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International Trade and the Environment: Three Remaining Empirical Challenges  

Jevan Cherniwchan and M. Scott Taylor

Considerable progress has been made in understanding the relationship between international trade and the environment since Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger published their now seminal working paper examining the potential environmental effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1991. Their work articulated a simple framework through which international trade and economic growth could affect the environment by impacting: the scale of economic activity (the scale effect), the composition of production across industries (the composition effect), or the emission intensity of individual industries (the technique effect). GK provided preliminary evidence of the relative magnitudes of the scale, composition and technique effects, and reached a striking conclusion: international trade would not necessarily harm the environment. Much of the subsequent literature examining the effects of international trade and the environment has adopted Grossman and Krueger’s simple framework and builds directly from their initial foray into the area. We now have better empirical evidence of the relationship between economic growth and environmental quality, of how environmental regulations affect international trade and investment flows, and of the relative magnitudes of the scale, composition and technique effects. Yet, the need for further progress remains along three key fronts. First, despite significant advances in our understanding of how economic growth affects environmental quality, evidence of the interaction between international trade, economic growth, and environmental outcomes remains scarce. Second, while a growing body of evidence suggests that environmental regulations significantly alter trade flows, it is still unclear if these policies have a larger or smaller effect than traditional determinants of comparative advantage. Third, although it is clear the technique effect is the primary driver of changes in pollution, evidence as to how trade has contributed to the technique effect is limited. Addressing these Three Remaining Challenges is necessary for assessing whether Grossman and Krueger’s conclusion that international trade need not necessarily harm the environment still holds today.


The Economics of Diet and Obesity: Public Policy  

Fabrice Etilé

The rise in obesity and other food-related chronic diseases has prompted public-health officials of local communities, national governments, and international institutions to pay attention to the regulation of food supply and consumer behavior. A wide range of policy interventions has been proposed and tested since the early 21st century in various countries. The most prominent are food taxation, health education, nutritional labeling, behavioral interventions at point-of-decision, advertising, and regulations of food quality and trade. While the standard neoclassical approach to consumer rationality provides limited arguments in favor of public regulations, the recent development of behavioral economics research extends the scope of regulation to many marketing practices of the food industry. In addition, behavioral economics provides arguments in favor of taxation, easy-to-use front-of-pack labels, and the use of nudges for altering consumer choices. A selective but careful review of the empirical literature on taxation, labeling, and nudges suggests that a policy mixing these tools may produce some health benefits. More specifically, soft-drink taxation, front-of-pack labeling policies, regulations of marketing practices, and eating nudges based on affect or behavior manipulations are often effective methods for reducing unhealthy eating. The economic research faces important challenges. First, the lack of a proper control group and exogenous sources of variations in policy variables make evaluation very difficult. Identification is challenging as well, with data covering short time periods over which markets are observed around slowly moving equilibria. In addition, truly exogenous supply or demand shocks are rare events. Second, structural models of consumer choices cannot provide accurate assessment of the welfare benefits of public policies because they consider perfectly rational agents and often ignore the dynamic aspects of food decisions, especially consumer concerns over health. Being able to obtain better welfare evaluation of policies is a priority. Third, there is a lack of research on the food industry response to public policies. Some studies implement empirical industrial organization models to infer the industry strategic reactions from market data. A fruitful avenue is to extend this approach to analyze other key dimensions of industrial strategies, especially decisions regarding the nutritional quality of food. Finally, the implementation of nutritional policies yields systemic consequences that may be underestimated. They give rise to conflicts between public health and trade objectives and alter the business models of the food sector. This may greatly limit the external validity of ex-ante empirical approaches. Future works may benefit from household-, firm-, and product-level data collected in rapidly developing economies where food markets are characterized by rapid transitions, the supply is often more volatile, and exogenous shocks occur more frequently.