Misconceptions About Water Pricing

Throughout the United States, water management has been approached primarily as an engineering problem, rather than an economic one. Water supply managers are reluctant to use price increases as water conservation tools, instead relying on non-price demand management techniques, such as requirements for the adoption of specific technologies and restrictions on particular uses. In my March 3rd post, “As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise,” I wrote about how — in principle — price can be used by water managers as an effective and efficient instrument to manage this scarce resource.

In a white paper, “Managing Water Demand: Price vs. Non-Price Conservation Programs,” published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Professor Sheila Olmstead of Yale University and I analyzed the relative merits of price and non-price approaches to water conservation. We reviewed well over a hundred studies, and found strong and consistent empirical evidence that using prices to manage water demand is more cost-effective than implementing non-price conservation programs.

Despite such empirical evidence regarding the higher costs of non-price approaches to water conservation, many constituencies continue to prefer them. Professor Olmstead and I believe that this reliance on inefficient command-and-control approaches to water management may be due — in part — to several common and influential misconceptions regarding the use of water pricing.

One misconception is that “because water prices are low, price cannot be used to manage demand.” This misconception that low prices somehow obviate the use of price as an incentive for water conservation may stem from economists’ definition of a price response in the range observed for water demand as “inelastic.” There is a critical distinction between the technical term “inelastic demand” and the phrase “unresponsive to price”. Inelastic demand will decrease by less than one percent for every one percent increase in price. In contrast, if demand is truly unresponsive to price, the same quantity of water will be demanded at any price. This may be true in theory for a subsistence quantity of drinking water, but it has not been observed for water demand in general in 50 years of published empirical analysis.

A second misconception is that “water customers are unaware of prices, and therefore price cannot be used to manage demand.” If this were true, the hundreds of statistical studies estimating the price elasticity of water demand would have found that effect to be zero. But this is not the case. Instead, consumers behave as if they are aware of water prices. The hundreds of studies we reviewed cover many decades of water demand research in cities that bill water customers monthly, every two months, quarterly, or annually; and in which bills provide everything from no information about prices, to very detailed information. Our conclusion is that water suppliers need not change billing frequency or format to achieve water demand reductions from price increases, but providing more information may boost the impact of price changes.

A third misconception is that “increasing-block pricing provides an incentive for water conservation.” Under increasing-block prices (IBPs), the price of a unit of water increases with the quantity consumed, based on a quantity threshold or set of thresholds. Many water utilities that have implemented IBPs consider them part of their approach to water conservation; and many state agencies and other entities recommend them as water conservation tools. But analysis indicates that increasing-block prices, per se, have no impact on the quantity of water demanded, controlling for price levels.

A fourth and final misconception is that “where water price increases are implemented, water demand will always fall.” Price elasticity estimates measure the reduction in demand to be expected from a one percent increase in the marginal price of water, all else constant. Individual water utilities may increase prices and see demand rise subsequently due to population growth, changes in weather or climate, increases in average household income, or other factors. In these cases, a price increase can reduce the rate of growth in water demand to a level below what would have been observed if prices had remained constant.

Raising water prices (as with the elimination of any subsidy) can be politically difficult. This is probably one of the primary reasons why water demand management through non-price techniques is the overwhelmingly dominant approach in the United States. But the cost-effectiveness advantages of price-based approaches are clear, and there may be some political advantage to be gained by demonstrating these potential cost savings.

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The Myth of Simple Market Solutions

I introduced my previous post by noting that there are several prevalent myths regarding how economists think about the environment, and I addressed the “myth of the universal market” ­– the notion that economists believe that the market solves all problems.  In response, I noted that economists recognize that in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, not the rule.  Governments can try to correct such market failures, for example by restricting pollutant emissions.  It is to these government interventions that I turn this time.

A second common myth is that economists always recommend simple market solutions for market problems.  Indeed, in a variety of contexts, economists tend to search for instruments of public policy that can fix one market by introducing another.  If pollution imposes large external costs, the government can establish a market for rights to emit a limited amount of that pollutant under a so-called cap-and-trade system.  Such a market for tradable allowances can be expected to work well if there are many buyers and sellers, all are well informed, and the other conditions I discussed in my last posting are met.

The government’s role is then to enforce the rights and responsibilities of permit ownership, so that each unit of emissions is matched by the ownership of one permit.  Equivalently, producers can be required to pay a tax on their emissions.  Either way, the result — in theory — will be cost-effective pollution abatement, that is, overall abatement achieved at minimum aggregate cost.

The cap-and-trade approach has much to recommend it, and can be just the right solution in some cases, but it is still a market.  Therefore the outcome will be efficient only if certain conditions are met.  Sometimes these conditions are met, and sometimes they are not.  Could the sale of permits be monopolized by a small number of buyers or sellers?  Do problems arise from inadequate information or significant transactions costs?  Will the government find it too costly to measure emissions?  If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the permit market may work less than optimally.  The environmental goal may still be met, but at more than minimum cost.  In other words, cost effectiveness will not be achieved.

To reduce acid rain in the United States, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 require electricity generators to hold a permit for each ton of sulfur dioxide (SO2) they emit.  A robust permit market exists, in which well-defined prices are broadly known to many potential buyers and sellers.  Through continuous emissions monitoring, the government tracks emissions from each plant.  Equally important, penalties are significantly greater than incremental abatement costs, and hence are sufficient to ensure compliance.  Overall, this market works very well; acid rain is being cut by 50 percent, and at a savings of about $1 billion per year in abatement costs, compared with a conventional approach.

