dgwilkinson

September 16, 2014

Ecosystem Limits to Sustainable Economic Output and the Use of Tradable Quotas – An Essential Lesson

A mistake often made in carbon markets and elsewhere is to impose predetermined permit/obligation prices, which have indeterminate effects on the environmental objective. The following stylised heuristic highlights the importance of setting quotas on externalities with reference to the environmental objectives that are to be met, and leaving the determination of a clearing price for such permits and/or obligations to the market. Provided property rights to the relevant factors of production are well defined and enforced, by establishing a quota on the production of externalities at or below the capacity of the ecosystem, and by providing tradable permits and/or obligations to produce those externalities, the market will determine a clearing price.

The following figure provides a simple representation of the relationship between economic output and the capacity limits of the ecosystem.

Ecosystem Limits Graph

The Transformational Efficiency Boundary (TEB) represents the most efficient available means of transforming natural capital and ecosystem services into goods and services.

T 0: Transformational Efficiency Boundary at time 0

T 1: Transformational Efficiency Boundary at time 1

An economy can function above the TEB, but not below it.

As an economy grows it moves along the TEB, while technical change shifts the TEB downward.

Technical change can include socio-economic and organizational improvements, as well as technological changes, that increase the efficiency by which natural capital and ecosystem services are used by the economy to produce goods and services.

The market price of permits and/or obligations will cause such technical changes to occur – T 0 shifts toward T 1 – and ensure the maximum level of environmentally sustainable economic output.

Conclusion: Rather than setting a price for permits/obligations that has unknown effects on the environmental issue, set the quota to deliver the environmental objectives and leave the market to find the clearing price for the permits/obligations.

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