Category Archives: Climate change

333. Reducing bushfire risks

All the world has seen media coverage of the extraordinary fires that Australia has endured this summer. They sparked an intense discussion and debate about what Australia should do to reduce bushfire risks going forward. What does our economic modelling of fire management say about that?

I had a direct stake in the fires. We have a small cabin in a coastal town an hour north of Perth, and before Christmas we had about a week of temperatures above 40°C (104°F), and a big fire threatened the town. It got to the point where they evacuated everybody, but thankfully the weather improved just enough and just in time for the firefighters to get it under control.

Over the past 8 years, I’ve been involved in a number of projects looking at the economics of bushfire risk mitigation in different contexts. We’ve done case studies in four Australian states (Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales) and in New Zealand.

The different studies analysed different combinations of fire management options. The one common element in all the studies was prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads, but in particular cases we also looked at land-use planning to exclude assets from high-risk areas, retrofitting of houses to make them more fire-resistant, fire breaks, and community education.

It was a mix of research and consulting projects, and some of it still needs to be published.

We found that the economics of bushfires are really complex and data-intensive, and often there is a lack of data to do a bullet-proof analysis. In some cases, we met some of the data needs using sophisticated fire simulation models, but in others, we relied on data synthesis and expert judgments.  Despite the variations in context and methods, we did learn some pretty clear lessons across the various analyses.

The results for prescribed burning were somewhat variable in different contexts, but overall, we found that the long-run benefits of prescribed burning tended to outweigh the costs in most cases.

Interestingly, though, we found that prescribed burning leads to reductions in average losses that are modest relative to the overall losses due to fires. These modest reductions in losses are worth pursuing – they exceed the costs of prescribed burning – but it means that we need to have realistic expectations about what prescribed burning can do for us. Especially in extremely bad (“catastrophic”) fire conditions, losses can still be large, even with the best possible prescribed burning strategy in place.

One of the questions we looked at was whether prescribed burning should be done close to properties or more distantly. Closer to properties has higher benefits, because it increases the chance that a recent prescribed burn will block the passage of a bushfire. But closer to properties also has higher costs, because of the need for additional fire-fighting crews and equipment to reduce the risk of prescribed burns escaping and doing more damage than they prevent. In a detailed analysis of this (Florec et al. 2019), we found that the costs of burning close to houses outweighed the benefits.

In the analysis we did for the Perth Hills, we found that strong land-use planning was the most cost-effective strategy. While it is easy to see the sense in that, it comes up against the reality that some people especially like to live in locations where the fire risk is especially high. We didn’t factor in the likely transaction costs to government in trying to impose a policy that a group of people is opposed to.

Another interesting finding was that a broad policy of retrofitting houses to reduce their likelihood of burning was not economically efficient. Such a policy imposes substantial costs on a large number of houses to avoid the loss of a much smaller number of houses, and we found that the numbers just don’t stack up. Interestingly, new houses in bushfire-prone areas of Western Australia are now required to meet high standards of fire resistance.

Finally, in one case where we had access to a fire simulation model, we looked at possible impacts of climate change on future losses from fires (in 2030 and 2090). In brief, the additional losses due to climate change were large, potentially very large. In the media discussions during and following the recent fires, some politicians were suggesting that bushfire risk is not a reason to pursue stronger policies to mitigate climate change; all we need to do is a better job of prescribed burning. While there certainly can be benefits from prescribed burning, our analysis shows that there is no way increased prescribed burning could come close to offsetting the worsening fire risk from even modest climate change. Indeed, increasing prescribed burning may not even be feasible following climate change, as it narrows the window of time within which prescribed burning can be done without excessive risk.

From a bushfire perspective, Australia would have a lot to gain from effective international action to mitigate climate change. This suggests that we should be playing a stronger role in the global climate policy process.

Further reading

Florec, V., Burton, M., Pannell, D., Kelso, J. and Milne, G. (2019). Where to prescribe burn: the costs and benefits of prescribed burning close to houses, International Journal of Wildland Fire https://doi.org/10.1071/WF18192

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

284 – The world food price crisis of 2007

In 2007, the world prices for a number of important food commodities suddenly increased dramatically. Many reasons for the price hike were proposed at the time, but some of them turned out to have little to do with it. One factor that did play a big role was American policy that mandates use of biofuels.

