Archive for February, 2012

We’ve written about tar sands before (see this post from June 2010) but as there is very little time before the discussions on the EU Directive on Fuel Quality come to an end and there is press coverage on the issue, we thought we should write about it again.

Along with Desmond Tutu and others whose views are covered in The Guardian last week and many others on this online petition, we as environmental economists, believe that tar sands ain’t worth it!


By the time we put it in our cars or use it for any other purpose, we think fuel is fuel. Yes, we know about the types differentiated mostly by the efficiency with which they burn and whether they are leaded or unleaded but ultimately, most of us do not care about where the petrol comes from. Because, unlike the labels on, say food, we are not given this information at the point of purchase.

But it does matter where the oil comes from and how it is processed before it ends up in the pump.

Extracting oil from tar sands is more energy intensive and more polluting than extracting oil from other sources


Because of where it is, extracting tar sands oil also means that boreal forests and vast areas of land are being destroyed….it’s not like drilling a small hole and waiting for the petrol to gush out a la “There will be Blood”(not implying that that method is harmless).

Not everyone cares of course. But we know from studies we’ve conducted that the more information consumers have, the more of them choose the option with less environmental impact.

And more information is part of consumer sovereignty that should surely be a priority for a Conservative and Liberal Government.

Blocking the EU Directive on Fuel Quality is not about freedom of choice but NOT blocking it is.

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There has been a disturbing trend in the past decade for parents in the UK to refuse vaccinating their young children with the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. This has been due to the (now debunked[1, 2]) scare following a paper in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield that claimed that MMR Jabs could be responsible for increasing the likelihood of children developing autism.

Unfortunately, despite the findings that Wakefield and his team had manipulated data, the striking off of Wakefield from the medical register and the full retraction of The Lancet paper, some parents continue to refuse vaccinating their children. The refusal of parents to vaccinate their kids is not the end result of this story, and their (unfortunate) children were not the only victims.

This is because the MMR Vaccine is not 100% effective [3] and is not given to everyone, namely, not to vulnerable parts of the population, including babies less than 1 year old and children who have a compromised immune system (for example those with AIDS or receiving chemotherapy). Normally, with high rates of vaccinations, these issues would not be a problem, as the ‘herd immunity’ would provide them with protection – the more people immune to infection, the less chance there is for someone without immunisation to come in contact with the infection. But as MMR vaccinations fell below the measles herd immunity threshold (94% [4, 5]) outbreaks of measles started occurring, affecting those children whose parents chose not to vaccinate them, but also those whose vaccinations had not been effective and the vulnerable population. In 2008, measles was declared to be endemic again in the UK after a break of 14 years [6] and a measles outbreak was recently declared in Merseyside [7]. Additionally, a recent story in the US paper USA Today reported that travellers from the US to, among other destinations, Western Europe were bringing back measles and infecting unvaccinated populations in the US [8].

Vaccinations are one of the most cited examples of ‘positive externalities’ – an idea in economics that in some circumstances society experiences benefits greater than the benefits received by individuals making the decision. There are also negative externalities – where society experiences costs greater than the costs incurred by individuals making the decision.

The MMR vaccination can be seen as both a positive and a negative externality – those who have received the jab decrease the possibility of outbreaks and therefore the possibility of you or I contracting measles (or mumps or rubella). This is a benefit for us that probably wasn’t taken into account by those who received their vaccination, so it is a positive externality. But we can also look at the lack of vaccination as a negative externality – as MMR jabs have become the norm, those who haven’t been vaccinated increase the chance of outbreaks and affect those who were unable to receive the vaccination or for whom the vaccination wasn’t effective.  This is an unintended and unaccounted consequence of the decision of parents to refuse vaccination for their children.

Another economic idea that is relevant here is that of the ‘public good’ – a good that is non-rival and non-excludable. This means that someone can consume the good without reducing the ability of anybody else to consume the good, and that it is not possible to exclude anyone from consuming the good. Herd immunization (and individual immunizations to a lesser extent) can be seen as a public good – everybody benefits from higher immunization rates and my enjoyment of the benefit doesn’t decrease your enjoyment of the benefit.

These ideas of externalities and public goods are highly relevant to environmental economics and are used on a daily basis in our work. Clean air and water and a stable climate are examples of public goods while pollution and carbon emissions are negative externalities that affect these public goods (public bads if you like). Environmental economists try to help decision makers take externalities into account through identifying and valuing externalities and contributing to design policies that make these externalities be explicitly taken into account in prices and behaviours (what we call ‘internalised’), such as a carbon or pollution tax or market-based instruments such as the sulphur and carbon cap and trade markets.


