Cancelled conference papers: Does economic freedom affect greenhouse gas emissions?

The third installment in our series about cancelled conference papers is about a paper that I was supposed to present at both the Public Choice Society meeting in Newport Beach and the annual conference of the Association for Private Enterprise Education in Las Vegas. The paper deals with the important question of how best to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The background for the question is quite obvious: Most Western countries have committed themselves to reducing the emissions of CO2 the coming years. Some, including the new leftwing government in Denmark, are operating with an official goal of a 70 percent reduction with a relatively short period of time. In most of those countries, the plan is very clearly to ‘steer’ the market in the right direction with government control and elements of a planned economy. However, no one really knows how effective such solutions are, and our experiences with this type of approach to solve other problems are not uplifting.

In the paper “Economic Freedom and the CO2 Kuznets Curve”, which can be downloaded under Current Research on my homepage, I try to tackle the issue in a new way. A main point of the paper is that different theoretical considerations will lead one in very different directions. One doesn’t have to accept bizarre Marxist ideas or Mariana Mazzucato’s influential, but horrendous claims about innovation to realize that there are valid arguments for and against the effectiveness of government control. However, one thing is clear: The more weight one places on the type of political incentive problems so abundantly documented by the public choice school since the early 1960s, or the more weight one places on the importance of epistemic problems as emphasized in the Austrian tradition, the more one is likely to reach an unambiguous conclusion. A series of arguments from these two traditions indicate that a low emissions transition occurs faster and more efficiently in a free market economy. On the other hand, the more one believes in the importance of classical externality problems and issues of discounting, the more one will lean towards the opposite conclusion.

It therefore depends on ones theoretical priors if one believes that economic freedom will help or hinder a transition towards lower greenhouse gas emissions. As such, which kinds of arguments are more likely in the real world is an empirical question. Part of the paper is therefore a formal econometric test of the effects of economic freedom in the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Yet, instead of exploring linear effects of economic freedom as in most other studies, I estimate an ‘environmental Kuznets Curve’, which allows me to say something about the likely shape and timing of the transition.

Figure 1 illustrates the main conclusion of the paper. I plot the development between 1990 and 2015 for four groups of countries: The 25 % with the least economic freedom, the two middle groups, and the 25 % with the most economic freedom. The figure makes it very clear that the most free countries have reduced their emissions much more than any other group while the second-freest countries have increased them. However, the reason for this apparently strange result is obvious: the third group consists of  relatively successful middle-income countries with particularly high growth rates.

Another way of illustrating the overall conclusions is to plot the Kuznets Curves implied by the estimates. I do so in Figure 2, which shows the estimated environmental Kuznets Curve for countries at the 10th and 90th decile of the distribution of economic freedom. Put another way: These are the Kuznets Curves for countries with very little economic freedom and countries with as much economic freedom as places such as Northern Europe, Australia and Canada. The more a country’s economic policies and institutions are consistent with an ideal of economic freedom, the earlier does the transition begin and the faster it is. The ‘best’ estimates suggest that for overall greenhouse gas emissions, the implied turning point – the level of economic development at which emissions begin to fall – occurs around a real GDP per capita of 25,000 USD.

In other words, markets without excessive government control and interference create sufficient innovation and incentivize firms and individuals to use resource-saving technology to such a degree that emissions begin to fall when people are about as rich as in Malaysia. If the political establishment typically tries to control the economy, it may never occur. If politicians and other political actors are truly interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future, they will do best by keeping their hands off the economy. Whether that is in their political interest is an entirely different question.

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