Category Archives: Climate change

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%.


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


259 – Increasing environmental benefits

It is obvious that the budgets of our public environmental programs are small relative to the cost of fixing all of our environmental problems. If we want to achieve greater environmental benefits from our public investments, what, in broad terms, are the options?

I remember seeing a graph last year – I think it was from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – showing the level of concern felt by the Australian community about environmental issues. It looked to have peaked a few years ago, and was pretty flat, or slightly declining. In that context, the prospects for a big increase in environmental spending over time don’t look good, particularly given the general tightness of government budgets. So I was wondering, if we wanted to double the environmental values protected or enhanced by our public programs, what are the options? I was able to identify several. I’ll list them here, and briefly comment on their potential effectiveness, cost and political feasibility.

  1. Double the budget. Effectiveness: high (in the sense that we could actually double the environmental benefits generated). Cost: high. Politics: very unlikely in the foreseeable future. It wouldn’t be my first priority, anyway. Increasing the budget would be more effective if we first delivered some of the strategies below.
  2. Improve the prioritisation of environmental investments. Improve the usage of evidence, the quality of decision metrics (Pannell 2013), and the quality of evaluation of proposals. Effectiveness: high (because most programs currently have major deficiencies in these areas). Cost: low, especially relative to doubling the budget. Politics: Implies a higher degree of selectivity, which some stakeholders dislike. Probably means funding fewer, larger projects. Achievable for part of the budget but the politics probably require a proportion to be spent along traditional lines (relatively unprioritised).
  3. murray_riverEncourage more voluntary pro-environmental action through education, persuasion, peer pressure and the like. Effectiveness: commonly low, moderate in some cases. Cost: moderate. Politics: favourable.
  4. Increase the share of environmental funds invested in research and development to create pro-environmental technologies (Pannell 2009). Note that this is about creation of new technologies, rather than information. Examples could include more effective baits for feral cats, new types of trees that are commercially viable in areas threatened by dryland salinity, or new renewable energy technologies. Feasibility: case-specific – high in some cases, low in others. Cost: moderate. Politics: requires a degree of patience which can be politically problematic. Also may conflict with community desire to spend resources directly on on-ground works (even if the existing technologies are not suitable). There tends to be a preference for research funding to come from the research budget rather than the environment budget, although this likely means that it is not as well targeted to solve the most important environmental problems.
  5. Improve the design of environmental projects and programs. Improve evidence basis for identifying required actions. Improve selection of delivery mechanisms. Improve the logical consistency of projects. Effectiveness: high (because a lot of existing projects are not well founded on evidence, and/or don’t use appropriate delivery mechanisms, and/or are lacking in internal logical consistency). Cost: low. Politics: Implies changes in the way that projects are developed, with longer lead times, which may not be popular. There may be a perception of high transaction costs from this strategy (although they would be low relative to the benefits) (Pannell et al. 2013).
  6. Increase the emphasis on learning and using better information. Strategies include greater use of detailed feasibility studies, improved outcome-oriented monitoring, and active adaptive management. Effectiveness: moderate to high. Would feed into, and further improve, options 2 and 5. Cost: low. Politics: main barrier is political impatience, and a view that decisions based on judgement are sufficient even in the absence of good information. Often that view is supported/excused by an argument that action cannot and should not wait (which is a reasonable argument in certain cases, but usually is not).
  7. Reform inefficient and environmentally damaging policies and programs. Examples include subsidies for fossil fuels, badly designed policies supporting biofuels in Europe and in the USA, and agricultural subsidies. This strategy is quite unlike the other strategies discussed here, but it has enormous potential to generate environmental benefits in countries that have these types of policies. Successful reform would be not just costless, but cost-saving. Effectiveness: very high in particular cases. Cost: negative. Politics: difficult to very difficult. People with a vested interest in existing policies fight hard to retain them. Environmental agencies don’t tend to fight for this, but there could be great benefits if they did.

In my judgement, for Australia, the top priorities should be strategies 2 and 5 followed by 6. Strategy 4 has good potential in certain cases. If these four strategies were delivered, the case for strategy 1 would be greatly increased (once the politics made that feasible). To succeed, strategies 2, 5 and 6 would need an investment in training and expert support within environmental organisations. Over time, in those environmental organisations that don’t already perform well in relation to strategies 2, 5 and 6 (i.e. most of them), there may be a need for cultural change, which requires leadership and patience.

In Europe and the USA, my first choice would be strategy 7, if it was politically feasible. After that, 2, 5, 6 and 4 again.

Further Reading

Garrick, D., McCann, L., Pannell, D.J. (2013). Transaction costs and environmental policy: Taking stock, looking forward, Ecological Economics 88, 182-184. Journal web site

Pannell, D.J., Roberts, A.M., Park, G. and Alexander, J. (2013). Improving environmental decisions: a transaction-costs story, Ecological Economics 88, 244-252. Journal web siteIDEAS page

Pannell, D.J. (2009). Technology change as a policy response to promote changes in land management for environmental benefits, Agricultural Economics 40(1), 95-102. Journal web page ◊ Prepublication version

Pannell, D.J. (2013). Ranking environmental projects, Working Paper 1312, School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia. IDEAS page ◊ Blog series

230 – Future climate change and wheat yields in Western Australia

The wheat-growing areas of Western Australia are predicted to experience adverse climate change during the 21st century. Of the three components of change (rainfall, temperature and CO2) the first two are somewhat uncertain, but current modelling evidence suggests that great pessimism about future yields is probably not warranted. 

