Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The cost of air pollution

A new study out of MIT calculates the long-term economic costs of lax air pollution standards in China. These costs include increased expenditure on health care and lost work and leisure time due to illness. The study estimates the total lost value (between 6 & 9 percent of GDP) and suggests that even modest pollution control efforts could have turned the loss into an economic gain via enhanced productivity. However, the authors of the study did not estimate the costs of implementing tighter standards. These would have to be accounted for to understand the true net change in economic welfare.

In related news, the US EPA is putting forth seven new environmental regulations for air pollution in the US. These regulations are being criticized for the extra costs that they will impose on businesses that have to comply. Read about it here at the News & Observer. The costs are indeed real (the price everyone pays for power will increase), but this is only half the story. There are also significant benefits to pollution control, as shown in the above MIT study. Fewer deaths and less illness means more productivity. Less illness means people can work harder, longer, stronger and smarter. Fewer sick children and elderly means parents and caregivers can work more. Framing the issue based only on an estimate of the costs or benefits is incorrect and misleading. We need both.