White House Aims to Reflect the Environment in Economic Data

Skepticism about including environmental considerations in economic and financial decision-making remains in the United States, where conservatives have disparaged investing guidelines that put a priority on a company’s performance along environmental, social and governance lines. The social cost of carbon, another measurement tool for assessing the economic impact of regulations through their effect on carbon emissions, was set close to zero during the Trump administration and has been increased significantly under President Biden.

Benjamin Zycher, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, expressed concern Thursday that the new approach would introduce a degree of subjectivity.

“I think there’s a real danger that if in fact they’re trying to put environmental quality values into the national accounts, there’s no straightforward way to do that, and it’s impossible that it wouldn’t be politicized,” Dr. Zycher said in an interview. “That’s going to be a process deeply fraught with problems and dubious interpretations.”

Few economic statistics are a perfect representation of reality, however, and all of them have to be refined to make sure they are consistent and comparable over time. Measuring the value of nature is inherently tricky, since there is often no market price to consult, but other sources of information can be equally illuminating. The Bureau of Economic Analysis has undertaken other efforts to measure the value of services that are never sold, like household labor.

“That’s exactly why we need this sort of strategy,” said Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a research and advocacy group. “To really develop the data we need so that it’s not subjective, and make sure we are really devoting the same quality control and focus on integrity that we do to other areas of economic statistics.”

The strategy does not pretend to cover every aspect of nature’s value, or solve problems of environmental justice simply by more fully incorporating nature’s contribution, particularly for Indigenous communities. Those concerns, said Rachelle Gould, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont, will need to be prioritized separately.

“There are a lot of other ways nature matters that can’t be accounted for in monetary terms,” Dr. Gould said. “It’s appropriately cautious about what might be possible.”

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