James K. Boyce, Economics for People and the Planet: Inequality in the Era of Climate Change (London: Anthem Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
James K. Boyce (JKB): I believe that improving human wellbeing and protecting our planet’s environment can and must go hand-in-hand.
Too often these are juxtaposed as if they are competing ends. Human wellbeing, some allege, can be improved only at the expense of the environment, and the environment can be safeguarded only at the expense of human wellbeing. I wrote this book to challenge that assumption and to stimulate thinking about practical ways to combine these two goals.
Ironically, the trade-off notion is propagated not only by mega-corporations opposed to environmental regulation, but also at times by environmentalists when they use the phrase “limits to growth” to describe nature’s limited capacity to provide raw materials and dispose of wastes. In the book’s opening chapter, “Limits to Growth – Of What?” I call for a new banner: Grow the good and shrink the bad.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JKB: The book is divided into three parts, with twenty-seven chapters in all. So, the chapters are short and to the point. Part one discusses economics and the environment. Here, among other things, I argue that the state-market dichotomy along which so much political debate has been waged in the past is less important today than the more fundamental dichotomy between democracy and oligarchy. In an oligarchic society, where wealth and power are concentrated in few hands, neither markets nor states can be counted upon to produce positive outcomes for the majority of people or the natural environment.
Part two is about environmental justice and environmental injustice. Here, I delve into the two-way relationship linking inequality to environmental degradation. Greater inequalities of wealth and power tend to result in more environmental degradation, and in turn, environmental degradation exacerbates inequalities across lines of race, ethnicity, and class.
Part three of the book turns to climate policy. The most pressing environmental challenge of our time—global climate destabilization—is driven above all else by profligate use of fossil fuels. I make the case that equity—that is, fairness—must be a central feature of climate policies for them to be effective. One way to address this is to curtail the supply of fossil fuels, thereby raising their price (a policy known as “carbon pricing”), and return most or all of the revenue to the people as equal per capita dividends. Carbon dividends help to ensure the political durability of what otherwise would be an unpopular policy, turning a regressive tax into a progressive net impact. At the same time, dividends give concrete expression to the ethical maxim that the gifts of nature belong to everyone in common measure. Another important way to build equity into climate policies is to maximize the air quality co-benefits of the transition to clean energy, improving public health and reducing environmental inequalities. Equity also comes to the fore when we consider how to allocate scarce resources for adaptation to climate change. I argue that we should prioritize protecting human life, not the real estate of the rich, contrary to the conventional logic of cost-benefit analysis.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JKB: I have been working on these issues for a number of years. The essays in the book appeared originally in other outlets—newspapers, magazines, blogs, and so on. The book updates them and draws them together into an accessible whole. My last book, Economics, the Environment, and Our Common Wealth (2013), touched on similar themes in a somewhat more technical and academic treatment.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JKB: I would be delighted if the book attracts readers around the world who share a common interest in building new economies that work better for people and better for the planet. The book is also suitable for classroom use at the high school and university levels. In addition to the electronic version, the book’s publisher, Anthem Press, will issue a paperback edition in October 2019.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JKB: Much of my effort these days is devoted to climate policy. Another book of mine published this year, The Case for Carbon Dividends, delves more deeply into the idea of treating the limited carbon absorptive capacity of the atmosphere as a resource owned by all, charging for its use (instead of the now-usual practice of giving it away for free), and returning the money to the people.
I also continue to work in the field of development economics. At the moment, I am working with colleagues to better understand the phenomenon of capital flight from Africa—illicit financial flows by which money is siphoned from some of the poorest countries in the world.
J: Climate policy and capital flight seem like very different topics. How are they connected in your mind?
JKB: Both topics have a common root. They stem from the ability of those with wealth and power to advance their own narrow, short-run interests at the expense of the long-run wellbeing of the vast majority of people. Extreme inequality is the underlying disease, and it has many morbid symptoms.
