310 – Additionality can be tricky to assess

Many environmental policies and programs pay public money to people or businesses (or give them tax breaks or discounts) to encourage them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and behaviours. A seemingly common-sense rule for these sorts of programs is that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway, without payment. But it can be quite a hard rule to apply in practice.

The idea that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway goes under the name of “additionality”. (It is also related to the with-versus-without principle in Benefit: Cost Analysis, and the concept of market failure – see PD272).

The idea behind “additionality” is that, when a program pays money to people to change their behaviours, the environmental benefits that result should be additional to the environmental benefits that would have occurred anyway, in the absence of the payments.

The reason this matters is that, if we are able to target payments to those behaviours that do result in additional environmental benefits, we’ll end up with greater environmental benefits overall, compared to paying for non-additional benefits – we’ll get better value for taxpayers’ money.

Some environmental programs do a poor job of checking for additionality. As I noted in PD272, much of the money given to farmers in US agri-environmental programs is not additional. In Australia, the Direct Action program for climate change doesn’t consider additionality well when selecting the winning bids in their reverse auctions (it compares practices before vs after signing up to the program, not with versus without).

So, environmental programs that allocate money to people or businesses should worry about additionality, but how? It can be harder than it sounds. It’s all very well to say, “only pay people if they would not have done it anyway”, but how do we know what they would have done anyway?

Sometimes it’s reasonably easy. There are cases where we can be pretty confident that people would not have done the environmental action, and will not start doing it in future, without a payment or regulation. I suspect that most of the work on Australian farms to fence off waterways to exclude livestock would not have happened without payments to cover the cost of fencing materials.

In the US, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to remove agricultural land from production and plant environmentally beneficial species. This is probably mostly buying actions that lead to additional outcomes.

The nature of these additional activities is that they are things that are not normally done by farmers. This is largely because they cost the farmer money.

Judging additionality can be much trickier for environmental actions that also generate enough private benefits to be potentially worth doing by the private individuals or businesses. Zero tillage is a good example. Widespread adoption by farmers of zero tillage in Australia, Canada, the US and some other countries has substantially reduced soil erosion, with a range of off-farm benefits. But the reason this practice has been adopted so widely is that it can be very beneficial to the farmers who adopt it. Paying Australian farmers as a reward for doing zero tillage would be pointless, because most of them are already doing it. The public benefits would not be additional.

But imagine how it was in the early days of zero tillage. From the time when it was first developed, it took several decades for zero tillage to be taken up by most farmers. For the first decade, there were very few adopters. A program looking at subsidising zero tillage in 1990 would probably have judged that the payments would lead to additional benefits, and I would not have blamed them.

In fact, at that time, before the systems and technologies to make zero tillage work as well as it does now had been fully developed, payments in many cases would have satisfied the additionality condition. But only temporarily. At some point, the payments would have needed to be switched off, but judging when to switch them off would have been incredibly difficult. Most likely the payments would have continued for quite a while after additionality was lost.

For some practices, additionality comes and goes. For example, planting perennial pastures sequesters more carbon in soils than is found under annual crops, so it might be worth paying crop farmers to convert. But only if they would not otherwise have done so. The area of perennial pastures in Australia rises and falls over time in response to the prices of livestock products, the performance of available perennial pasture varieties, and the economic performance of cropping. If an agency started to pay farmers to plant perennial pastures, ideally they would keep a close eye on the economics of perennial pastures relative to cropping, in case additionality was lost. If it was lost for a period, then payments for that period are achieving nothing, and could be cut without losing the sequestered carbon.

But how would the agency know? The economics of a mixed farming system are very complex, and highly context specific. I worked on nothing but the economics of mixed farming systems for about 15 years, and it would take me quite a bit of effort to assess the additionality of perennial pastures on a particular farm. It would likely vary from paddock to paddock within the farm. The agency could potentially pay consultants to regularly assess the economics, but the costs of doing so on an individual farm would probably outweigh the value of the additional stored carbon.

What the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund does instead is a before-vs-after comparison of soil carbon, and it assumes that all of the increase is additional for the life of the agreement. This works initially, but the longer the agreement goes on, the larger the chance that additionality will be lost. If it is lost, then the public money allocated for converting to perennial pastures will just be a gift to farmers who would have done it anyway. The gifts could be small and short term or large and long-term; it’s impossible to know in advance. If it turns out to be large and long term, it is the farmer’s good luck – there is no mechanism in the program to turn the payments off.

Should the program have been designed differently? As I said earlier, rigorously assessing additionality on each farm over time is probably not feasible for this practice. It would cost so much that the investment in soil carbon sequestration was not worthwhile.

