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Economics and the environment

Economics and the environment

This is the text, including slides, from a talk given on October 28 2020 during an online event organised by University College Cork’s Economics and Environmental Societies. (I didn’t follow the text word for word during the talk, but it covered the same ground)

Thank you very much, I’m delighted to be able to participate in this discussion.

My name is Caroline Whyte, I have a background in ecological economics and I do research and help with communications for a think tank called Feasta: the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.

Feasta, as some of you may know, is the Irish word for ‘in the future’. We have our administrative headquarters in at the ecovillage in Cloughjordan, and we’re in the Environmental Pillar of Irish environmental NGOs and in Stop Climate Chaos Ireland, but our focus is actually quite global and we have international membership. I’ll be explaining a bit more about Feasta later.

If I’m asked about the role economics plays in the environment and sustainability, my answer would be ‘what kind of economics are you talking about’ because there are a lot of different schools of thought within economics. You could be forgiven for not knowing that though, because there’s one particular school of thought that’s become quite dominant in university courses and in think tanks, political advisory groups, the media and so on – you could call it Neoclassical economics.

I find this approach to economies – particularly standard macroeconomic theory – quite problematic in many ways for the environment and for society and I’ll explain why in a minute. I’d argue that there needs to be a much broader range of economic thinking in universities, in the media, in advisory groups, all over really, if the economy is going to be able to adapt itself properly to our environment…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Aggregate green growth is a mirage: we need to take a more scientific approach to societal wellbeing

Aggregate green growth is a mirage: we need to take a more scientific approach to societal wellbeing

In the spring of 2020, the new Irish government announced its desire to develop new measures of well-being and progress in Ireland. The idea was given some prominence in the Programme for Government, ‘Our Shared Future’.

This is exactly the kind of initiative that we in Feasta have been advocating for the past 20-odd years. It’s also in line with an encouraging international trend of governments seeking to reorientate their economies towards well-being, and fits in nicely with the thinking of the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance (of which Feasta is a member).

A recent publication by Fine Gael, ‘Measuring Wellbeing’, refers to this Irish government initiative and makes a case for expanding “the range of economic, social and policy indicators that we use in government”. It lays out a draft outline for developing a wide range of metrics for measuring well-being, along the lines of the OECD’s Wellbeing Framework, and implementing them into State budgeting decisions. There is much in there to agree with.

Unfortunately, however, there is a serious problem with one of the most basic assumptions that is made in the Fine Gael paper. Unless this problem is examined and properly addressed, all the improved measurements in the world won’t be able to improve societal well-being in Ireland.

The problem relates to GDP growth. GDP growth is considered by the paper’s author to be “a critical means to the end of progressing society”.

This is a highly problematic assumption.

The authors take care to point out many of the well-known shortcomings of GDP growth as a measure of progress. So the issue here is not whether or not GDP growth is an unreliable measure of progress; it looks as though we can (almost) all agree on that, these days.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Money: the silent killer

Money: the silent killer

In Sweden, which is famously on the way to becoming cash-free, you can find signs in shop windows that say ‘we don’t take cash because electronic payments are better for the environment’.

Since cash does require a certain amount of resource use for its production process and transportation, and since in general we’re encouraged to go paperless as much as we can, this idea may seem – at first, anyway – to make sense.

And if electronic money truly required only the modest amount of energy that goes into creating bank cards or whichever payment device is being employed, along with a bit more energy for moving the data around in cyberspace, then it would very likely be true.

Swedish business sign saying “a big thank you for your card payments! From 1 February 2017 we will be cash-free. Better for the environment, secure, quick and easy.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Dutch central bank seemed to back up the Swedish store owners’ assumptions. It investigated the ecological footprint generated by cash and compared it to that of electronic payments, and found that cash was the loser.

However, there’s a very important missing variable in the Dutch study: how the money comes into existence in the first place.

With cash, that’s pretty straightforward. The central bank creates cash and it then gets distributed to private banks. (Corresponding deductions are made to their ‘reserve accounts’ at the central bank. Then it’s put into ATMs.) Apart from the up-front ecological costs mentioned above there is nothing else to worry about.

Electronic money, in its current form anyway, is a very different beast. And since it makes up about 97% of money in circulation, it deserves serious attention.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The climate and the commons

The climate and the commons

The Paris agreement that ensued from the COP-21 summit states that “climate change is a common concern of humankind”. This brings to mind the position taken by an increasing number of climate activists: the atmosphere needs to be managed as a commons.*

There are plenty of precedents to draw from, precedents which prove that it’s entirely doable and not really all that complicated. Over the course of several decades Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues carried out extensive research on effectively managed commons around the world, and drew up a set of guidelines that could be applied to the atmosphere as well. That’s what this article will discuss.

If we take a look at existing commons we quickly notice a problem however. There’s very little correlation between their structures and the assumptions about managing the atmosphere that form the basis of the Paris agreement. This isn’t to say that the Paris agreement needs to be rewritten, but rather, that we need a back-up framework to ensure that the things that need doing actually get done.

As many observers have noted, the Paris agreement

– assumes that the atmosphere can be managed without any clearly defined rules governing its use. The agreement lacks a mechanism to ensure that most fossil fuels will stay in the ground. Indeed, its phrasing implies that we will probably have to resort to unproven and risky geoengineering or carbon capture and storage in order to try and meet its target of net zero emissions in the second half of this century.
– – fails to ensure that everyone affected by decisions about the climate will have a voice in the decision-making process.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

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