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A place for dialogue - Policy makers and researchers gathered at the School


workshop participants

Back to back with the World Congress of Environmental and Resource Economists (WCERE) experts from regulatory agencies and academia gathered at the School of Business, Economics and Law in June 2018. The purpose was to create new networks and start a dialogue on how to tackle important challenges.

During an intense afternoon, researchers in environmental economics and experts from the Swedish authorities, the OECD and the EU gathered at the School to discuss specific challenges encountered by government experts when applying environmental economics in practice. Climate, fishing, biodiversity, chemicals and circular economy were the five focus areas chosen for different round table talks. The conversations were part of the pre-conference organized before the WCERE 2018 congress.

Daniel Slunge“I have attended similar congresses before and, in my experience, they often miss out on some of the opportunities there are for engaging in a dialogue with policy makers on important research issues when gathering the world's leading researchers. We arranged this pre-conference in the hope that it will lead to new forms of collaboration and stronger links between policy makers and researchers,” says Daniel Slunge, environmental economist at the School and the UGOT FRAM centre on chemicals, and one of the initiators of the round table talks.

Difficult to evaluate negative effects

One of the round tables discussed good practice in the economic valuation of hazardous chemicals. Experts from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) presented practical difficulties they encounter in valuing the economic benefits of chemical regulation, which involves quantifying health benefits in monetary terms. Multiple studies have demonstrated clear links between certain chemicals and illnesses such as cancer. In order to place a value on effects linked to mortality, it is possible to use a monetary value for a statistical life. However, how does one place a value on effects such as loss of IQ points, reduced fertility or an increased risk of obesity?

Delegates agreed that regulation should be motivated by quantifiable benefits – for example, in the form of reduced healthcare costs or reduced suffering – but that, under certain circumstances, there may be reason to regulate certain chemicals based on the precautionary principle.

“Unfortunately, it is much easier to identify and quantify the costs of a regulation than to estimate the social gains to be made from a healthy population and sustainable environment,” says Maria Noring, environmental economist at the Swedish Chemicals Agency.

What has become apparent is that the costs for phasing out hazardous chemicals are often lower than initially calculated. Once a country has decided to phase out certain hazardous chemicals, the market will generally replace these in a cheaper manner than initially deemed possible.

“There is need for a regulatory system that is sufficiently strong to identify hazardous chemicals before they reach the market and can cause health and environmental damage. Long-term, low-level exposure to many chemicals can have very negative effects on both health and the environment, but these cocktails are both difficult to characterize and regulate. At the same time, a polarisation exists between some parts of the chemical industry – who in principle claim that all risk assessments are exaggerated – and researchers who continue to identify environmental and health risks,” says Christina Rudén, professor in toxicology at Stockholm University and a participant in the workshop.

Alan J. Krupnick, Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, agrees and believes that responsibility should be shifted to the companies that use the chemicals:

“Let industries prove that their chemicals are not harmful, instead of researchers being forced to prove that they actually are.”

New contacts and future cooperation

Maria Noring left the workshop with an increased understanding of the conditions facing the other delegates.

Maria Noring“Among other things, I received confirmation that other countries experience the same problems as we do at the Swedish Chemicals Agency. The workshop was also incredibly valuable in terms of making new contacts between researchers and practitioners. Having met one another, it will be easier to get in touch, ask questions and initiate future cooperation.”

“The strength of this type of meeting is that we can dialogue in small setting. Just writing press releases and research reports is not enough if our research is to have an impact on society. We also need to engage in a closer dialogue with experts and decision-makers at differet agencies and organisations”, says Daniel Slunge.