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Grandfathering: Environmental Uses and Impacts

Journal article
Authors Maria Damon
Daniel Cole
Elinor Ostrom
Thomas Sterner
Published in Review of Environmental Economics and Policy
Volume 13
Issue 1
Pages 23–42,
ISSN 1750-6824
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Economics, Environmental Economics Unit
Pages 23–42,
Language en
Keywords K32 - Environmental, Health, and Safety Law, Q58 - Government Policy.
Subject categories Economics


“Grandfathering” grants preferential treatment to existing resource users over new entrants based on prior use. Grandfathering is based on the concept of first-in-time or prior appropriation and has been applied to a broad range of environmental and resource issues. We synthesize legal, economic, and political science perspectives and find that grandfathering removes incentives for users to anticipate regulations with proactive abatement. We analyze institutions ranging from long-enduring common-property regimes to climate negotiations to identify how grandfathering can be detrimental to sustainability, but we also show that it can be the only possible mechanism for bringing stakeholders to the table.

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