Between 2006 and 2008, the price of rice increased by around 200%, and the prices of maize, wheat and soybeans all increased by over 100%.

food_prices

Figure 1. Index of food prices since 1990.

 

It was estimated that this big jump in food prices pushed an additional 130-155 million people into poverty. People rioted in protest at the high food prices in various countries, including Bangladesh, Mozambique, Egypt, Tunisia, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Haiti.

A number of possible reasons for the price rises were identified, including:

  • Increasing oil and energy prices
  • Drought and climate change
  • Panic buying
  • Export restrictions
  • Increased demand for food in Asia
  • Biofuel policies

food_riotIt was felt at the time that it was the combination of all these things that did the damage. There were so many factors thought to have contributed that some described the situation as a “perfect storm”.

However, we now have the benefit of hindsight and it’s clear that some of these factors played little or no role in the price spike (Wright 2014).

It’s true that the oil price spiked in the first half of 2007, just before the food price spike, so there is at least a smoking gun. Higher oil prices would have increased the cost of agricultural production to some degree, and this could have been passed on to buyers. However, Wright argued that this sequence of events (high oil prices followed by high food prices) was largely coincidence, not a causal link. He noted that prior to this event, there was no notable relationship between oil and food prices:

The 1970s oil spike began after the spike in grain prices was well under way, and another huge oil price surge starting in 1978 had no counterpart in the grain market. The sharp but forgotten spike in maize and wheat in 1996 was not matched by a similar movement in oil prices. When energy prices doubled after 1998, grain prices on average barely moved until 2006. (Wright 2014, p. 546).

If drought or adverse climate change was a significant cause, we would have seen significant declines in global food production in 2007-08. People observed that there was a big reduction in Australian grain production at just this time, due to the long drought in the Murray Darling Basin. However, Wright showed that there was no major decline in aggregate global production for any of the three major grains, so other countries must have had production increases that offset Australia’s shortfall. Furthermore, looking at past spikes in food prices, he found that (back to 1962) none of them coincided with large production shortfalls. This is intriguing, because a shortage should in theory cause a price increase, but it seems to have been overwhelmed by other factors in past years at least.

There was “panic buying” by several countries (Bangladesh, The Philippines, Nigeria and some Gulf countries) who increased stocks in an attempt to contain local food prices. This may have made a temporary contribution to higher prices on world markets, but it probably wasn’t a major factor. As evidence of that, I note that panic buying soon ceased, but prices remained high for several years (until about 2014).

A number of countries that traditionally have been exporters of cereal grains imposed a ban on exports during the crisis: Argentina, China, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam. This would have reduced the supply of grain in international markets. The World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund estimated that prices would have been 13% lower without these restrictions.

Increased demand for food in Asia, especially China, probably contributed. Higher incomes led to higher demand for meat, which led to higher demand for grain to feed to livestock, particularly soya beans. Higher prices for one grain flows through to other grains through substitution in demand. Wright noted that the evidence about the role of higher food demand in pushing up prices in 2007-08 is complex and somewhat confusing, but that it probably did play some role.

Finally, we have biofuels policy, particularly the US policy that caused large volumes of corn to be diverted away from food and livestock production and into the production of ethanol for use as a transport fuel. Although this was ignored by many commentators at the time, it undoubtedly played a significant role in the food price jumps. In addition to pushing up food prices, this policy increased the area and intensity of corn production, which probably led to increased environmental damage in the forms of water pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss. And, tragically, even in terms of its contribution to abatement of greenhouse gases, it was (and still is) a very poor policy. The climate benefits provided are small and very expensive.

One lesson from this is that we need to be careful in drawing conclusions about the reasons for changes in market prices. It is easy to be misled by simple correlations, such as that between 2007 oil prices and food prices. A plausible story is not sufficient evidence.

Another lesson is the importance of thinking through policies before committing to them. The failure to do that for biofuels policy in the US and Europe probably resulted in them doing more harm than good.

Further reading

Wright, B.D. (2014). Data at our fingertips, myths in our minds: recent grain price jumps as the ‘perfect storm’, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 58, 538-553. Journal web site ♦ Ideas page for this paper

267 – Budget 2014 and the environment

Last week’s budget included funding cuts to many areas of government, and the environment certainly was one of the areas to suffer. There were some new initiatives, but they were outweighed by what was taken away. 

The most substantial environmental initiative in the budget is the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), a key part of the government’s election promise of a Direct Action climate policy. The headline commitment is A$2.55 billion, although spending in the next three years will be only A$300 million, A$355 million and A$417 million – 30% less than the amounts announced by Environment Minister Greg Hunt as recently as November last year.

The ERF is intended to replace the carbon tax, which is expected to raise more than A$7 billion in 2013-14. It is no secret that economists generally don’t support this policy change, viewing it as a move from a relatively efficient to a relatively inefficient mechanism that will worsen the deficit.

volunteersAnother of the key initiatives also amounts to give and take. There is A$525 million over four years for the Green Army (another election promise), which will undertake a range of environmental work. But this is almost fully offset by cuts of A$484 million over five years to the Caring for our Country programme and Landcare, now merged into a new National Landcare Programme.

Of the A$1 billion over four years that remains in the merged programme, some is tied to other election commitments, such as a nature corridor in Western Sydney (A$7.5 million), a Whale and Dolphin Protection Plan (A$2 million), and the 20 Million Trees programme (A$50 million).

These changes amount to a substantial cut in funding to Australia’s 50 regional natural resource management bodies – a fate they also suffered after the last change of government in 2007.

On the face of it, the budget looks to have delivered on an election promise to safeguard Australia’s most iconic environmental asset, the Great Barrier Reef, with a new Reef Trust set to provide A$40 million over four years.

But while this sounds respectable, it is a very small percentage of the amount needed to achieve existing targets for the reef. It is also partly offset by a A$2.8 million cut (over four years) to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

There are lots more cuts too. The 4900 staff employed in the environment portfolio will be reduced by 300, although that is fewer than might have been feared.

Then there are numerous cuts to existing programs. The most affected areas, predictably, are those related to climate change, including carbon storage, renewable energy and alternative fuels. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is to be wound up, saving A$1.3 billion over five years starting in 2017-18. Funding of A$1 billion remains to support existing projects. 

Another large saving is a A$459 million cut to the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagship Programme, also commencing in 2017-18.

Climate Spectator has confirmed that an earlier promise of A$500 million for a One Million Solar Roofs program has been quietly dropped. Similarly, there is no sign of the promised A$50 million for Solar Schools, and the promised Solar Towns program has been dramatically scaled down, from A$50 million to A$2.1 million.

Biodiesel and ethanol will both be subject to increasing excise rates, growing to 50% of the “energy content equivalent tax rate” (the scale by which fuels are taxed according to how much energy they contain) by 2021. This will reduce the incentive for people to prioritise these fuels over fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, there are various cuts to fuel efficiency and green technology measures, including:

  • The National Low Emissions Coal Initiative (A$17 million)
  • The Clean Technology Programme (A$45 million)
  • The National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme (A$2 million)
  • The Ethanol Production Grants program (A$120 million over six years)
  • Grants to support algal synthesis and biofuels (A$5 million)
  • The Cleaner Fuels Grants Scheme
  • Water and science

Water is also a target for cuts, with the abolition of the National Water Commission (A$21 million over four years) and savings of A$408 million in the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure progam, leaving that program with A$4.5 billion over 10 years.

These savings include reduced funding for water buyback, with the government prioritising water recovery through infrastructure projects. In this, the government has chosen to prioritise a highly inefficient method to generate water, in response to political pressure from the agriculture sector. As with the changes to climate policy, this policy conflicts with the government’s aim to be seen as a sound economic manager.

Environmental research funding will probably be affected by cuts to CSIRO (A$111 million), the Cooperative Research Centre program (A$80 million) and the Australian Research Council (A$75 million). It will definitely be affected by cuts to the National Environmental Research Program (A$21 million), the Office of Water Science (A$10 million) and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (A$8 million).

