Why cost-benefit analysis is a much better context for ecosystem service valuation than natural capital accounts

Help! I just discovered I agree with George Monbiot!

Well, sort of. He makes a number of sensible points against natural capital accounting that are worth considering:

Natural capital accounting suggests substitutability. Prices are substitutions. In a market money is best understood as a numeraire good, a good that has no immediate value of its own but that acts as an intermediary and a yardstick for the value (read: relative scarcity) of all the other commodities. I know natural capital adherents who try to estimate the monetary value of ecosystems, but flinch at any suggestion of it being a “price tag”: ecosystems cannot be substituted, they say. If a commodity cannot be substituted it has an infinite price. Attach a finite number to it, and it becomes substitutable. Period. This means two things. First, as Monbiot rightly argues, a price is meaningless without the suggestion of a transaction. Indeed, much non-market valuation aims at finding the compensating variation of a public good: how much money people should pay (receive) to make them just as happy as if they had not seen the public good reduced (improved). But these are incremental changes, whereas natural capital accounting regards the value of total stocks of capital. Second, if you value the total area of forest at some price (usually the per-hectare value times the area in hectares) you suggest we would be happy if we sold all our forest at that price (plus, say, one euro). But the per-hectare value reflects the marginal value of the first hectare you would cut; by the time you’re done cutting all the forest the last tree will be worth astronomic sums of money.

Pricing something crowds out intrinsic motivations to preserve it. A growing body of social-psychological research demonstrates that this is indeed a risk. A now-classic study demonstrated that when parents were fined for being late to pick up their kids at a day-care centre, they were more likely to be late – paying the fine absolved them of the moral obligation to be on time. Another study demonstrates that when being informed on the economic value of a park, people are less likely to donate money to its conservation.

I don’t think monetary valuation is entirely useless, but I do admit I’m getting more skeptical of natural capital accounting. Originally non-market valuation was developed to be included in cost-benefit analysis, and I think it should stay there. For three reasons:

Cost-benefit analysis has a null option. A properly done CBA compares at least two alternatives: adopting the policy and not adopting the policy. Both alternatives should be defined carefully, so they can be compared on their positive and negative effects on human well-being. NCA has no such null option. Suppose the government wants to build a highway straight through a forest. A CBA would compare two alternatives: one where we keep the forest and accept the traffic jams, and one where we lose the forest but win travel time. Comparing the economic costs and benefits of both alternatives gives us the incremental costs and benefits of building the highway. Now, I know that NCA was never meant to be used in such decisions (which raises for me the question what it is being used for), but the example demonstrates the problem with its lack of a null option: if we lose the forest, what do we have left? There is no proper definition of “no forest”: is it barren land, a hole in the soil, a graveyard of trees? The worst case of valuation-without-context is replacement cost pricing, where the forest is valued by the costs you would make to rebuild it elsewhere if it disappears. In a CBA such rebuilding efforts could be part of your policy alternative, and the CBA will inform you on the merits of that choice. In NCA, however, you would have to assume that the forest would be rebuilt no matter what.

Cost-benefit analysis is done in incremental terms. As rightly pointed out by Monbiot (and, actually, many economists), it is silly to assume that the total value of a biome is equal to its marginal value times its area. In fact, economists developing methods to value natural capital are aware of this, so what they do is to account for the value of natural capital in a way that is consistent with how we calculate GDP. Nevertheless, the very act of valuing all forest in a country yields numbers that are very difficult to interpret, and therefore prone to misinterpretation. In a CBA, both alternatives are defined by a proper storyline and a delineation.

Cost-benefit analysis has a context. CBA is usually done to inform a concrete policy decision, and most of the time it is an input into a wider decision-making process that involves multiple stakeholders. Also, in this process many other values are considered besides economic value, such as social impacts, aesthetics, ethical considerations. Non-market valuation of ecosystem services can be part of this, but one can also choose not to monetize those values, and leave them to a wider debate that can also include other considerations. (I’m currently reading up on taboo trade-offs and the IPBES theoretical framework – exciting stuff!) At best, the valuations done within NCA are included in satellite accounts that also list biophysical parameters such as species richness, forest cover, and air quality. But the wide range of considerations that will feature in the public debate will still be reduced to a set of statistics.

MSEAS Brest: My impressions

Tonight is my last night in Brest after an intensive and massively enjoyable conference on Understanding marine socio-ecological systems: including the human dimension in Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (MSEAS). It’s been one of those events where you soak up loads and loads of impressions, which take time to digest, which I just did today in the magnificent Océanopolis – I figured that would be an apt place to reflect on the human dimensions of marine management. So here are my thoughts.

