Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are Down in the Recession: Is 'Green GDP' Up?

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by: Jeffrey Frankel

Alan Krueger, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Affairs, suggested in a speech in October a useful metaphor to distinguish different kinds of economic indicators. Some indicators are like the gauges on the dashboard of the car — industrial production, unemployment, inflation and so on. They give the latest bits of information on the business cycle outlook, for businesspeople , government policy-makers, economic forecasters, and anyone else who wishes to follow such developments at high frequency. Many of these numbers are typically collected on a monthly basis. Other statistics are like the results of 10,000 mile checkups – the poverty rate, infant mortality, life expectancy, carbon emissions, natural resource depletion, the crime rate, traffic congestion, leisure surveys, and other measures of inequality, health, the environment and the quality of life. They are needed to supplement market-measured output in order to get a comprehensive feel for welfare and the longer term sustainability of the economy. This second category of statistics is more often collected on an annual basis.

GDP is the single indicator that gets the most attention. Lately much of that attention has been very critical. In late September, the most recent in a long line of critics weighed in. This group was weighty indeed: the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress was created by President Sarkozy, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, chair-advised by Amartya Sen, and coordinated by Jean-Paul Fitoussi, with Nobel-Prize winners abound. The Commission apparently believes that we have been focusing too much on market-measures output “By their reckoning, much of the contemporary economic disaster owes to the misbegotten assumption that policy makers simply had to focus on nurturing growth, trusting that this would maximize prosperity for all. “What you measure affects what you do,” Mr. Stiglitz said…”If you don’t measure the right thing you don’t do the right thing.” (New York Times, Sept. 23, 2009.)

I certainly agree that the non-market variables are important, both in the sense that they should be measured well and in the sense that policy-makers should put some priority on them as objectives. But I question whether the measurement issue and the objective issue are as closely linked as many would have it. I especially question any claims that the role of GDP should be in practice be replaced with a concept that factors in these other measures of environment, inequality, health etc. GDP is a comprehensive measure of market output, and is available quarterly, and belongs on the dashboard. The other variables are typically available only annually, and there is no way to know how to aggregate them into a single number, let alone to aggregate them together with the standard economic measures. By all means, take the 10,000 mile checkups seriously. But don’t remove GDP from the dashboard.

I am not sure I see the claim that the reason for the myriad errors our national policy makers have made in recent years is the measurement problem (notwithstanding the Bush Administration’s notorious downgrading of science). We have perfectly good tools for helping to make decisions about environmental regulation, for example, in the form of cost benefit analysis. GDP measurement issues simply have nothing to do with that. Perhaps you believe that a Republican Administration may want to pressure the EPA to count some genuine environmental damages at zero or suppress the evidence entirely; perhaps you believe that a Democratic Administration may want to count some genuine economic costs at zero or abandon cost benefit analysis entirely. Yes, that would have a big effect on the policy decision. But what does any of it have to do with GDP?

In the same newspaper reporting Joe’s comments, I read a report about a development that has received mysteriously little attention: according to numbers from the Energy Information Agency, greenhouse gas emissions fell sharply in 2008 (by more than 2 ½ %), are falling even more in 2009 (about 6%), and in the next few years are almost certain to remain easily below the levels of 2005. (See the chart below.) The oil price spike in 2008 deserves some credit. Some might wish to try to give some credit to policy too. But there can be no doubt that the main reason for the sharp fall in emissions is the recession. A simple statistic for the unitiated: although CO2 emissions in an average year rise by 0.8%, they fell that much in both 1991 and 2001, the last two recession years, in addition to the much larger drop in the much larger recent recession. That is not a coincidence.

How should one weigh a 9 percent fall in emissions against a 3.8% fall in real GDP (from the 2007Q4 peak to the 2009Q2 apparent-trough)? I strongly suspect that a majority of Americans, no matter how well-informed, would think that the output loss far more than outweighs the climate benefit. A minority, in favor of very drastic action on climate change, might implicitly choose the other way. (I myself am in favor of pretty serious action, but not in favor of policies that impose huge economic costs, either because they are too drastic or are designed in an inefficient way. And of course engineering a recession would be a very inefficient way to do it.) Are Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen among those who think we are better off on balance? I have no idea. To ask the question is to help illuminate why attempts to sum everything up into a single number, such as “Green GDP,” fail.

Incidentally, if Joe does think that the estimated 9 percent fall in emissions outweighs the 4% loss in GDP, then he doesn’t think that our current situation constitutes a “contemporary economic disaster.” It would then logically follow that any policy decisions that got us into this situation were good (whether or not attributable to incomplete on false information about banking activity or inequality or anything else)!

Source: US EIA