How can I use an economics degree to build a more sustainable society?
Published 14 Jul, 2023 · 6-minute read
Nearly every aspect of modern life is influenced, directly or indirectly, by the advice and insights of an economist.
Economists have a significant say on how much it costs to borrow money, how to build more sustainable and equitable organisations, and how our superannuation is invested for the future. In recent years, economists have played a crucial role in addressing the challenges of climate change by providing insights, analysis and policy recommendations.
By applying economic principles, models and tools, economists provide valuable insights to policymakers, businesses and society, helping to inform decisions and shape effective strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Mai Nguyen is a manager at Deloitte Access Economics in Brisbane. She has conducted economic analyses to deliver evidence-based advice to the Australian Government, industry peak bodies, and not-for-profit organisations.
Her work has contributed to the public debate, helped shape Australian policies, and informed investments in the areas of environmental management, climate resilience, innovation and economic development.
Mai believes the options available to economics graduates are far more diverse and surprising than most people expect.
“There are a lot of conventional career pathways, like working for the Reserve Bank of Australia and helping to manage inflation and the economy through monetary policy," she says.
"Or, you can work for the Treasury and help guide fiscal policy."
“But there are so many other professions where economists can make meaningful contributions and use their knowledge and skills to build a better and more sustainable society.”
She believes economists can play a central role in addressing climate change and ensuring an equitable transition to a low-carbon economy.
“Economics is essentially the study of decision-making,” Mai says.
“Whether it is politicians, regulators, business leaders or individuals, we all have to make decisions about where we invest our time, efforts and capital resources.
“Tackling climate change is a great example. The government needs to decide on our climate pathway, including how much we should reduce emissions and by when, which technologies and industries we should support, and how we manage a fair transition.”
We cannot achieve everything, and we cannot choose everything because time and resources are limited. Economics gives us a framework to weigh up the benefits and the costs and provide that advice to decision makers.
Bachelor of Economics (Honours)
Isabella is an economist at Deloitte Access Economics. She has a passion for sustainability and climate change and has worked on the topic in Queensland and internationally.
Before joining Deloitte Access Economics, Isabella worked for Queensland’s State Government and the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
“I’ve always been interested in international diplomacy and the geopolitical events happening on the news and was curious as to how I could combine that with economics,” she says.
Once I made the connection on how an economics toolkit can be used to contribute to the debate on issues such as climate change, I realised just how broad economics could be and how applicable it is to many more things than just banking and the stock market.
Bachelor of Commerce / Bachelor of Economics
As a consultant, Isabella is particularly excited about working with clients on issues around climate change and achieving net zero emissions.
“One aspect of economics that I'm very passionate about is how we can reduce emissions while ensuring we continue to have a growing, sustainable economy,” she says.
“It is one of the many areas where the fundamental skills of an economist, such as scenario modelling and policy analysis, can help inform decision-making. We can use models to understand different emissions scenarios and their impact on the economy.
“What will the economy look like if we don’t cut emissions and avert the worst impacts of climate change? How will economic growth be affected? How many jobs will be available in the economy in such a scenario?”
“It's through asking these sorts of questions that we realise the story is multifaceted. We need to use evidence-based analysis to help solve climate change and create an economy that will continue to function, grow and provide a good quality of life for everyone.”
What can economists do to address climate change?
Economists play a crucial role in addressing the challenges of climate change by providing insights, analysis and policy recommendations. Here are several ways economists contribute to solving climate change:
Economists assess the costs and benefits of different climate policies and interventions. They analyse the potential impacts of climate change, such as the economic costs of extreme weather events or the benefits of transitioning to renewable energy. This analysis helps policymakers and stakeholders make informed decisions about the most effective and efficient climate solutions.
Economists often propose and design market-based mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, carbon pricing systems, such as cap-and-trade or carbon taxes, can create economic incentives for businesses and individuals to reduce their emissions. Economists study the impacts of these mechanisms on emissions, economic efficiency and distributional effects.
Economists contribute to the design of climate policies by evaluating different policy instruments, such as regulations, subsidies or technology standards. They assess the costs, effectiveness and feasibility of these policies, considering their potential impacts on various sectors of the economy.
Economists examine how individuals, households and firms make decisions related to climate change. By understanding the psychological and behavioural factors that influence choices, economists can design policies that encourage environmentally friendly behaviours. This includes interventions such as providing information, nudges or incentives to promote energy conservation, adoption of clean technologies or sustainable consumption patterns.
Economists analyse the relationship between economic development, growth and environmental sustainability. They explore ways to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and identify strategies for transitioning to low-carbon and sustainable economies. This includes studying renewable energy deployment, green infrastructure investments and the potential for job creation in clean industries.
Economists contribute to the understanding of international climate negotiations and agreements. They analyse the economic implications of global climate policies, trade-offs between countries and the potential for international cooperation to address climate change collectively. Economists also examine the impacts of climate policies on international trade, competitiveness and resource distribution.
Isabella outside the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland
What’s it like to work as an economist?
Climate change is just one area where economists can help guide debate and inform policy decisions to help build a better society. There are numerous other areas where someone with an economics degree can combine their learned skills with their passion.
Regardless of the career path you take, the day-to-day work of an economist is focused on building an understanding of issues, analysing them and acting on that analysis or providing it to decision-makers to help them make better decisions.
Mai says working for a major international consulting firm like Deloitte presents a new challenge every day and the opportunity to learn about new things.
“We do a lot of reports for clients, so we always start with a lot of reading and building our understanding of the sector, industry or issue we are looking into," she says.
“Ten years ago, I was a fresh, first-year student at The University of Queensland and walked into one of the introductory courses expecting to learn about supply, demand, markets and all the things we traditionally associate with economics.
“Instead, I learnt a lot about statistics, means and medians, and the other tools that economists use every day. They have become my toolkit.
“These days, I spend a lot of time reading, learning about issues, and collecting data using surveys or questionnaires, or doing consultations. Then, I combine all that information, which we call empirical evidence, into models to analyse what we think the answer to the question is.
“That is not where our role as economists ends. Ultimately, for people to make meaningful, informed decisions, we need to be able to communicate why we have come to the conclusions we have come to. So, writing reports, creating infographics and giving presentations are integral parts of our jobs as economists as well.”
Understanding economics is useful in just about any industry and can be applied to any topic you’re passionate about. Discover where a UQ Bachelor of Economics could take you.