The paper assignment is very flexible. As listed below, there are three main options. The first option, an in-depth policy brief, is essentially the default. Roughly speaking, it would focus on the "policy" part of the course title and is probably what you'd expect a term paper to be like in a policy-oriented course. The second option, a research proposal, is good if you're a PhD student who'd like to use the term paper as the basis for part of your dissertation research. The third option, constructing an original model, is also a possibility. It's probably both more difficult and more interesting than it sounds. Roughly speaking, it emphasizes the "economics" part of the course title.
If you take the policy brief approach, the paper should: (1) identify an actual or potential environmental policy decision and explain why it's important; (2) provide appropriate background information and facts; (3) analyze the problem using the methods discussed in class; (4) draw conclusions about the appropriate policy for addressing the problem; and (5) write up your analysis in a clear, concise and convincing manner.
Just about any environmental policy problem is OK as long as it is controversial in the sense that reasonable people might disagree about it. For better or worse, the news is usually full of good topics. However, remember that you must analyze the problem yourself using the methods discussed in class, so don't just collect the opinions of journalists and lobby groups. You're very welcome to come by during office hours to talk about possible topic. One general piece of advice is to avoid choosing a broad topic: you'll usually be able to do a much better job on a narrower topic.
In this case, the paper should: (1) identify a possible research question; (2) explain why it's important (both to the field and for policy); (3) briefly survey the relevant literature; (4) outline an appropriate research methodology; and (5) discuss potential data sources. A good way to think about this option is that it's basically writing a grant proposal. If you take this approach, please note that the assignment is to write a proposal, not to actually carry out the project.
In this case, the paper would focus on developing an appropriate theoretical model of an environmental problem. Roughly speaking, the task would be to build a more elaborate version of the kind of model we'll often use in class. If you're interested in this kind of paper, see me early in the semester. The key to success will be to keep the model very small, at least initially.
The first stage of the project will be to write a prospectus, which should be no longer than a page and should touch on the following issues: (1) which of the above options you're choosing; (2) a concise statement of your topic; (3) a short argument explaining why the problem is important, and (4) any data sources you expect to need; and (5) a very rough outline of what you expect to have in the body of the paper.
The revised paper will be due at the end of the semester (see the General Information page for the date). It will be graded on three criteria: economic content, strength and clarity of argument, and quality of exposition. Please pay attention to the paper's organization, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the layout of graphs and tables, etc: all of those things will count.