 

MSEAS did much, much more than the average economics conference to stimulate debate and to provoke creative ideas. I much enjoyed the open and creative atmosphere that brought together people from fields as diverse as biology, economics, and anthropology. As far as I have seen in all discussions people were very open and respectful to each other’s views. Which is different from what I have seen in some of the more disciplinary or conservation-oriented conferences. Oh, and getting a cartoonist capture the sessions was an excellent move. He was not just funny, he actually contributed to the debate and gave us fresh new insights. More input from artists next time please!

Beth Fulton on people’s trust in models

Boy, do I envy this generation of young researchers working in this field. The Young Researchers Workshops gave them the chance to pose questions to more experienced researchers in the field on all kinds of issues. (I felt to old to ask a question and too young to answer one.) I wish EAERE had this when I did my PhD!

From the presentations and keynote lectures I got the overall impression that there is a particular need for social indicators (other than economic ones, and employment), analyses of governance and institutions, and further integration of the whole range of issues in analyses and assessments. The topics were clearly skewed towards fisheries, which is a shame given the growing importance of other sectors, but also understandable given that this was an initiative by people within the ICES network. I was somewhat surprised to notice that there was not a single cost-benefit analysis, especially considering that the OECD’s Ocean Economy report explicitly calls for more cost-benefit analyses of ocean management.

Shame she wasn’t there second
time I visited the Océanopolis

I was particularly enthusiastic about some of the qualitative research that shone a new light on economic analyses. Edwin van Helmond presented an analysis of Dutch fisher behaviour where interviews with fishers helped resolve a number of puzzles in the data that statistical analysis could never have solved. Matthias Kokorsch presented the results of a series of interviews he did with Icelandic fishers on the effects of the tradable quota system in that country.

Slow sessions are just not my thing. I went to the Sunday session in the Tara Inn: there were loads of people, the atmosphere was great, but the music just did not appeal to me. It’s not the pace: there’s nothing wrong with playing a bit slower if you can’t keep up with the standard speed. In fact it’s better than playing above your level! But the playing was sloppy. Luckily I did get the chance to see some of the local traditions at the very last evening at a Fest Deiz!

Why (not) price nature?

A few remarks on today’s debate on economic valuation of ecosystem services, here in Wageningen:

  • Having two non-economists as the only speakers in a debate on economic valuation of ecosystem services led to the usual misconceptions of economics, some if which I will explain below.
  • I have written most of what I can say about the issue in this post.
  • In my three-species typology in that post, Dolf de Groot is a typical pragmatic ecologist: he literally called valuation “a necessary evil.”
  • The same typology might label Bram Büscher (a sociologist) a hardcore ecologist, but actually his arguments were more of a Marxist critique of economics and capitalism than of a moral nature (intrinsic value ‘n all). In short his argument is that ecosystem degradation is caused by the logic of capitalism; pricing nature perpetuates that logic rather than abolishing it.
  • De Groot claimed that “conventional economists ignore most externalities, like ecosystem degradation.” As a conventional environmental economist, who has been working on nothing else for the past ten years than externalities and other market failures, and who meets hundreds of similar economists every year at the meetings of EAERE, AERE, IIFET, BIOECON, and so on, I found this very strange to hear, to put it mildly.
  • Another statement by De Groot was that unlike pricing, valuing “is not about substitution.” Economic valuation is ALWAYS about substitution. If you don’t like the idea that people can be compensated for ecological degradation, don’t do valuation. De Groot wants to have his cake and eat it too.
  • It is a more general problem I have with the so-called ‘ecological economists’: a lot of their valuation work is poorly thought through, poorly executed, and done from a political agenda rather than out of scientific curiosity.
  • Common mistakes by ecological economists are (1) not properly defining what they measure (like doing a stated preference survey among tourists to measure indirect use values); (2) aggregating values to such a scale that prices are bound to change (the most fundamental critique of Costanza et al.’s 1997 paper); (3) treating economic values like they would treat biophysical variables such as temperature or density (which are not context-dependent while economic value depends on what question you are asking).
  • Büscher repeated the Suzuki fallacy that “externality” means “not part of the economic system”
  • Büscher “did not have time” to propose an alternative to the capitalist system. Perhaps he should have a look at the historical alternatives to capitalism and their wonderful impact on the environment.
  • Büscher quoted a Chinese philosopher (probably Sun Tzu) that “if you can get your enemy to speak your language you have won the battle” or something in that spirit. I don’t agree. Economists study the rules of market allocation (property rights, taxation, and so on) to understand where such rules work and where they don’t. This would suggest that our advice would always favour big business. But being market-friendly is not the same as being business-friendly.
  • I’m in favour of pricing ecosystem services, but only in the context of concrete policy decisions, in a proper cost-benefit analysis that is part of a wider policy-making process that also takes into account other considerations besides economic value (such as intrinsic value, distribution of effects, and so on). Don’t try to estimate the total value of the planet, as Costanza did.