Excerpt from the book
From chapter thirteen: “Letter from Delhi”
Arriving in Delhi in January, at the height of the winter pollution season, you notice the air as soon as you step off the plane. A pungent smell with hints of burning rubber and diesel fumes assaults the nose and stings the eyes. On the highway into the city center, a digital screen shining through the smog displays the current level of suspended particulate matter. You don’t need to understand the numbers to know it’s bad.
Delhi has extensive parks, broad avenues, beautiful buildings and a vibrant culture. But casting a pall – quite literally – over it all is the worst air pollution of any major city in the world.
I lived in Delhi in spring 2015, accompanying my wife who had a research fellowship there. I brought along work to do on air pollution inequality in the United States. For the first week, we stayed in a guesthouse near the center of town. One night I was awakened around 2 a.m. by the acrid smell of pollution. To get back to sleep, I had to slip on an N95 pollution mask (at the suggestion of a doctor friend, I’d brought some with us).
In the morning it struck me that it would be absurd to devote all my time in Delhi to working on U.S. air pollution while ignoring the far higher levels around me. In an environmental twist on the spiritual maxim, ‘be here now’, I resolved to educate myself about Delhi’s air pollution and what can be done about it
One of the most dangerous air pollutants is particulate matter. In Delhi it comes from multiple sources, including diesel trucks that are allowed to pass through the city in the middle of the night, rapidly increasing numbers of passenger vehicles, coal-burning power plants and brick kilns that ring the city, construction debris and open burning of wastes. Particulates are measured by an Air Quality Index (AQI). An AQI below 50 is considered ‘good’. Anything above 300 is considered ‘hazardous’ and would trigger emergency health warnings in many countries.
An intrepid team of Beijing-based volunteers today assembles real-time data from air pollution monitors around the world and posts them on the website aqicn.org. In Delhi I soon fell into the habit of checking the data from our nearest location several times a day. This could be pretty alarming. When I checked on the morning of Valentine’s Day, the AQI for particulates was 399. Overnight it had hit at 668, off the standard AQI chart. Sometimes it soared even higher.
A month before I arrived in Delhi, the Centre for Science and Environment, India’s leading environmental advocacy organization, released the results of a study in which several residents were equipped with handheld devices to monitor air pollution levels over a typical day. Some of their readings topped 1,000.
A 2014 World Health Organization report identified Delhi as having the highest average level of particulate air pollution among 1,600 major cities worldwide. In the past two years, Beijing’s air had qualified as ‘healthy’ for just 58 out of 730 days. Delhi’s air qualified for only seven.
In the run-up to President Obama’s three-day visit to Delhi in January 2015, a satirical website reported that U.S. security agencies were flying in 20,000 gallons of clean air for him to breathe, the Secret Service having concluded that ‘more than any terrorist strike, the Delhi air poses a serious security threat to POTUS.’ Extrapolating a bit too literally from health risk statistics, Bloomberg.com reported that the visit took six hours off the president’s lifespan.
Air Pollution as Environmental Injustice
Everyone in Delhi, young and old, rich and poor alike, is exposed to air pollution. But not all are exposed equally. A study in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment found that Delhi’s low-income households experienced significant adverse health effects from air pollution, whereas high-income households were not significantly affected. Part of the explanation may be that affluent households have access to air conditioning as well as better health and nutrition. The authors also found that low-income men in Delhi spend on average about seven hours a day outdoors, whereas at the top of the income scale the time spent outdoors is close to zero. A study by professor Amit Garg of the Indian Institute of Management examined the correlation between suspended particulates and socio-economic status, and concluded that exposure is generally higher in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
Health risks for children are especially acute as their developing brains, lungs and immune systems are vulnerable to air pollution. A study for the Government of India’s Central Pollution Control Board that examined more than 11,000 Delhi school children in the early 2000s found that 43.5 per cent of them had reduced lung function, which was likely to be irreversible. The lower the family’s socio-economic status, the higher the percentage. The study made recommendations on everything from where new schools should be sited to when children should be allowed to play outside. But according to its principal researcher, ‘absolutely nothing was followed up on’. Since that time Delhi’s air pollution has deteriorated further.