[1] The Lancet – Retraction – Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children

[2] Wikipedia – MMR Vaccine controversy

[3] Bupa – Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine

[4] Wikipedia – Herd immunity

[5] BBC News – Measles outbreak ‘worst in years’

[6] Health Protection Report – Confirmed Measles cases in England and Wales – an update

[7] Merseyside measles outbreak declared

[8] USA Today – Unvaccinated behind largest U.S. measles outbreak in years

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On the 2nd and 3rd of February I attended the 7thInternational Forum on Illegal, Unreported  and Unregulated (IUU ) fishing held at Chatham House.

The lack of transparency in global fisheries was a key concern raised during the event. Weak institutions and regulation overlap to form a regime (seemingly by design) with more blind alleys and dead ends than the Cretan Labyrinth; a state of affairs that bolsters the impunity with which vessels pursue IUU fishing.

The economic arguments against IUU fishing have been established and are self-explanatory, similar to the economic arguments against shop lifting/bank robberies/ you see what I am getting at. IUU fishing imposes huge costs on coastal state populations and they are likely to be borne by some of the poorest states in the world.  The problem is that these states are unable to raise sufficient capital to protect their own resources. A property right without enforcement, any form of social cohesion/norm against IUU and the presence of unscrupulous vessels (apparently in plenty supply) means the resource is open game.

Even if (a very big if) there is sufficient capacity within a coastal state to undertake significant monitoring, control and surveillance activity (MCS), it is highly uncertain whether anyone will be charged with an offence. Vessels use flags of convenience allowing the ultimate beneficiaries to disappear behind shell companies and weak regulation in flag states (thereby attracting the vessel in the first place). Current port state measures are insufficient to tackle IUU – no true registry of vessels exists and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO) do not fulfil their obligations to tackle IUU.  A new set of port state measures has been approved by FAO, which would assist identification of IUU vessel and restrict access to ports, but the required number of signatories has not yet been reached. In addition many catch documentation schemes are highly ineffective and susceptible to fraud.

As shown during the event, tools such as effective catch documentation and vessel registries are available to establish successful regimes to tackle the issue of transparency. But as acknowledged by many speakers, an absence of political will has meant the application of these tools, is patchy at best.  The speaker from the EC noted that, strong regulation (in his opinion), was not being applied uniformly in member states because of differing priorities. A lack of political will appears to be the driving force behind such a failing, some countries just don’t appear to be on board with sustainable fishing management.  The paradoxical tension between fish and fishermen is as strong as ever, (bringing to mind this quote from a Spanish officialFor sure we are friends of fish, but still more, we are the friends of fishermen.”)

Whose responsibility is it to ensure action is taken? IUU fishing is a global issue and therefore requires global solutions. But unfortunately as seen with other multi-lateral environmental agreements this is fraught with difficulties. It is likely that the lowest common denominator will set the agenda, in global fisheries this is very low indeed.

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– experiences of fitting household solar energy – Getting FITS XIV is part of a series of blog posts by Limu on the attempt to install solar power at home with the help of the UK Feed in Tariff.

As the days start to lengthen we can watch the meter go higher each sunny midday peak. The system now runs at about 50% capacity on bright sunny days. Longer daylight hours, the sun higher in the sky and warmer air temperature will all increase generation over the next few months. The generation meter shows we have made over £50 through FITS payments so far.

The controversy about this subsidy continues to rumble on, which means continuing uncertainty in the sector. Friends of the Earth are at loggerheads with the Government. Their disagreement is really about the way policy has been carried out. Most people involved seem to accept that the current subsidies for the energy sector as a whole are all the country can afford, and so reducing the FITS rate seems sensible – too generous a rate leads to inefficient investment.

The Government could still have approached it in a less calamitous way for business confidence. For which high court wrangling is just about the worst process – DECC are now asking the Supreme Court to overrule their unsuccessful High Court appeal about the December 12th deadline to cut the FITS rate.

Regardless of that process a new policy deadline of 3rd March has been announced for the FITS rate to be cut. If the Government’s appeal is unsuccessful, this will create a second rush to install (as the 12th December deadline did). We are still getting flyers in the letter box advertising solar PV installation, and I can see a house over the road having them fitted – maybe the rush has started already?

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Public health warning

We recently uncovered this news story from 2006 about xoxozone, a potentially dangerous threat to your health and wellbeing.  We fear that the EPA’s warnings are still relevant today and strongly urge you to take all precautions.

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