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University of Rhode Island — Environmental & Natural Resource Economics
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The Field
What is Environmental and Natural Resource Economics?

Environmental Economics can help us understand why many of the Earth’s natural resources are under threat, and what we can do to address these threats. The major combines natural sciences and economics to make you an informed participant in the public debate on how to protect tropical rain forests, safe drinking water, clean air, biodiversity, sustainable fisheries, endangered species, and other natural assets. We answer questions like:

  • How can we protect rainforests while also helping to alleviate poverty in developing tropical nations?
  • Are automobile fuel standards a good way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, or are there better alternatives?
  • Are biofuels be an effective element in the solution to environmental problems, or do they simply create more problems than they solve?
  • How can we protect rainforests while also helping to alleviate poverty in developing tropical nations?
  • Should the Environmental Protection Agency create new regulations that would improve air quality?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of policies like cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, pollution offsets, payments for ecosystem service, performance-based standards, product eco-labeling and command-and-control regulations?

We need to understand how these policies work (or don’t work) if we are going to develop effective ways to protect our natural assets and develop a sustainable world.

Environmental Economics also addresses some of the most important questions facing our global society. Why have humans caused environmental degradation on local, regional, and global scales, and what can we do about it? How can we create a sustainable society that protects the environment while maintaining a high standard of living? Environmental economics provides analytical tools to help us address these questions.


Why have humans caused widespread ecological impacts, depleted fisheries and forests, polluted waters and atmosphere?

Environmental Economics takes a very balanced and rational approach to such questions. We do not begin with the premise that humans are evil or greedy. And while overpopulation is clearly an important problem, the threats to ecosystems do not arise simply because there are too many of us. Natural assets like the oceans and atmosphere have properties that lead to a tendency for overuse and depletion. We need to understand these root causes of environmental problems to design effective ways to protect the environment.

How market forces operate and why they contribute to environmental degradation?

Economists believe that in many circumstances the market provides the best outcome when left to itself, as if it is guided by “an invisible hand”. However, there are well understood reasons that markets fail to operate well in some contexts. This is what economists call “market failure”, and environmental degradation is THE classic example of market failure. But there are also well understood reasons that direct government regulation will also tend to fail to achieve good outcomes in these situations. This is called “government failure”. Environmental economics helps us understand the underlying causes of market failure and government failure, and helps us design effective policies by focusing on the underlying causes of environmental problems. We view the causes and the solutions without a predetermined perspective on the ethics of markets and governments. Both markets and government regulations have important roles to play in creating a sustainable, productive and equitable society.

How much are natural resources worth?

Many of us have not thought of these environmental services or assets in terms of money or dollar signs, because there are no markets in which they are traded, as with many other commodities. In fact, there are profound questions as to what can or should be considered a commodity as opposed to a common good. But these environmental services are of great value, and if policy makers do not know their value they cannot decide which ones need the most of our attention. There are a number of quite amazing tools called environmental valuation methods that can help environmental economists find out the “value” of such environmental assets. And environmental economists try to help society to understand the value of things that are sometimes elusive.

How can we design policies to protect the global environment and simultaneously alleviate world poverty?

Many are concerned with protecting rainforests, maintaining biodiversity, preserving endangered species and reducing global carbon emissions. But there are equally important concerns about problems such as global poverty and world hunger. Economists have developed policies that can simultaneously contribute to protecting the global environment AND alleviating world poverty. Do you want to learn about the considerable potential of these policy tools, and about challenges faced in properly designing and implementing these policies? Study environmental economics.

What do we need to do to ensure a sustainable and dependable energy supply? And what are the challenges of making the transition from a society dependent on highly polluting and carbon-intensive fossil fuels, to a sustainable society based on low polluting and renewable energy sources?

Energy plays an important role in every facet of society, from our economic and environmental health to the quality of life in our homes and communities. In order to power our planet sustainably, we will need to restructure everything from our own individual energy usage to global power distribution systems. Doing so will require rebuilding our society around alternative energy sources, and we will need to make fundamental changes in the way humans use energy. The transition will also require that we develop effective long-term strategies for innovative research on new, clean energy sources. This transition will not be easy, and it is one of the greatest challenges for your generation. But the rewards are equally substantive in terms of wealth production and quality of life. We can also create a more just society, in which economic progress for developed nations is not at the expense of developing ones.

Environmental Economics can help us answer these questions.

All these questions embody the interactions between economic and natural systems, and Environmental and Natural Resource Economics can help us find answers to these questions. There is no claim that Environmental and Natural Resource Economics is the end-all-and-be-all, only that it provides insights as to why many of the Earth’s natural resources are under threat and how we can address these threats. The primary goal is to develop a sustainable world economy that can meet our needs in a just and equitable way.

The major in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics provides students with tools to weigh options and make important decisions concerning the protection, restoration, development, and use of our natural resources. Graduates gain an understanding of both natural sciences and the economy, and learn why both perspectives are essential in developing solutions to today’s critical environmental problems. The major prepares students for graduate school, or for careers in the public and private sector that address environmental and natural resource management, business, or public policy. Such professionals play an important role in coordinating interdisciplinary teams to address a myriad of complex problems.

Our undergraduate program is inherently interdisciplinary, and all students in our major develop strong foundations in natural and social sciences. Option 1, Environmental Economics and Management, allows students considerable flexibility to pursue their professional goals. For example, the 24 credits in supporting electives in this Option are designed to allow a student to create an associated minor (e.g., green business), or to sample broadly from courses from different departments across campus. Option 2, Environmental Economics and Management, is a more structured program that has equal balance between environmental science and environmental economics. For example, the 24 concentration credits are comprised of 12 credits in environmental economics and 12 credits selected from a prescribed set of natural science courses in ecology, watersheds, soils and environmental geology. But students in both options develop strong foundations in natural and social sciences.

Environmental and Natural Resource Economics is central to the development of a more just and sustainable global society. As a major in this field, you will be prepared to contribute to crucial and evolving solutions.