Growing concerns over climate change and the potential for large damages due to non-linear processes underscore the need for meaningful sustainability assessment of an economy. Economists have developed rigorous approaches to conceptualizing sustainability based on the paradigm of weak sustainability, which relies on extensive substitution among reproducible capital, renewable resources and exhaustible natural resources. In contrast, strong sustainability emphasizes physical limits to this substitution and the importance of maintaining the resilience of normally functioning biophysical processes. Recent progress in resource and environmental economics has demonstrated the feasibility of incorporating strong sustainability features, including tipping points, uncertainties and resilience, to assess efficiency and optimal policies. Given that weak sustainability and intertemporal efficiency share a welfare theoretic foundation, we ask: to what extent can these approaches be applied to evaluate sustainability? We highlight recent work on assessing sustainability in imperfect economies and dynamic models of intertemporal welfare that embed strong sustainability features.
Irwin, E., Gopalakrishnan, S., and Randall, A., ‘Welfare, Wealth and Sustainability’, 2016 forthcoming, Annual Review of Resource Economics. Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=2726849