Environmental Policy Instrument Choice: The Challenge of Competing Goals

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The search for "smarter" ways to prevent and control pollution has generated heated debate on almost every topic related to setting goals, improving institutional arrangements, and choosing the most effective means for achieving those goals. Given the need to balance other competing concerns, choosing the means or policy instruments to meet environmental goals can be a surprisingly complex task for decision-makers. Unfortunately, today's environmental policy toolbox contains numerous and varied instruments yet lacks a clear set of instructions for their use.

Richards' article, Framing Environmental Policy Instrument Choice,(1) proposes a new theoretical framework for choosing such instruments. He develops a taxonomy that provides the user with a list of characteristics for each policy tool,(2) and he suggests a normative criterion for evaluating the instruments applied to a specific problem: minimize public and private costs in light of legal and political constraints.(3)

In contrast to Richards' efforts, we adopted the perspective that each decision-maker or stakeholder may prefer a different instrument choice depending on his or her values. In fact, our experiences tell us that within the complex political process of choosing environmental instruments, it is unrealistic (even dangerous) to assume that all will subscribe to one, single criterion. Thus, we propose a list of more diverse evaluation criteria and suggest that each instrument should be evaluated in light of the fact that each criterion will be important to some, but not necessarily all, decision-makers. We also present a framework within which a decision-maker can consider the characteristics of a particular problem, along with his or her values, and choose one--or, more likely, more than one--instrument to help solve a problem. Our framework also presents a way for those who seek to promote a particular instrument for political or ideological purposes to scope out the advantages and disadvantages of their choice, given other stakeholders' preferences.

In this Comment, we draw from one of the analytical efforts cited by Richards, our 1995 Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) Report, Environmental Policy Tools: A User's Guide.(4) This OTA Report was prepared at the request of the Senate Committee on Environment Public Works to help Congress sort out the often conflicting claims about the effectiveness of major policy instruments. Congressional interest in what may, at first, appear to be a somewhat arcane topic grew out of experimentation with policy tools that use or improve market forces. For example, several of these experiments were contained in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.(5) As Congress faced reauthorization of other major pieces of environmental legislation, many had high--sometimes too high--expectations of what these approaches could accomplish. Others were suspicious--sometimes too suspicious--about whether they could provide meaningful protection.

The "user's guide" that we developed presents a pragmatic set of instructions to help decision-makers narrow the choice of instruments for addressing a particular problem. First, the Report describes twelve policy tools and how and where they are currently being used. Then, we rated the relative effectiveness of these tools in achieving each of seven criteria often considered when evaluating and creating environmental policy. The ratings were based on state, federal and international experiences, as well as on scholarly literature. Third, because the strengths and weaknesses of a policy tool depend greatly on the environmental problem being addressed,(6) we provided a series of key questions to be considered along with our judgments about "typical" instrument performance. Given a decision-maker's preferences for certain criteria, this framework draws attention to those instruments which might be particularly effective--or warrant some caution--in addressing a particular problem. …