Why do some countries get cleaner as they grow, while others get dirtier? Will economic growth lead to a planetary crisis? These are the kinds of questions that drew Ross McKitrick into the study of environmental economics.
“I remember back in the 1980s hearing about the need for more economic growth in the face of poverty and inequality, but also the need to tackle acid rain, ozone depletion, and other environmental consequences of growth,” says McKitrick. “I thought that economics must have something to say about how to balance these seemingly opposite priorities.”
The field of environmental economics was fairly new in Canada at that time. When McKitrick began his graduate work in 1989, there wasn’t a single course on the subject. “But many faculty and students were getting interested in it, and before long Canada had one of the most active environmental economics research communities in the world,” he says.
Over the years, the questions that first interested McKitrick have spawned many new directions. He has modelled the effects of carbon taxes on the Canadian economy and the effects of oil price shocks on air pollution trends in the U.S., analyzed the way spatial patterns of industrialization affect the measurement of global warming, looked at how anticipating household responses to rule changes can make regulatory design more efficient, and more.
“This is such a broad field to work in. You can never run out of interesting new subjects to tackle,” he says.
It’s also inherently interdisciplinary. McKitrick has worked alongside meteorologists, climatologists, thermodynamicists, statisticians, mathematicians, and other physical scientists. Most recently, he completed a study with a pair of Finnish biologists showing that the declining average household size is accelerating the eradication of malaria around the world, even in countries that aren’t using pesticides like DDT.
He has also found that tools developed in one field can help solve problems in others.
“Economists know a lot of statistical methods for analyzing time series data, such as stock markets and national accounts,” says McKitrick. “Scientists need these same tools for the analysis of large climate data sets, but in many cases they don’t know how to use them or even know they’re available.”
So this year, McKitrick organized the first international workshop for applications of econometric methods in climatology, drawing scientists and economists from around the world.
And what about the big questions that first attracted his attention?
“We are getting some answers,” says McKitrick. “Ontario is an interesting test case. From 1971 to 2013, our economy more than doubled in size, yet most forms of air pollution trended down, in some cases quite substantially. We can identify which policies worked well, and why, and which ones turn out to be too costly or ineffective to justify.”
These lessons are being applied to global challenges like climate change. McKitrick and his students are looking at novel ways to link real-time climate data to adaptive policy mechanisms, allowing market forces to form an efficient system for greenhouse gas management.
“The bigger the question, the more creative our thinking needs to be,” he says. “That’s what keeps research exciting.”