Sustainable Policy Efficacy

Sustainable policies, like any policy, can be useless and ineffective if overly prescriptive or poorly implemented. However, policies that remove incentives for unwanted behavior, like removing fossil fuel subsidies, or policies that encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to develop innovative and disruptive solutions to major issues can be useful and effective (Hart 2010, 159-164). Policies can be enacted from local, state, federal, and global levels, with each having certain strengths and weaknesses.

Local government, where I currently work, is focused primarily on providing services to citizens and complying with regulatory and legislative requirements. Policy at this level is much smaller-scale and requires informed planning to tie into higher level policies, like State and Federal level policies. State policies can be highly effective at providing the support and structure for local governments in how they move toward sustainability objectives. However, even at this level, progress can be stymied by lack of cohesion with other states, particularly those that share a border. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic states like Washington that have stricter protocols in place are seeing increased hospital utilization by residence from border states with laxer protocols like in Idaho (Baker 2021). This is a timely example that highlights how one state’s strong policies can be diminished by other states with laxer policies. It can also make confusing landscapes for businesses as they try and comply to the everchanging rules from each state as is seen with farther reaching regulations to participate in California markets. Federal level policies can unify all states towards high-level goals, like sustainability issues, and allow for better funding and cohesion across states. Federal level policies also enable businesses to have a simpler set of rules then state by state or city by city, allowing them to operate more efficiently.

It would seem that global policies would then be even greater at unifying action; however, global policies are often not very effective. While there are a few great examples, like CFC and anti-whaling global policies that have been effective, most global policies fail to be effective because they often have little to no enforcement mechanisms (IISD 2019). While enforcement issues are difficult to fund and staff at any policy level, at the global level they become extremely nearly possible to manage. This indicates that the most effective and useful level of government where policies that encourage technologists and entrepreneurs to expand clean energy and sustainability innovations would be at the Federal level since it allows for a more consistent funding and rule system for businesses to manage (Hart 2010, 164).

Sustainability Elements in Policy

Sustainability ethics and sustainability values should not only be considered as drivers for the establishment of sustainability objectives and policies, but they should be embedded in all policies like safety or financial elements are incorporated in decision making. While the financial estimations of these activities can be hard to estimate, they have been shown to support waste reduction, financial savings, and environmental benefits that support long-term value generation (Ashkin 2020). Incorporating non-market elements like ecosystem services and societal benefits can be incorporated in several ways. One often used method is to measure and estimate the value of these services in financial terms. While useful for a financial analysis, many environmental measurements are hinged on that anthropocentric utilitarian view and there is arguably greater value from ecosystem services to the planet then value calculated by humans based on how it helps humans (Norton 2012). However, with global frameworks like the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) certain non-market elements, like social and environmental topics, can still be measured and progress can be tracked towards those goals. It is important for policies to incorporate the SDG considerations within them to help drive greater progress towards those goals while addressing the core policy issue as well. In this way, multiple solutions can be achieved with less efforts, leading to more effective and efficient policies that drive action and progress.

Carbon Tax and Cap & Trade Systems

When it comes to policies that are focused on greenhouse gas emissions, two of the largest are carbon taxes and cap and trade systems. Cap and trade systems, while seemingly a powerful policy tool can enable perverse behaviors and gamification that reduces effectiveness of implementation. During my bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science at Washington State University, a master’s student in the program had developed a game to model cap and trade policies with the class. The game, where different students acted as different businesses and followed the cap and trade rules, highlighted how businesses could utilize their capital and position to limit other businesses’ ability to meet their caps leading to financial damages. Conversely, carbon tax policies can be more fairly applied and provide more efficient outcomes. Thousands of economists have analyzed carbon tax policies and determined they would be the most cost-effective method to reducing carbon emissions (Meyer 2021). The political environment in the United States make this currently difficult to implement, however, it would be a much more efficient and effective policy to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Additional Insights

With a plethora of industries that dominate the market, like power companies with sunk-cost grid systems, it is difficult for sustainable technologies to gain leverage. If less money was allowed in lobbying, politicians could ideally write more legislation that enables innovative solutions from technologists and entrepreneurs that serve the poor and underserved population (Hart 2010, 159-164). Fresh water, clean energy, and reduced waste can help those underserved populations and the global population, as well as other non-human life across the planet. For businesses to be successful in these endeavors, it is critical that businesses are including social and environmental benefits and costs in their strategies and governments are developing policies that encourage these actions towards global sustainability goals (Hart 2010, 164-167).

Author: Logan Callen


Ashkin, Stephen P. 2020. “Sustainability Equals Saving Money and Reducing Waste.” CMM Magazine. November 5. Accessed October 12, 2021.

Baker, Mike. 2021. “‘Their Crisis’ Is ‘Our Problem’: Washington Grapples With Idaho Covid Cases.” The New York Times. September 13. Accessed October 12, 2021.

Hart, Stuart L. 2010. Capitalism at the Crossroads. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

IISD. 2019. “Environmental Laws Impeded by Lack of Enforcement, First-ever Global Assessment Finds .” SDG Knowledge Hub. January 29. Accessed October 12, 2021.

Meyer, Robinson. 2021. “Carbon Tax, Beloved Policy to Fix Climate Change, Is Dead at 47.” The Atlantic. July 20. Accessed July 26, 2021.

Norton, Bryan G. 2012. “Valuing Ecosystems.” Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):2.

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