Water Funds: Coase in South America (and New York)

Rivers often create important resource conflicts. Downstream cities want clean water to drink. Upstream residents want to make a living, but that sometimes damages water quality. In the highlands above Quito, Ecuador, for example, residents often convert land to farming and ranching; that allows them to raise valuable crops and livestock, but weakens the land’s ability to naturally cleanse water before it flows downstream.

How can we solve this problem? One response would be for a central government to enact laws and regulations that force the upstream folks to take better care of the watershed. Such laws can play an important role in improving water quality, but they raise several practical concerns. For example, regulatory burdens may place undue economic burdens on upstream residents. And the laws and regulations may be hard to enforce, particularly if local communities view them as an unwelcome burden.

Another strategy is for the downstream water users to pay the upstream residents for keeping the water clean. Such payments can make protecting the watershed into a profit center for upstream communities and can encourage them to accept rigorous approaches to monitoring and enforcement. (In the economics literature, this approach is often distributed as Coasian, in honor of Ronald Coase, who emphasized it in his work.)

Last week Esther and I dined with some officials of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and learned that they are encouraging exactly this approach to water conservation in South America. TNC is helping create water funds:

Water users pay into the funds in exchange for the product they receive — fresh, clean water. The funds, in turn, pay for forest conservation along rivers, streams and lakes, to ensure that safe drinking water flows out of users’ faucets every time they turn on the tap.

Some water funds pay for community-wide reforestation projects in villages upstream from major urban centers, like Quito, Ecuador, and Bogotá, Colombia. In other cases, like in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, municipalities collect fees from water users and make direct payments to farmers and ranchers who protect and restore riverside forests on their land through water producer initiatives.

“These ‘water producers,’ as we call them, are being fairly compensated for a product they’re providing to people downstream in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo: fresh water,” explains Fernando Veiga, Fernando Veiga, Environmental Services Manager for the Conservancy’s Atlantic Forest and Central Savannas Conservation Program in Brazil. “They’re receiving $32 per acre, per year, for keeping their riverside forests standing.”

TNC has an informative interactive graphic that illustrates how it works in the headwaters above Quito. (Note to TNC: the graphic would be even better if it involved less clicking.)

Perhaps needless to say, this idea is not unique to South America. New York City, for example, has been pursuing a related approach, buying up buffer land around the upstate reservoirs that supply the city.

Nickels Matter: Pigou and the Plastic Bag

On January 1, Washington DC introduced a 5-cent tax on disposable shopping bags at grocery, drug, convenience, and liquor stores. The fee had two goals: to reduce the number of bags, in particular plastic ones, that end up blighting the landscape and to raise funds for cleaning up the Anacostia River.

The fee appears to be succeeding on both counts, but not equally so. As Sara Murray and Sudeep Reddy report over at the Wall Street Journal, shoppers have cut back on bag use more than anticipated; as a result revenues are running below expectations:

[T]he city estimated that [bag use] would decline by 50% in the first year after the tax was imposed. …. [A]n informal survey of corporate headquarters for grocery stores and pharmacies with dozens of locations in the city estimated a reduction of 60% or more in the number of bags handed out. … Through the end of July, the city collected more than $1.1 million from the bag fee and small donations. At that rate, receipts are likely to fall short of the expected $3.6 million in the first year.

I’ve witnessed the sharp decline in bag use during my daily lunch run. Last year, the Subway folks would automatically put your sandwich and a napkin in a plastic bag. Now they ask if you want one. I always decline, as do most other customers.

Why has there been such a strong reaction to a nickel fee? I think it’s a combination of two factors.

  • The first is a traditional microeconomic explanation: there are often good substitutes for a disposable shopping bag. For example, I find it just as easy to carry the wrapped sandwich as to carry the old Subway bag. And if I buy some dental floss at CVS, I can just pop it in my pocket for the trip home. So even a relatively small fee can get results.
  • The second is a behavioral explanation: people act weird when things are free–they acquire things without really thinking about it. If you start charging a price–and thus change the default from “here’s your bag” to “do you want a bag?”–you can witness large responses.

P.S. As noted in a previous post on the bag fee, Arthur Cecil Pigou is the father of environmental taxes.

The End of Cap and Trade?

No, not for carbon. For sulfur dioxide.

As noted by Mark Peters at the Wall Street Journal:

The original U.S. cap-and-trade market, which succeeded in slashing the power-plant emissions that cause acid rain, is in disarray following the issuance of new federal pollution rules.

The collapse in the pioneering market where power producers trade permits that allow them to emit sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that cause acid rain comes as policy makers seek to establish a similar market to curb the emissions of carbon, a cause of climate change.

The SO2 market has been one of the great successes of economic engineering, using market forces to drive down the cost of cleaning the environment. After almost twenty years of trading, however, the market ran into what may be an insurmountable hurdle: increased regulatory concern about the location of SO2 emissions.

The SO2 marketplace is national in scope, which has been great for establishing liquid trading and allowing emitters to find the cheapest way of reducing emissions. But it also meant that some SO2 emissions would end up in particularly unwelcome spots, e.g., upwind of cities, states, or entire regions that are having trouble meeting air quality standards.

Over the past couple of years, court rulings and new regulatory efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency have increased the emphasis of the location of emissions. And that means that the national market may be coming to an end.

That’s certainly what it looks like in the allowance marketplace, where prices have fallen from more than $600 per ton in mid-2007 to $5 or less today:

The price decline has been particularly sharp because utilities had been polluting less than allowed in recent years. That allowed them to build up an inventory of allowances to use in the future. With prices so low today, however, utilities have essentially no incentive to avoid sulfur emissions and no incentive to hold allowance inventories. As Gabriel Nelson puts it over at the New York Times:

With SO2 allowances trading at about $5 per ton, and little prospect of carrying over the permits into the new program, utilities have little incentive to bank allowances or add emissions controls for the time being, traders say. Because those controls have upkeep costs beyond the original investment, some plants might even find it more cost-effective to use allowances than to turn on scrubbers that have already been installed, traders said.

Pigou and the Plastic Bag

The big news in Washington today are the early returns for the new DC bag tax. As of January 1, DC shoppers have to pay a 5 cent tax for each disposable plastic or paper bag that they get at grocery, drug, convenience, and liquor stores.

The Washington Post reports that the DC government has released results for January, the program’s first month. It appears to have had a big effect on behavior:

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimated that food and grocery establishments gave out about 3 million bags in January. Before the bag tax took effect Jan. 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had said that about 22.5 million bags were being issued each month in 2009.

In other words, 87% fewer disposable bags were handed out in January than the average month last year.

Of course, one implication of a big behavioral response is that the tax might collect less revenue than anticipated:

District officials had estimated that the tax would generate $10 million over the next four years for environmental initiatives [note: that’s $208,000 per month]. The money will go to the newly created Anacostia River Cleanup Fund, which will spend it on various projects. But in January, the tax generated only $149,432, suggesting that it might fall short of revenue projections.

One shouldn’t make too much of a single month of results–particularly when it’s the first month of the program.

But I suspect that Arthur Cecil Pigou (the father of environmental taxes) is smiling somewhere.