A permit market achieves this cost effectiveness through trades because any company with high abatement costs can buy permits from another with low abatement costs, thus reducing the total cost of reducing pollution.  These trades also switch the source of the pollution from one company to another, which is not important when any emissions equally affect the whole trading area.  This “uniform mixing” assumption is certainly valid for global problems such as greenhouse gases or the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the stratospheric ozone layer.  It may also work reasonably well for a regional problem such as acid rain, because acid deposition in downwind states of New England is about equally affected by sulfur dioxide emissions traded among upwind sources in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  But it does not work perfectly, since acid rain in New England may increase if a plant there sells permits to a plant in the mid-west, for example.

At the other extreme, some environmental problems might not be addressed appropriately by a simple, unconstrained cap-and-trade system.  A hazardous air pollutant such as benzene that does not mix in the airshed can cause localized “hot spots.”  Because a company can buy permits and increase local emissions, permit trading does not ensure that each location will meet a specific standard.  Moreover, the damages caused by local concentrations may increase nonlinearly.  If so, then even a permit system that reduces total emissions might allow trades that move those emissions to a high-impact location and thus increase total damages.  An appropriately constrained permit trading system can address the hot-spot problem, for example by combining emissions trading with a parallel system of non-tradable ambient standards.

The bottom line is that no particular form of government intervention, no individual policy instrument – whether market-based or conventional – is appropriate for all environmental problems.  There is no simple policy panacea.  The simplest market instruments do not always provide the best solutions, and sometimes not even satisfactory ones.  If a cost-effective policy instrument is used to achieve an inefficient environmental target — one that does not make the world better off, that is, one which fails a benefit-cost test – then we have succeeded only in “designing a fast train to the wrong station.”  Nevertheless, market-based instruments are now part of the available environmental policy portfolio, and ultimately that is good news both for environmental protection and economic well-being.

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Opportunity for a Defining Moment

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States is a defining moment in American history. For most Americans and countless others around the world, this is an inspiring political transition. The question we must face, however, is whether compelling inspiration will lead to effective action. As I wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed (November 12, 2008) one week after election day, environment and energy issues — particularly climate change policy — provide a microcosm of the forces that are shaping and will shape the actions of the new Administration and Congress.

About eight years ago, President-Elect George W. Bush promised to be President for all the people, not just those who had voted him into office. Bush’s ability as Texas Governor to bridge differences across the political aisle provided cause for optimism.

But hope for a centrist and sensible Presidency dissolved under the influence of White House political operative Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney. The Bush Administration moved not to the center, but toward solidifying its base on the political right. Nowhere was this more apparent than in energy and environmental policy, with Vice President Cheney running energy policy, and EPA Administrator Christie Whitman virtually driven from office.

Will the environment and energy team of President Obama respond effectively to the serious challenges that lie ahead? Or will we find that the corporate lobbyists who filled so many key environmental positions in the Bush Administration have simply been replaced by strident advocates from the other end of the political spectrum? In other words, will ideology trump reason?

The first sign of trouble will be if the Administration issues an “endangerment finding” for carbon dioxide, as promised by the Obama campaign, thereby pleasing and solidifying President Obama’s political base, but also playing into the hands of those who oppose climate policy action, tying up progress with litigation, driving up costs, and accomplishing little or nothing.

Ultimately, will the Obama White House work with Congress to develop climate strategies that are scientifically sound, economically sensible, and thereby politically pragmatic? Will the new President –with impressive Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress — take on the difficult task of crafting meaningful climate legislation?

The only politically feasible approach that can make a real dent in the problem is a comprehensive, upstream cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The declining cap will increase the cost of polluting, thereby discouraging the use of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels and providing powerful incentives for energy conservation and technology innovation.

The system could start with a 50-50 split of auctioned and free allowances, gradually moving to 100% auction over 25 years. To establish political support in the short term, free allowances should be targeted to sectors that are most burdened by the policy. And the auction revenue — which will increase over time — can be used to compensate low-income consumers, finance research and development, reduce the federal deficit, or cut taxes.

The best option may be to make the program revenue-neutral by returning all of the auction revenue to citizens through direct cash dividends or annual tax credits. This can go a long way towards making the legislation palatable to Republicans and Democrats alike who are reticent to take any actions that even resemble a tax increase.

By making the overall emissions cap gradually become more stringent over time, costs can be greatly reduced by avoiding premature retirement of existing capital stock, reducing vulnerability to siting bottlenecks, and ensuring that long-lived capital investments incorporate appropriate advanced technology.

Still, the costs of meaningful action will be significant, with impacts on gross domestic product eventually reaching up to 1 percent per year. But the longer the world waits to begin taking serious action, the more ambitious will emission reduction targets inevitably become, as atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to accumulate.

The bottom line is that getting serious about global climate change will not be cheap and it will not be easy. Beware of claims to the contrary. In the midst of a significant economic downturn, with businesses closing and unemployment on the rise, it makes sense for the new Administration to give its greatest attention to economic recovery. There is nothing wrong with sequencing policies. But if current predictions about the consequences of another few decades of inaction are correct, this defining moment provides an important opportunity for serious and sensible action.

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