.

Here is a short article on economic incentives for water quality management from the WHO.

Here is a great article by Robert Stavins on the topic.

Lots of great information in this report on Economic Incentives for Pollution Control from UNEP.

Finally, the other day in class I mentioned CAFE standards (which set minimum miles-per-gallon averages for automobiles)Here is a site with some of the basics from the USDOT.  More here (including history of CAFE standards) from the UCS.

What are some success stories where economic incentives have been used to reduce pollution?
If incentive-based systems are superior, why do we rely so heavily on standards?