Environmental policy instruments must be used to deal with global environmental problems


Global environmental problems can be addressed by means of policy instruments such as carbon dioxide taxes, building and technology standards and support for new technology, but the issues are complex and several environmental problems must be addressed simultaneously in order to achieve optimal effect. Therefore, different research areas must work together to find solutions. This is evident from an article published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The major environmental problems are global, long-term and uncertain. They are also interconnected with each other and must therefore be analyzed together in order to find solutions that provide synergies and in order to avoid “solutions” that solve one problem but worsen others.

Thomas Sterner“It is not sustainable if you aggravate problems related to loss of biodiversity or the vital cycles for water or nutrients when you are trying to solve, for example, the climate problem, perhaps through a poorly conceived forest policy,” says Thomas Sterner, professor of environmental economics at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and lead author of the article.

The Earth is in the "Anthropocene" – an era when many crucial variables for the planet are controlled by man, and our activities and consumption patterns risk exceeding the planetary boundaries. This leads to changed climate, acidification of the oceans, loss of biodiversity and many other global environmental problems.

“Science is clear that we are at risk of destabilising the entire planet. The grand challenge is to recognise the need for new economic policies when faced with risks of irreversible changes at the global scale that would determine the future of all generations of humans on Earth,” says Johan Rockström, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Stockholm University and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. He is one of the co-authors of the study.

“Biologists, physicists and other natural scientists see and analyze the changes, and are usually the ones who write about planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. Social scientists are experts on how society and the economy work, and both skills are indispensable when analyzing social causes and proposing solutions that are effective and politically feasible. Therefore, collaboration between economists, social scientists and natural scientists is urgently needed to discuss solutions,” says Sterner.

“The Anthropocene is a whole new era in human and planetary development. It is extremely important to adjust policy instruments and combine them in new ways. They must be adapted to phenomena that are becoming increasingly common now, for example the risk of collapse of certain natural resources, so-called "tipping points", or that human activities may have delayed influence on the environment,” says Anne-Sophie Crépin at the Beijer Institute and one of the co-authors of the article.

Finding effective solutions is of course important, but the income distributional effects of policy measures and their perceived fairness are vital determinants of the political feasibility and thus also aspects that must be considered very carefully when policy instruments are selected and designed.

“The aim of our research is to contribute to a better policy throughout the world to deal with the major environmental problems. A first step could be a global agreement that all emissions of greenhouse gases must imply a significant cost for the persons or companies causing the emissions,” says Sterner.

About the article

In December 2016, Thomas Sterner gathered 25 international environmental researchers at the Gothenburg School of Economics for the workshop "Policies for Planetary Boundaries". Two key participants were Johan Rockström and Will Steffen, both attached to the Stockholm Resilience Center and lead authors of several major articles on Planetary Boundaries. The questions the researchers posed were "what economic and political measures do we need to cope with the global environmental challenges?" and "what can natural scientists learn from economists and vice versa?". The result was the article "Policy design for the Anthropocene" which has now been published in Nature Sustainability.

Thomas Sterner and Johan Rockström during the workshop in 2016.


Thomas Sterner, Professor of Environmental Economics, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg
+46 31-786 1377, +46 708 163306,

Anne-Sophie Crépin, Associate Professor in Environmental Economics, Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics and Stockholm Resilience Centre.
+46 8-673 95 40,