Imagine that carbon emissions are expected to cause $5 trillion in damages by the year 2100. Should we act now, or wait to pay that bill?

This is a question that is plaguing governments and policy makers around the world. Part of the problem is that in order to make this decision, we first have to determine how much the future damage will cost in today’s dollars. So, for example, if you have $100 in damages today, then it is worth $100 today. But how much will that same $100 be worth in five years, in 100 years, or in 1,000 years? That value is determined by the expected rate of inflation as represented by the discount rate. Unfortunately, most of the ways to determine that were purely theoretical. Until now.

Chicago Booth professor Stefano Giglio, and colleagues Matteo Maggiori and Johannes Strobel of New York University, found a way to figure out the real cost of things far into the future by looking at leaseholds and freeholds, which are part of the housing market in the UK and Singapore. Leaseholds are temporary ownership contracts that people pay for completely in advance, and hold onto for between 99 and 999 years, and freeholds are permanent ownership contracts. By comparing them, the researchers could figure out how much today’s money will be worth in hundreds of years.

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