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Interpreting Sustainability in Economic Terms: Dynamic Efficiency Plus Intergenerational Equity

  • Stavins, Robert
  • Wagner, Alexander
  • Wagner, Gernot

Economists have expended considerable effort to develop economically meaningful definitions of the somewhat elusive concept of “sustainability.” We relate such a definition of sustainability to well known concepts from neoclassical economics, in particular, potential Pareto improvements (in the Kaldor-Hicks sense) and inter-personal compensation. In the inter-temporal realm, we find that dynamic efficiency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a notion of sustainability that has normative standing as a goal for public policy. We define sustainability as dynamic efficiency plus intergenerational equity. Further, we argue that it is not unreasonable for economists to focus on the efficiency element, leaving equity considerations to the political process. The analogy to the relationship between potential Pareto improvements and (intragenerational) transfers can facilitate discussions about sustainability, both within the economics community and as part of an interdisciplinary discourse, and makes the basic concepts easier to operationalize.

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Paper provided by Resources For the Future in its series Discussion Papers with number dp-02-29.

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Date of creation: 01 Aug 2002
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Handle: RePEc:rff:dpaper:dp-02-29
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  1. Geir Asheim & Wolfgang Buchholz & Cees Withagen, 2003. "The Hartwick Rule: Myths and Facts," Environmental & Resource Economics, European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 25(2), pages 129-150, June.
  2. Asheim, Geir B. & Buchholz, Wolfgang & Tungodden, Bertil, 2001. "Justifying Sustainability," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 41(3), pages 252-268, May.
  3. Farrow, Scott, 1998. "Environmental equity and sustainability: rejecting the Kaldor-Hicks criteria," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(2), pages 183-188, November.
  4. Pezzey, J., 1992. "Sustainable Development Concepts; An Economic Analysis," Papers 2, World Bank - The World Bank Environment Paper.
  5. Kenneth Arrow & Partha Dasgupta & Lawrence Goulder & Gretchen Daily & Paul Ehrlich & Geoffrey Heal & Simon Levin & Karl-Göran Mäler & Stephen Schneider & David Starrett & Brian Walker, 2004. "Are We Consuming Too Much?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 18(3), pages 147-172, Summer.
  6. Heal, G., 1998. "Valuing the Future: Economic Theory and Sustainability," Papers 98-10, Columbia - Graduate School of Business.
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