Additionality could be assessed for a region, rather than for many individual farms. That would make it more affordable, but given the high heterogeneity of the economics of perennial pastures within a region, or even within a farm, the assessment would be wrong in many cases. Still it might be judged to be acceptable as a compromise.

The other alternative is not to provide payments for soil carbon sequestration at all. Personally, that would be my recommendation. There are other problems with paying for soil carbon as well – leakage and permanence, not just additionality (Thamo and Pannell 2017) – and I don’t believe it’s possible to develop a sound policy that is worth the transaction costs.

Although assessing additionality can be difficult, I’m not saying that it is irrelevant. It is always worth thinking it through carefully when setting up an environmental program, and sometimes it is feasible to do a reasonably reliable assessment of it at reasonable cost. But not always. If not, then the program managers have to judge whether the risk of non-additionality is so high that it is not worth proceeding with the program. That’s a difficult judgement that should not be made lightly.

Further reading

Thamo, T. and Pannell, D.J. (2016). Challenges in developing effective policy for soil carbon sequestration: perspectives on additionality, leakage, and permanence, Climate Policy 16, 973–992. Journal web page

309 – Why do fishers in Chile put up with poachers?

Fishers in Chile have been given exclusive rights to fish in particular areas, to give them an incentive to avoid over-fishing. In theory, they should be looking out for illegal poachers and reporting them to authorities, but they often don’t bother to do this. We wondered why.

Many fisheries around the world are over-fished, in some cases to the extent that the total catch of fish is less than it would be if fishing effort were reduced. Often, the over-fishing occurs because individual fishers have no incentive to reduce their own catch; if they do so, the fish they leave will be caught by other fishers, because the fishery is “open-access”.

Various policy approaches have been used to try to address this, including limits on fishing gear, limits on the length of a fishing season, and quotas on how many fish can be caught. A relatively recent approach has been the creation of Territorial User Rights for Fishers (TURFs). In this system, a group of fishers forms a cooperative, and they are given exclusive rights to catch the fish in a certain area (Wilen et al. 2012; Gelcich et al. 2012).

The idea is that, because other fishers outside the cooperative cannot come in and poach the conserved fish, members of the cooperative have an incentive to keep their own level of catch at a sensible level. Of course, this only works if the poachers are actually kept out.

One of my PhD students, Katrina Davis, was working on fisheries management in a part of Chile, and she found that fishers who were part of a TURF cooperative were often making no effort to detect poachers or report them to authorities. She wondered why.

One could imagine various reasons:

  • A judgement that the benefits of reducing poaching would be small. (Katrina’s previous research had shown that this was not true (Davis et al. 2015), but the fishers may have had a different perception.)
  • Concerns about the cost of monitoring TURF areas, especially those that were located at some distance from home.
  • Social norms that would make people uncomfortable about reporting others.
  • Concerns about personal safety if the poachers responded with violence.
  • Lack of action by government to penalise poachers who are reported.

Katrina conducted a survey of the fishers to get to the bottom of this (Davis et al. 2017). She’s pretty fluent in Spanish, which would have helped.

She found that it was mainly about failures of government.

Fishers believe that “the judicial process in Chile does not sufficiently recognise the negative impacts of poaching, and that punishments are not sufficiently severe to deter poachers. Fishers also complained that government institutions, such as the navy or fisheries service, do not always respond to their distress calls when they detect poachers in their management areas.” (Davis et al. 2017, p.676).

Thus the government often fails to meet their side of the bargain. It would be really frustrating to fishers who went to the bother of reporting poachers only to find that their report was ignored, or that the poachers got off with trivial fines. No wonder they stopped monitoring or reporting the poachers.

What this amounts to is that the rights that have been allocated to the fishers’ cooperative are greatly diminished. They are rights in name but not in reality.

It highlights that even where a kind of privatisation approach is used to manage a natural resource, there continues to be a critical role for government to protect and enforce the rights that have been created.

Further reading

Davis, K., Kragt, M., Gelcich, S., Schilizzi, S. and Pannell, D.J. (2015). Accounting for enforcement costs in the spatial allocation of marine zones, Conservation Biology 29(1), 226-237. Journal web page

Davis, K., Kragt, M., Burton, M., Schilizzi, S., Gelcich, S. and Pannell, D.J. (2017). Why are fishers not enforcing their marine user rights? Environmental and Resource Economics 67(4), 661-681. Journal web page

Wilen,. J.E., Cancino, J. and Uchida, H. (2012). The economics of Territorial Use Rights Fisheries, or TURFs, Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 6(2), 237-257. Journal web page ♦ IDEAS page

Gelcich, S., Fernández, M., Godoy, N., Canepa, A., Prado, L. and Castilla, J.C. (2012). Territorial User Rights for Fisheries as ancillary instruments for marine coastal conservation in Chile, Conservation Biology 26(6), 1005–1015. Journal web page