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Uncertainty in Discount Models and Environmental Accounting

Donald Ludwig, University of British Columbia
William A. Brock, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Stephen R Carpenter, University of Wisconsin-Madison


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Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is controversial for environmental issues, but is nevertheless employed by many governments and private organizations for making environmental decisions. Controversy centers on the practice of economic discounting in CBA for decisions that have substantial long-term consequences, as do most environmental decisions. Customarily, economic discounting has been calculated at a constant exponential rate, a practice that weights the present heavily in comparison with the future. Recent analyses of economic data show that the assumption of constant exponential discounting should be modified to take into account large uncertainties in long-term discount rates. A proper treatment of this uncertainty requires that we consider returns over a plausible range of assumptions about future discounting rates. When returns are averaged in this way, the schemes with the most severe discounting have a negligible effect on the average after a long period of time has elapsed. This re-examination of economic uncertainty provides support for policies that prevent or mitigate environmental damage. We examine these effects for three examples: a stylized renewable resource, management of a long-lived species (Atlantic Right Whales), and lake eutrophication.

Key words

Atlantic right whale; cost-benefit analysis; discounting; ecological economics; ecosystem service; eutrophication; renewable resource; uncertainty

Copyright © 2005 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087