Although there was quite substantial climate change in the Western Australia wheatbelt during the 20th century, it had little or no adverse consequences for wheat yields (PD229). Of course, it doesn’t follow that the same will hold during the 21st century. That will depend on the details of how much change occurs, and at what time of year it occurs. These details are highly uncertain.

Even the general pattern of future climate change is inherently uncertain, particularly in the long term. It depends in part on global emissions of greenhouse gases, which in turn depend on economic activity, technology change and climate policy measures over the relevant time frame. Uncertainty about each of these factors is high and increases with the length of time frame. In addition, the world’s climatic system is complex, chaotic and imperfectly understood, so that there is additional uncertainty inherent in the results of global circulation models, the tools used to predict climate.

Uncertainty is greater at the regional scale than at the global scale. And it is greater still when it comes to the within-year timing of changes in rainfall and temperature. We really have little idea about those timings, although they can be crucial in determining the consequences for crop yields (PD229).


Adverse changes in rainfall probably have the largest potential to reduce crop yields. Large reductions in September rainfall would be especially damaging. Unfortunately, rainfall is the factor about which we have the greatest uncertainty. Loosely speaking, regions that are already relatively wet are predicted to get wetter, and regions that are relatively dry (such as the Western Australian wheatbelt) are predicted to get drier, but in truth the models aren’t good enough to give us confidence about what will really happen in any particular place. CSIRO (2007) (somewhat heroically) predicted changes in annual average rainfall for the south-west of -20% to +5% by 2030 and -60% to +10% by 2070 relative to the period 1980-1999.

If the real results do fall within these ranges, 2030 would probably not be catastrophic, unless it includes a large reduction in early-spring rainfall. Clearly, -60% in 2070 would be catastrophic, but it’s the extreme case. Something nearer the midpoint of that range (-20%) would probably be damaging but not catastrophic. The real message about 2070 is that we have huge uncertainty about what rainfall will do – the range of the CSIRO predictions is 70%!


By 2050, increases in temperature could perhaps be somewhere in the range of 1 to 3 °C. A positive impact on yield of temperature increases up to 1–3 °C has been reported from relevant crop modelling results when assuming that temperatures increase by the same amount every day across the growing season. Positive yield impacts come from accelerated plant development, leading to avoidance of high maximum temperatures and water stress during grain filling.

On the other hand, if the higher temperatures happen to include an increased frequency of extreme temperatures during grain filling, the result could be very negative. There is a potential for yield reductions of 5% for each day of extreme heat during grain filling.

Again, there is high uncertainty. Future temperature changes could be positive, negative or neutral for crop yields in Western Autralia.


CO2 fertilization of crops is a significant part of the climate/CO2 story (Attavanich and McCarl, 2012). In future, CO2 concentrations are likely to increase at about about 4 ppm per year. This is predicted to increase yields of current wheat cultivars in Western Australia by 15–30% over the next 50 years (Asseng and Pannell, 2012). Percentage increases in yield are likely to be greater in dryer agricultural regions, mainly due to increased water-use efficiency. Compared to the changes in rainfall  and temperature, the increases in CO2 are fairly certain. They are also constant all year, avoiding the tricky problem of predicting the within-year distribution of changes.

Highly adverse changes in rainfall and temperature would be really catastrophic for farmers in the Western Australian wheatbelt, but more likely the overall impacts will be moderate, particularly when the positive yield effects of CO2 fertilization are factored in.

Reinforcing that judgement, another new paper (Potgieter et al., 2012) concludes that, under a high-emissions scenario, different shires would see changes in crop yields by 2050 of −5% to +6% across most of Western Australia (and Victoria and southern New South Wales), even without allowing for CO2 fertilization.

I was surprised at how favourable those results are, especially considering that they are for a high-emission scenario. If they are accurate, then any negative impacts would be outweighed by the positive effects of CO2 fertilization.

I remember reading the original report of the Garnaut review, and being struck by how much it emphasised the risks to agriculture when justifying Australia’s need for a strong policy response to climate change. There certainly are risks to agriculture, but this evidence suggests that they are not as compelling a policy driver as Garnaut indicated. If Potgieter et al. are right, then I would expect that the ongoing decline in public investment in agricultural research will have far worse consequences for agriculture.

This Pannell Discussion draws on part of a paper I’ve recently published with Senthold Asseng, who’s now at the University of Florida (Asseng and Pannell, 2012).

Further reading

Asseng, S. and Pannell, D.J. (2012). Adaptating dryland agriculture to climate change: farming implications and research and development needs in Western Australia, Climatic Change (forthcoming).

Attavanich, W. and McCarl, B. (2012). The effect of climate change, CO2 fertilization, and crop production technology on crop yields and its economic implications on market outcomes and welfare distribution, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, 2011 Annual Meeting, July 24-26, 2011, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, IDEAS page for this paper.

Potgieter, A., Meinke, H., Doherty, A., Sadras, V.O., Hammer, G., Crimp, S. and Rodriguez, D. (2012). Spatial impact of projected changes in rainfall and temperature on wheat yields in Australia, Climatic Change (forthcoming).