Finally, the decision to resume indexation of the fuel excise will have an incidental effect on the environment. One cannot help being struck by the irony of this measure being introduced by a government that was so highly critical of the carbon tax and the burden it places on the community.

The initial cost of this change will be relatively minor (A$280 million in 2014-15), but it will grow rapidly year by year (to A$1.85 billion by 2017-18). Before long, its annual cost may exceed that of Australia’s carbon pricing arrangements, depending on how prices change in Europe’s carbon market, which the previous government had signed up to.

Not that I’m being critical of the decision to index the fuel excise. As well as generating revenue, it will reintroduce at least some of the incentive to reduce fossil fuel consumption that will be lost if the Senate approves the government’s plan to dismantle the carbon pricing system.

That point aside, it is not a good budget for the environment – but then that was expected. In relative terms, the environment probably hasn’t been hit any harder than other areas like health and education.

A version of this article was first published in The Conversation on 14 May 2014.

I did an interview on ABC Radio National (Bush Telegraph program) on 16 May 2014 about Landcare and the Budget. You can listen to it here. (My bit starts about half way through the item.)

 

265 – Fossil fuel subsidies

Amidst all the discussions about carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes for mitigating climate change, we hear very little about fossil fuel subsidies. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that they are, in fact, enormous.

This matters for several reasons, including that these subsidies encourage increased use of fossil fuels. From the perspective of climate-change policy, fossil-fuel subsidies make things even worse than they need to be. Climate policies are intended to push us in one direction, but fossil-fuel subsidies are pushing us in the opposite direction. It’s like running a race but starting well behind the start line.

I was surprised to learn that Australia has one of the highest levels of fossil fuel subsidies in the OECD, totalling US$8.5 billion of budgetary support and tax expenditures in 2011.

petrol_pumpWe have a bewildering array of schemes that subsidise fossil fuels. Federal subsidies include exemptions from crude oil excise for condensate, a reduced excise rate on aviation fuel, and the clean coal fund, plus there are numerous schemes at the state level. The biggest subsidy by far is the Fuel Tax Credits program, which provided almost $6 billion dollars of support to businesses for their fuel use in 2011.

Our total level of subsidies is behind the USA ($13 billion) but ahead of some economies that are much bigger than ours: Germany ($7 billion), the UK ($7 billion) and France ($4 billion).

We are told by our national government that our carbon tax is cripplingly expensive and has to go, but in 2012-13 it collected only $4.9 billion, not much more than half the cost of our fossil fuel subsidies. For some reason, the subsidies are not considered too expensive for us to bear. The most cost-effective way to make a start on reducing carbon emissions would probably be to remove these subsidies. At the same time, it would help to reduce our budget deficit.

The problem is even worse outside the OECD, with some staggeringly large subsidy programmes in Egypt ($19 billion), China ($20 billion), Russia ($23 billion), Venezuela ($24 billion), India ($34 billion), Saudi Arabia ($46 billion) and Iran ($65 billion). In Venezuela, fuel at the retail level is almost free – just a few cents per litre.

Fuel subsidies in these countries are often justified as a form of assistance to poor people, but it’s a really dumb way to try to help them. For one thing, most of the benefits go to people who are not poor. Secondly, the greatest needs of poor people might be something other than fuel – food or education, for example. Thirdly, big subsidies hold countries back economically, which ultimately is bad for poor people.

Getting rid of them is really hard, though, because the beneficiaries are used to them and see them as entitlements. Sometimes the subsidies are targeted at special interest groups, like farmers, who would fight really hard against any attempt to remove them.

It’s another illustration of the adage that we shouldn’t put any major policy in place that we might later want to remove, because special interests take hold and use the political system to defeat the public interest.

Further reading

Burniaux, J.M. and Chateau, J. (2011). Mitigation Potential of Removing Fossil Fuel Subsidies: A General Equilibrium Assessment, OECD, Paris, IDEAS page

OECD (2012). Inventory of Estimated Budgetary Support and Tax Expenditures for Fossil Fuels 2013, OECD, Paris, here

Whitley, S. (2013). Time to change the game: Fossil fuel subsidies and climate, Overseas Development Institute, here