Environmental policies often have undesirable side effects

March 19, 2020.  

"Well-intentioned" is not always "well done": this wisdom also applies to setting the course in environmental policy. For all too often these unfold side effects which can even run completely counter to their actual purpose. A current special issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters is devoted to this pressing problem. Its content was generated by scientists from the University of Bonn together with international partners.

Bioplastics: that sounds green, sustainable and environmentally friendly. But it's not quite that simple. It is true that plastics made from corn, wheat or sugar cane are in principle almost climate-neutral. In addition, they protect dwindling oil reserves. And yet a consistent switch from conventional plastics to the eco-alternative could be bad news for the environment - at least with the current state of technology. After all, the plant-based raw materials must come from somewhere. As a consequence, more and more forest areas would probably be converted into arable land. But forests bind considerably more carbon dioxide than, say, corn or sugar cane - all in all, not a good deal for the global climate, not to mention other consequences such as rising food prices.

The special issue of the journal "Environmental Research Letters" contains a number of such examples. They show that the recipes against climate change and environmental destruction often do not work as easily as they were planned on the drawing board. "It is therefore important to assess the possible undesirable consequences in advance and, if necessary, to counter-act quickly," stresses Dr. Jan Börner, co-editor of the Special Issue who holds the Chair of Economics of Sustainable Land Use and Bioeconomy at the University of Bonn and is a senior researcher at ZEF. "To do this, we need to better understand how such so-called spillover effects occur and how they can be avoided. Our anthology should contribute to this."

Computer models as decision support

But the cause-and-effect relationships are complex. Computer models are therefore an important decision-making aid before political measures are implemented: although they do not allow the exact prediction of the consequences that will occur, they can be used as a basis for the development of new policies. "Their accuracy is too low for that", explains Börner. "In contrast to physical simulations, psychological and sociological factors play a major role in systems with human actors. And they are simply difficult to predict." Nevertheless, policy simulations can show what consequences an environmental policy decision might have. And thus, for example, provide impulses as to which flanking measures would best reduce undesirable side effects.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that these are often remote effects: The decision to replace fossil fuels with biogenic raw materials has a positive effect on the German carbon dioxide balance. At the same time, however, it means that Germany has to import more biomass and that additional forest areas are therefore being sacrificed to agriculture in regions such as South America and South East Asia. Such effects have measurably increased the ecological footprint that the EU generates through its imports in other countries in recent years, a study in the special edition shows. In addition, these ecological costs usually arise in countries with weak environmental legislation. This makes the net effect of such policies all the more devastating.

Prof. Börner therefore also calls for a strengthening of sustainability guidelines in international agreements. "We need to discuss at the global level where it is efficient, both from an economic and an ecological point of view, to manufacture certain products," he says. "If this means that markets break away in some regions, we must also think about suitable compensation mechanisms." The current trend towards bilateral agreements is not very helpful from this point of view. "We need international environmental and trade agreements to which as many actors as possible commit."


Publication: Focus on Leakage: Informing Land-Use Governance in a Tele-Coupled World; Environmental Research Letters; https://iopscience.iop.org/journal/1748-9326/page/Leakage-Land-Use

Press release by Bonn University (in German) here: https://www.uni-bonn.de/neues/070-2020



Prof. Dr. Jan Börner
Institute for Food and Resource Economics
University of Bonn
Phone 0228/733548
e-mail: jborner@uni-bonn.de


Jan Börner

Prof. Dr. Jan Börner