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Ethics of the Discount Rate in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change

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  • Wilfred Beckerman
  • Cameron Hepburn

Abstract

Any comparison of the costs and benefits of climate change is dominated by the chosen discount rate. But, although the Stern Review emphasises the ethical nature of the parameters entering into its choice of a relatively low discount rate, its discussion of the ‘pure time preference’ parameter is unbalanced. In particular, no consideration is given to the role of ‘agent-relative ethics’, which (i) has a wellestablished philosophical pedigree going back to David Hume; (ii) is likely to correspond closely to world-wide public attitudes towards intergenerational welfare; and (iii) would entail discounting a unit of welfare accruing to future generations compared to an equal unit accruing to people alive today at a positive rate. The authors also discuss the other ethical parameter upon which the discount rate depends, namely the elasticity of marginal utility with respect to consumption. In the conventional model, this simultaneously reflects different aspects of inequality aversion as well as risk aversion, which complicates its interpretation. Finally, they discuss the divergence between market rates of discount and the low rate chosen in the Review, and the limitations—on the one hand—on the normative significance of market rates, as well as the danger—on the other hand—of relying on rates chosen by elites or philosopher kings.

Suggested Citation

  • Wilfred Beckerman & Cameron Hepburn, 2007. "Ethics of the Discount Rate in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change," World Economics, World Economics, 1 Ivory Square, Plantation Wharf, London, United Kingdom, SW11 3UE, vol. 8(1), pages 187-210, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:wej:wldecn:272
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    Cited by:

    1. Johansson-Stenman, Olof & Sterner, Thomas, 2015. "Discounting and relative consumption," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 71(C), pages 19-33.
    2. Anthoff, David & Hepburn, Cameron & Tol, Richard S.J., 2009. "Equity weighting and the marginal damage costs of climate change," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(3), pages 836-849, January.
    3. Christian Gollier, 2010. "Debating about the Discount Rate:The Basic Economic Ingredients," Perspektiven der Wirtschaftspolitik, Verein für Socialpolitik, vol. 11(s1), pages 38-55, May.
    4. Simon Dietz & Anca N. Matei, 2013. "Spaces for agreement: a theory of Time-Stochastic Dominance," GRI Working Papers 137, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
    5. Richard S.J. Tol, 2013. "Long live the Kyoto Protocol!," Chapters,in: Handbook on Energy and Climate Change, chapter 14, pages 344-351 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    6. Helgeson, Jennifer & Dietz, Simon & Atkinson, Giles D. & Hepburn, Cameron & Sælen, Håkon, 2009. "Siblings, not triplets: social preferences for risk, inequality and time in discounting climate change," Economics - The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), vol. 3, pages 1-28.
    7. Cameron Hepburn & Hakon Sælen & Giles Atkinson, 2008. "Risk, inequality and time in the welfare economics of climate change: is the workhorse model underspecified?," Economics Series Working Papers 400, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
    8. Siskos, Pelopidas & Capros, Pantelis & De Vita, Alessia, 2015. "CO2 and energy efficiency car standards in the EU in the context of a decarbonisation strategy: A model-based policy assessment," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 84(C), pages 22-34.
    9. Davidson, Marc D., 2014. "Zero discounting can compensate future generations for climate damage," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 105(C), pages 40-47.
    10. Dietz, Simon & Morton, Alec, 2011. "Strategic appraisal of environmental risks: a contrast between the United Kingdom's Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and its Committee on Radioactive Waste Management," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 31890, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    11. Simon Dietz & Nicoleta Anca Matei, 2016. "Spaces for Agreement: A Theory of Time-Stochastic Dominance and an Application to Climate Change," Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, University of Chicago Press, vol. 3(1), pages 85-130.
    12. Epanchin-Niell, Rebecca S. & Liebhold, Andrew M., 2015. "Benefits of invasion prevention: Effect of time lags, spread rates, and damage persistence," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 116(C), pages 146-153.
    13. Aldred, Jonathan, 2013. "Justifying precautionary policies: Incommensurability and uncertainty," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 96(C), pages 132-140.
    14. Segal, Paul, 2012. "How to spend it: Resource wealth and the distribution of resource rents," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 340-348.
    15. Marc D. Davidson, 2012. "Intergenerational Justice: How Reasonable Man Discounts Climate Damage," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 4(1), pages 1-17, January.
    16. repec:eee:ecolec:v:143:y:2018:i:c:p:253-275 is not listed on IDEAS
    17. David Anthoff & Richard Tol, 2009. "The Impact of Climate Change on the Balanced Growth Equivalent: An Application of FUND," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 43(3), pages 351-367, July.
    18. Larson, Donald F. & Ambrosi, Philippe & Dinar, Ariel & Rahman, Shaikh Mahfuzur & Entler, Rebecca, 2008. "Carbon markets, institutions, policies, and research," Policy Research Working Paper Series 4761, The World Bank.
    19. Hepburn, Cameron & Koundouri, Phoebe & Panopoulou, Ekaterini & Pantelidis, Theologos, 2009. "Social discounting under uncertainty: A cross-country comparison," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 57(2), pages 140-150, March.
    20. Bayes Ahmed & Ilan Kelman & Heather K. Fehr & Manik Saha, 2016. "Community Resilience to Cyclone Disasters in Coastal Bangladesh," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 8(8), pages 1-29, August.
    21. David J. Frame & Cameron J. Hepburn, 2011. "Emerging markets and climate change: Mexican standoff or low-carbon race?," GRI Working Papers 46, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
    22. Rick Baker & Andrew Barker & Alan Johnston & Michael Kohlhaas, 2008. "The Stern Review: an assessment of its methodology," Staff Working Papers 0801, Productivity Commission, Government of Australia.
    23. Hamilton, Kirk & Stover, Jana, 2012. "Economic analysis of projects in a greenhouse world," Policy Research Working Paper Series 6117, The World Bank.
    24. Cameron Hepburn & Greer Gosnell, 2014. "Evaluating impacts in the distant future: cost–benefit analysis, discounting and the alternatives," Chapters,in: Handbook of Sustainable Development, chapter 9, pages 140-159 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    25. Mareike Schad & Jürgen John, 2012. "Towards a social discount rate for the economic evaluation of health technologies in Germany: an exploratory analysis," The European Journal of Health Economics, Springer;Deutsche Gesellschaft für Gesundheitsökonomie (DGGÖ), vol. 13(2), pages 127-144, April.

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