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Rio+20: Looking Back at 20 Years of Environmental and Resource Economics


  • Reyer Gerlagh


  • Thomas Sterner



Twenty years on from the Rio ’92 conference, we must face the fact that there have been a few successes but more failures. Scientific complexity, uncertainty, short-termism inherent in politics, the free-rider problem, and issues of fairness are part of the explanation for the lack of progress, but we point to more fundamental motivational problems. It is time to assess our responsibility as economists in the field of environment and resources. Our scientific contribution has been misleading because our models are structurally incapable of addressing major concerns. The cost-benefit test is not fit to assess large-scale resource conservation projects, including climate abatement. This understanding was already present during the Rio ‘92 summit, but the problems, while identified, have not been resolved twenty years later. The contribution from theory, through the sustainability paradigm of non-decreasing welfare, has turned out ineffective. It does not provide us with tools for designing a better future for our children. Instead, it risks choosing a constant welfare path, with knowledge increasing but natural resources deteriorating, while not properly analyzing the richer possibilities for a better future that nature and creativity imply. It is time for our profession to search for a more constructive contribution in theory and practice. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Suggested Citation

  • Reyer Gerlagh & Thomas Sterner, 2013. "Rio+20: Looking Back at 20 Years of Environmental and Resource Economics," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 54(2), pages 155-159, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:enreec:v:54:y:2013:i:2:p:155-159
    DOI: 10.1007/s10640-012-9627-6

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Thomas Sterner & U. Martin Persson, 2008. "An Even Sterner Review: Introducing Relative Prices into the Discounting Debate," Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 2(1), pages 61-76, Winter.
    2. William R. Cline, 1992. "Economics of Global Warming, The," Peterson Institute Press: All Books, Peterson Institute for International Economics, number 39.
    3. Gerlagh, Reyer & van der Zwaan, B. C. C., 2002. "Long-Term Substitutability between Environmental and Man-Made Goods," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 44(2), pages 329-345, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. van den Bijgaart, Inge & Gerlagh, Reyer & Liski, Matti, 2016. "A simple formula for the social cost of carbon," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 77(C), pages 75-94.
    2. Gerlagh, Reyer, 2017. "Generous Sustainability," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 136(C), pages 94-100.
    3. van den Bijgaart, Inge, 2016. "Essays in environmental economics and policy," Other publications TiSEM 298bee2a-cb08-4173-9fe1-8, Tilburg University, School of Economics and Management.
    4. repec:ine:journl:v:46:y:2018:i:55:p:40-59 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. Remig, Moritz C., 2017. "Structured pluralism in ecological economics — A reply to Peter Söderbaum's commentary," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 131(C), pages 533-537.


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