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The Choice of Discount Rate for Climate Change Policy Evaluation

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  • Lawrence H. Goulder
  • Roberton C. Williams III

Abstract

Nearly all discussions about the appropriate consumption discount rate for climate-change policy evaluation assume that a single discount rate concept applies. We argue that two distinct concepts and associated rates apply. We distinguish a social-welfare-equivalent discount rate appropriate for determining whether a given policy would augment social welfare (according to a postulated social welfare function) and a finance-equivalent discount rate suitable for determining whether the policy would offer a potential Pareto improvement. Distinguishing the two rates helps resolve arguments as to whether the choice of discount rate should be based on ethical considerations or empirical information (such as market interest rates), and about whether the discount rate should serve a prescriptive or descriptive role. Separating out the two rates also helps clarify disputes about the appropriate stringency of climate change policy. We find that the structure of leading numerical optimization models used for climate policy analysis may have helped contribute to the blurring of the differences between the two rates. In addition, we indicate that uncertainty about underlying ethical parameters or market conditions implies that both rates should decline as the time-horizon increases.

Suggested Citation

  • Lawrence H. Goulder & Roberton C. Williams III, 2012. "The Choice of Discount Rate for Climate Change Policy Evaluation," NBER Working Papers 18301, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18301
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    Cited by:

    1. McCubbin, Donald & Sovacool, Benjamin K., 2013. "Quantifying the health and environmental benefits of wind power to natural gas," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 53(C), pages 429-441.
    2. Dobes Leo & Jotzo Frank & Stern David I., 2014. "The Economics of Global Climate Change: A Historical Literature Review," Review of Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 65(3), pages 281-320, December.
    3. Yingying Lu & David I. Stern, 2016. "Substitutability and the Cost of Climate Mitigation Policy," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 64(1), pages 81-107, May.
    4. Hultkrantz, Lars & A. Krüger, Niclas & Mantalos, Panagiotis, 2014. "Risk-adjusted long-term social rates of discount for transportation infrastructure investment," Research in Transportation Economics, Elsevier, vol. 47(C), pages 70-81.
    5. repec:eee:ecolec:v:141:y:2017:i:c:p:245-260 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. repec:eee:energy:v:137:y:2017:i:c:p:104-117 is not listed on IDEAS
    7. Rozenberg, Julie & Vogt-Schilb, Adrien & Hallegatte, Stephane, 2013. "How capital-based instruments facilitate the transition toward a low-carbon economy : a tradeoff between optimality and acceptability," Policy Research Working Paper Series 6609, The World Bank.
    8. Kousky, Carolyn & Walls, Margaret & Chu, Ziyan, 2013. "Flooding and Resilience: Valuing Conservation Investments in a World with Climate Change," Discussion Papers dp-13-38, Resources For the Future.
    9. Koen Vermeylen, 2013. "The Methodology of Modern Macroeconomics and the Descriptive Approach to Discounting," Tinbergen Institute Discussion Papers 13-200/VI, Tinbergen Institute.
    10. Arrow, Kenneth J. & Cropper, Maureen L. & Gollier, Christian & Groom, Ben & Heal, Geoffrey M. & Newell, Richard G. & Nordhaus, William D. & Pindyck, Robert S. & Pizer, William A. & Portney, Paul R. & , 2012. "How Should Benefits and Costs Be Discounted in an Intergenerational Context? The Views of an Expert Panel," Discussion Papers dp-12-53, Resources For the Future.
    11. Eli P. Fenichel & Matthew J. Kotchen & Ethan T. Addicott, 2017. "Even the Representative Agent Must Die: Using Demographics to Inform Long-Term Social Discount Rates," NBER Working Papers 23591, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Adrian Amelung, 2016. "Das "Paris-Agreement": Durchbruch der Top-Down-Klimaschutzverhandlungen im Kreise der Vereinten Nationen," Otto-Wolff-Institut Discussion Paper Series 03/2016, Otto-Wolff-Institut für Wirtschaftsordnung, Köln, Deutschland.
    13. Frédéric Branger & Louis-Gaëtan Giraudet & Céline Guivarch & Philippe Quirion, 2015. "Global sensitivity analysis of an energy-economy model of the residential building sector," Policy Papers 2015.01, FAERE - French Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.
    14. Marshall Burke & Melanie Craxton & Charles D. Kolstad & Chikara Onda, 2016. "Some Research Challenges In The Economics Of Climate Change," Climate Change Economics (CCE), World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., vol. 7(02), pages 1-14, May.
    15. Koen Vermeylen, 2013. "Non-Marginal Cost-Benefit Analysis and the Tyranny of Discounting," Tinbergen Institute Discussion Papers 13-203/VI, Tinbergen Institute.
    16. Sébastien Houde & Joseph E. Aldy, 2017. "The Efficiency Consequences of Heterogeneous Behavioral Responses to Energy Fiscal Policies," NBER Working Papers 24103, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • H43 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - Project Evaluation; Social Discount Rate
    • Q54 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Climate; Natural Disasters and their Management; Global Warming

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