An Even Sterner Review: Introducing Relative Prices into the Discounting Debate
The Stern Review has had a major influence on the policy discussion on climate change. One reason is that the report has raised the estimated cost of unmitigated climate damages by an order of magnitude compared to most earlier estimates, leading to a call for strong and urgent action on climate change. Not surprisingly, severe criticism has been levied against the report by authors who think that these results hinge mainly on the use of a discount rate that is too low. Here we discuss the Ramsey rule for the discount rates and its implications for the economics of climate change. While we find no strong objections to the discounting assumptions adopted in the Stern Review, our main point is that the conclusions reached in the review can be justified on other grounds than by using a low discount rate. We argue that nonmarket damages from climate change are probably underestimated and that future scarcities that will be induced by the changing composition of the economy and climate change should lead to rising relative prices for certain goods and services, raising the estimated damage of climate change and counteracting the effect of discounting. We build our analysis on earlier research (Hoel and Sterner 2007) that has shown that the Ramsey discounting formula is somewhat modified in a two-sector economy with differential growth rates. Most importantly, such a model is characterized by changing relative prices, something that has major implications for a correct valuation of future climate damages. We introduce these results into a slightly modified version of the DICE model (Nordhaus 1994) and find that taking relative prices into account can have as large an effect on economically warranted abatement levels as can a low discount rate.
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