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The green paradox, identified by German economist Hans-Werner Sinn, is the observation that an environmental policy that becomes greener with the passage of time acts like an announced expropriation for the owners of fossil fuel resources, inducing them to accelerate resource extraction and hence to accelerate global warming.
Main line of reasoning
The green paradox’s line of reasoning starts by recognizing a fundamental, unavoidable fact: every carbon atom in the gas, coal or oil extracted from the ground to be used as fuel ends up in the atmosphere, in particular if high efficiency combustion processes ensure that no part of it ends up as soot. About a quarter of the emitted carbon will stay in the atmosphere practically forever, contributing to the greenhouse effect that causes global warming.
Apart from afforestation, only two things can mitigate the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere: either less carbon is extracted from the ground, or it is injected back underground after harvesting its energy.
Environmental policy efforts, however, in particular European ones, go in neither of these two directions, aiming instead at the promotion of alternative, CO2-free energy sources and a more efficient use of energy. In other words, they only address the demand side of the carbon market, neglecting the supply side. Despite considerable investment, the efforts to curtail demand have not reduced the aggregate amount of CO2 emitted globally, which continues to increase unabated.
The reason behind this, according to Sinn, is that green policies, by heralding a gradual tightening of policy over the coming decades, exert a stronger downward pressure on future prices than on current ones, decreasing thus the rate of capital appreciation of the fossil fuel deposits. The owners of these resources regard this development with concern and react by increasing extraction volumes, converting the proceeds into investments in the capital markets, which offer higher yields. That is the green paradox: environmental policy slated to become greener over time acts as an announced expropriation that provokes owners to react by accelerating the rate of extraction of their fossil fuel stocks, thus accelerating climate change.
Countries that do not partake of the efforts to curb demand have a double advantage. They burn the carbon set free by the “green” countries (leakage effect) and they also burn the additional carbon extracted as a reaction to the announced and expected price cuts resulting from the gradual greening of environmental policies (green paradox).
Sinn writes in his abstract that: "[Demand reduction strategies] simply depress the world price of carbon and induce the environmental sinners to consume what the Kyoto countries have economized on. Even worse, if suppliers feel threatened by a gradual greening of economic policies in the Kyoto countries that would damage their future prices, they will extract their stocks more rapidly, thus accelerating global warming." 
Sinn emphasizes that a condition for the green paradox is that the resource be scarce in the sense that its price will always be higher than the unit extraction and exploration costs combined. He points out that this condition is likely to be satisfied as backstop technologies will at best offer a perfect substitute for electricity, but not for fossil fuels. The prices of coal and crude oil are currently many times higher than the corresponding exploration and extraction costs combined.
An effective climate policy must perforce focus on the hitherto neglected supply side of the carbon market in addition to the demand side. The ways proposed as practicable by Sinn to do this include levying a withholding tax on the capital gains on the financial investments of fossil fuel resource owners, or the establishment of a seamless global emissions trading system that would effectively put a cap on worldwide fossil fuel consumption, thereby achieving the desired reduction in carbon extraction rates.
Works on the subject
Hans-Werner Sinn’s ideas on the green paradox have been presented in detail in a number of scientific articles, his 2007 Thünen Lecture at the annual meeting of the German Economic Association (Verein für Sozialpolitik), his 2007 presidential address to the International Institute of Public Finance in Warwick, two working papers, and a German-language book, “Das Grüne Paradoxon” (2008). They build on his earlier studies on supply reactions of the owners of natural resources to announced price changes.
Notes and references
- D. Archer, “Fate of Fossil Fuel CO2 in Geologic Time”, Journal of Geophysical Research 110, 2005, p. 5–11; D. Archer and V. Brovkin, “Millennial Atmospheric Lifetime of Anthropogenic CO2”, Climate Change, mimeo, 2006; G. Hoos, R. Voss, K. Hasselmann, E. Meier- Reimer and F. Joos, “A Nonlinear Impulse Response Model of the Coupled Carbon Cycle-Climate System (NICCS)”, Climate Dynamics 18, 2001, p. 189–202.
- International Energy Agency (IEA), IEA Database, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2007. Accessible online at: www.sourceoecd.org; Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Global CO2 Emissions: Increase Continued in 2007, Bilthoven, June 13, 2008. Accessible online at: 
- N.V. Long, “Resource Extraction under the Uncertainty about Possible Nationalization”, Journal of Economic Theory 10, 1975, p. 42– 53. K. A. Konrad, T. E. Olson and R. Schöb, “Resource Extraction and the Threat of Possible Expropriation: The Role of Swiss Bank Accounts”, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 26, 1994, p. 149–162.
- S. Felder and T. F. Rutherford, “Unilateral CO2 Reductions and Carbon Leakage: The Consequences of International Trade in Oil and Basic Materials”, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 25, 1993, p. 162–176, and J.-M. Burniaux and J. Oliveira Martins, “Carbon Emission Leakages: A General Equilibrium View”, OECD Working Paper No. 242, 2000.
- Sinn, H.W. (2008). ‘Public policies against global warming’, International Tax and Public Finance, 15, 4, 360-394. Accessible online at: 
- “Public Policies against Global Warming: A Supply Side Approach”, International Tax and Public Finance 15, 2008, p. 360–394.
- H.-W. Sinn, “Das grüne Paradoxon: Warum man das Angebot bei der Klimapolitik nicht vergessen darf”, Perspektiven der Wirtschaftspolitik 9, 2008, p. 109–142.
- "CESifo Group Munich".
- H.-W. Sinn, Public Policies against Global Warming, CESifo Working Paper No. 2087, August 2007
- H.-W. Sinn, Pareto Optimality in the Extraction of Fossil Fuels and the Greenhouse Effect: A Note, CESifo Working Paper No. 2083, August 2007
- Das grüne Paradoxon - Plädoyer für eine illusionsfreie Klimapolitik, Econ: Berlin, 2008, 480 pages.
- H-W. Sinn, “Absatzsteuern, Ölförderung und das Allmendeproblem” (Sales Taxes, Oil Extraction and the Common Pool Problem), in: H. Siebert, ed., Reaktionen auf Energiepreisänderungen, Lang: Frankfurt and Bern 1982, pp. 83-103; N.V. Long and H.-W. Sinn, “Surprise Price Shifts, Tax Changes and the Supply Behaviour of Resource Extracting Firms”, Australian Economic Papers 24, 1985, pp. 278-289.