Why economists argue with ecologists (6): Can we price nature?

Can we express nature’s value in currency, such as dollars, euros, or yuan? I usually get one of the following three replies to this question.

The first is the hardcore ecologist:
“Most certainly not. Nature has a value in itself. Pricing nature is disrespectful to nature; it violates nature’s intrinsic value; it’s cynical and perhaps even blasphemous. Can’t we just enjoy something without putting a price tag on it? Why does everything have to be expressed in money?”

The second is the hardcore economist:
“Well, duh. People have preferences. Do you prefer an apple or an orange? Do you prefer a highway or a forest? From preference orderings we can derive the amount of compensation people would need for building that highway. So of course we can price nature. We do it every time we make a choice between nature and something else.”

The third is the pragmatic ecologist:
“I don’t like it, but if we don’t do it policy makers won’t listen to us. Economists rule the world, so to promote nature conservation we need to speak the language of economists, and that is money. So I’ll just hold my nose and price nature. But I will also remind people that the price tag does not mean that nature can be substituted for something else.”

Believe it or not, but my view is closer to the hardcore ecologist than any of the other two. So what am I doing teaching monetary valuation of the environment next June?

When we do monetary valuation of, say, a coral reef, we don’t value a coral reef. Does my wage say how much I am worth as a human being? (Boy, am I glad I never pursued that career in Dutch folk music.) No, at best it gives an indication of the value of the skills and expertise I am offering in the labor market as a teacher and researcher. Likewise, coral reef valuation aims to estimate the economic value of the goods and services provided by a coral reef, like diving tourism, coastal protection, or nursing juvenile fish. By “economic value” I mean how badly we want or need those goods and services, and how easy it would be to get them elsewhere if the coral reef disappears. That tension between how badly we want something and how easily we can get it is also called relative scarcity. Water is not scarce in The Netherlands, even though it is an essential resource. The fact that it is so easy to get makes that it has a very low market price. On the other hand, diamonds are hugely expensive, not because we need them so badly but because they are so difficult to come by. You rarely see newspaper headlines about the scarcity of people, but there is common mention of scarcity of skills or labor. The last time we put price tags on humans was during the shameful era of the slave trade. Likewise, monetary valuation does not, and should not, even pretend to price nature as such.

This view puts me at odds with the hardcore economist who argues that ethics can be fit in preference orderings and compensated for. I don’t agree with this line of reasoning. It would imply that one person can block a policy if he finds it absolutely unacceptable – after all, he would require an infinite amount of compensation in order to be left “as well off” as without the policy. In practice we would call him a protest bidder and remove his data point from our analysis. Another problem is that this line of reasoning assumes that moral objections are purely individual. Moral considerations, however, typically pretend to hold for everybody. If I think eating meat is wrong, I can allow you to order a hamburger while still condemning it. If it were a purely individual preference, for instance if I would have no quarrels with eating meat but I simply don’t like hamburgers, I would have no reason to condemn your ordering of a hamburger. So when we talk about the intrinsic value of a coral reef or a species, we have no other option but to debate it with others. The outcome of that debate may be that the majority dismisses the idea of an intrinsic value of a coral reef. But at least the argument would have its proper place in the political process, which it would not have if we tried to express it in a monetary value.

It also puts me at odds with the pragmatic ecologist. First, I find his line of reasoning insincere. If you think coral reefs are unique, unsubstitutable, and should be preserved for their own worth, just say so and don’t start using economic value as an argument of convenience. Second, economic value implies substitutability, period. If I compensate you for the loss of an environmental asset, I substitute the environmental asset by something that makes you just as well off as with the asset. So I have substituted the asset by something of similar value to you. If I cannot substitute the asset by all the wealth in the universe, then its value must be infinite: hence Michael Toman‘s characterization of Costanza’s $33 trillion paper as “a serious underestimate of infinity”. Third, valuation should be done sincerely, and with the prime goal to make sure that all relevant information is available for public decisions. If you blur the line between moral considerations and purely economic ones, you will be tempted to overstate the economic arguments because the moral ones didn’t work.

The bottom line is that when you do economic valuation, you need to define very precisely what it is you are measuring, and whether the methods you use answer the question you ask. I am deeply skeptical of measuring such notions as existence value (an economic value derived from no more than knowing something exists), because I doubt whether people understand the concept, and whether we will ever be able to distinguish it from moral considerations. But perhaps that is what the role of economists should be in this issue: to properly phrase the question, to explicitly lay out the arguments and considerations, and to quantify those considerations that can be quantified.