Cost-Benefit Analysis and the Environment

Further Developments and Policy Use

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This book explores recent developments in environmental cost-benefit analysis (CBA). This is defined as the application of CBA to projects or policies that have the deliberate aim of environmental improvement or are actions that affect, in some way, the natural environment as an indirect consequence. It builds on the previous OECD book by David Pearce et al. (2006), which took as its starting point that a number of developments in CBA, taken together, altered the way in which many economists would argue CBA should be carried out and that this was particularly so in the context of policies and projects with significant environmental impacts.

It is a primary objective of the current book not only to assess more recent advances in CBA theory but also to identify how specific developments illustrate key thematic narratives with implications for practical use of environmental CBA in policy formulation and appraisal of investment projects.

Perhaps the most significant development is the contribution of climate economics in its response to the challenge of appraising policy actions to mitigate (or adapt to) climate change. Work in this area has increased the focus on how to value costs and benefits that occur far into the future, particularly by showing how conventional procedures for establishing the social discount rate become highly problematic in this intergenerational context and what new approaches might be needed. The contribution of climate economics has also entailed thinking further about uncertainty in CBA, especially where uncertain outcomes might be associated with large (and adverse) impacts.

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Discounting is both a critical and pervasive issue in CBA, and this is nowhere more so than in environmental applications. On the one hand, this is a technical matter arising from the standard assumption in CBA that the social or shadow price of a unit of consumption in the future is lower than the price of a unit of consumption today. The discount rate simply measures the rate of change of the shadow price. This simplicity is, of course, a matter of extent. While the theory of social discounting shows clearly how the social discount rate should be defined, in practice numerous questions arise especially when considering actions with implications for generations in the far distant future: intergenerational projects and policies. Not only do the assumptions underpinning conventional discounting become problematic but also the ethical underpinnings of discounting become extremely important and influential. As a result, the chapter discusses how the parameters of the discount rate for social CBA are determined as well as their ethical and practical content. This involves a discussion of the problems introduced to the conventional discounting approach by intergenerational projects such as climate change and the strengthening of theoretical and empirical support for schedule of discount rates that decline with time.


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