Some of the most extreme exposures are experienced by those who earn their livings on Delhi’s arterial roads, including drivers of the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws that ply the streets. A study of in-rickshaw pollution concentrations found that levels of ultra-fine particles were eight times higher than the levels at rooftop monitors one kilometer away.
Just as not everyone is harmed equally by pollution, not everyone benefits equally from the activities that cause it. Delhi’s upper-income residents ‘consume more of energy intensive and emission-producing goods such as electricity and private transport’, Garg observes, ‘while the poor bear a disproportionately higher share of the resultant air pollution health burden’.
In other words, Delhi’s air pollution is a classic case of environmental injustice. The distribution of its costs and benefits mirrors the distribution of wealth and power.
What to Do?
Public awareness of air pollution in Delhi lags behind that in China, where face masks are a common sight and the remarkable film Under the Dome received 100 million views within 48 hours when it was posted in March 2015 (before being banned by Chinese authorities). But this may be starting to change. In spring 2015, the Indian Express, one of the country’s leading newspapers, ran a searching multi-part investigative series on Delhi’s air pollution called ‘Death by Breath.’ The Centre of Science and Environment, which successfully campaigned a decade ago for conversion of Delhi’s buses and autorickshaws to compressed natural gas, continues to raise public consciousness and advocates for policy remedies.
In the expatriate community, Delhi’s toxic air is viewed with rising alarm. The U.S. embassy has imported 1,800 top-of-the-line air purifiers for its personnel. ‘My business has just taken off,’ the director of a local firm selling air filtration units told the New York Times. ‘It started in the diplomatic community, but it’s spread to the high-level Indian community, too.’
But such individual solutions – for the few who can afford them – can only go so far. Returning to the United States after three years as the New York Times Delhi correspondent, Gardiner Harris wrote that the city’s air pollution is ‘so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here’. His own eight-year-old son suffered asthma attacks requiring emergency hospitalization. So many expatriates are leaving Delhi, he reports, that the American Embassy School is ‘facing a steep drop in admissions next fall’.
Indian government officials aspire to make Delhi a ‘world-class city’. This goal is utterly incompatible with the city’s current air quality.
Because Delhi’s pollution has multiple causes, clearing the air will require multiple solutions. Important measures that could be undertaken immediately include expanded pollution monitoring with real-time reporting of the results; emergency health advisories and school closings when pollution exceeds dangerous thresholds; and the provision of particulate-grade masks to autorickshaw drivers, traffic policemen and others who earn their livings on the streets, not only to protect them but also to build public awareness of the issue.
In the longer term, key measures in the transportation sector include cleaner fuel standards and a phase-out of diesel vehicles; completion of bypass roads, so trucks no longer pass through the city; the expansion of public transport, including state-of-the-art bus rapid transit systems plus pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes for ‘last-mile connectivity’ between stops and final destinations; and a cap on numbers of private automobiles.
Other necessary steps include strict (and strictly enforced) controls on emissions from coal-fired power plants and brick kilns (and enforcement of the ban on burning old tires in the latter); a rapid buildout of clean, renewable electricity generation; and a ban on open burning of wastes, including the burning of plant debris and crop residues which effectively turns beneficial fertilizer into hazardous pollution.
These same measures would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, helping to mitigate global climate change – a linkage that may help to unlock international finance for green infrastructure investments. The potential air quality co-benefits from curbing use of fossil fuels are substantial even in high-income countries with relatively clean air. In India, the public health co-benefits of a clean energy transition would be enormous.
Another possible source of finance would be revenues from capping the supply of automobile license plates and auctioning them to the highest bidder. In Singapore, which has been doing this since 1990, the current price of a license plate valid for 10 years is US$60,000. The environmental writer Aseem Shrivastava and I have suggested a similar policy for Delhi with part of the auction revenue dedicated to green infrastructure and part returned to the residents of Delhi as equal dividend payments, based on the principle that the limited amount of public space that is available for private vehicles belongs in common measure to all the city’s residents.
Other major cities around the world have shown that clean air and economic development are not only compatible but can go together. These goals can be reconciled in Delhi, too, if and when its citizens demand it and its politicians respond.