Ocean Tax to Save the Rainforests - Economist Calls on Governments to Act

  • Wigtown Book Festival speaker says those who harm nature should pay
  • Mirrlees Lecture looks at new ways to combat climate change and poverty

As human activity ravages our greatest natural resources, leading economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta has called for taxes on ocean use – with the proceeds used to protect rain


The Cambridge Academic, and author of the influential The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, will argue for new approaches to protecting our environment – and combatting both climate change and poverty – when he delivers the second annual James Mirrlees Lecture at Wigtown Book Festival. He believes that a major driver for environmental destruction is that those who pollute and destroy them are not made to pay. Similarly, for countries with tropical rain forest there are few immediate incentives not to destroy them and turn the land over to mining or cattle ranching regardless of the consequences.

Prof. Dasgupta will be speaking on Saturday, 23 September, as part of the 25th annual Wigtown Book Festival which takes place in Scotland’s National Book Town from 22 September to 1 October.

He said: “Governments should collaborate now over the use of the oceans. There should be an international tax on the use of the oceans.

“Think about the container ships sailing across the Pacific and the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Also think about the mining on the sea beds and the fishing, and the cruise ships. Simultaneously, we are pumping enormous amounts of dirt into the oceans.

“If you charge for this, you're looking at hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue each year. It could be used to pay countries with tropical rainforest to cease deforesting them.”

In the West we are already accustomed to paying for ecosystem services – for example by funding farmers to use land for promoting biodiversity rather than agriculture.

Prof. Dasgupta said: “This too would be an ecosystem service. We moan about the fact that Brazil has been losing the rainforest because they are being transformed into mines or ranches. And they say ‘why shouldn't we? We need to develop, you guys like to eat our cheap beef, what's your problem?’.

“Their incentive to protect the rainforest is far lower than the global incentive to preserve the rainforest. So the solution will be to compensate them for not doing the damage.”

Underpinning all these problems, he argues, is the fact that the conventional economic measures used by governments, international agencies and businesses don’t factor in the cost of depleting out capital assets – nature being the biggest. This means that goods and services are artificially cheap because no one pays for the harm – and money isn’t reinvested into protecting the environment. And the results are dire.

Prof. Dasgupta said: “You can get away with depreciating nature for a while but not indefinitely, because everything depends on it. The destruction of the Amazon, the depletion of coastal fishing stocks and climate change are good examples.

“We are depreciating the characteristics of the atmosphere and therefore, the entire biospheric cycle of climate regulation by pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“The flip side is the sink into which the carbon is being dumped, namely the atmosphere and the oceans. And those are things are capital assets. They do so much for us, they keep us alive.

“At a global level much of the cost will be in the future, but at a local level it’s here today. People from the Amazon rainforest are dying or having to move. Their entire habitat is destroyed.”

The James Mirrlees Lecture commemorates the life of the Galloway-born Nobel Prize-winning economist who died in 2018. Patricia Mirrlees, wife of James, said: “In 2022, the Scottish Government outlined its plans to address biodversity loss in Scotland through its Scottish Biodiversity Strategy (SBS). Apart from measures to safeguard and encourage terrestrial biodiversity, it proposed to create Highly Protected Marine Areas in at least 10% of Scottish seas.

In June this year, this was scrapped because of concerns from fishing communities. The lecture by Sir Partha Dasgupta is therefore a timely contribution to discussing the crisis in biodiversity loss globally and locally and how to respond to it.”

Other speakers at Wigtown Book Festival addressing environmental issues include: Andri Snaer Magnason, author of On Time and Water and former Icelandic presidential candidate, who will deliver the annual Magnusson Lecture on 30 September. Helen Czerski, scientist, TV presenter and author of Blue Machine reveals how the ocean works and how it has shaped and influenced human society. Leif Bersweden, BBC Springwatch botanist and author of Where the Wildflowers Grow, who is on a mission to encourage us to appreciate plant life – its amazing variety and importance to our world.

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About The James Mirrlees Lecture

The James Mirrlees Lecture commemorates the life of the Galloway-born Nobel Prize-winning economist who died in 2018. To give this year's talk, we welcome one of Professor Mirrlees' former pupils, Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge. He will look at the failure of economics to respect the natural world.

About Prof. Dasgupta

Professor Mirrlees got to know Partha Dasgupta, who was raised in Varanasi in India, when he was a mathematics student at Cambridge. Both were members of a discussion group known as The Apostles. Prof. Dasgupta describes Prof. Mirrlees as being extremely important in his life – convincing him to change disciplines to economics and taking him on as a PhD student. Sir Partha Dasgupta is now the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. His most recent publication was The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, commissioned by the UK Treasury. Professor Dasgupta is a Founder Member of the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE), Kathmandu. He helped to establish the journal Environment and Development Economics, to publish original research at the interface of poverty and the environmental-resource base and also provide an opportunity to scholars in developing countries to publish their findings in an international journal. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2002, he was named Knight Bachelor for "services to economics." Among his other awards are the 2015 Blue Planet Prize; the 2016 Tyler Prize; and the 2021 Kew International Medal. In January 2023 Dasgupta was named Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire.