Region Forward Blog

The Morning Measure: The Almighty Dollar and environmental protection

May 9, 2011


Putting things like clean air and water into economic terms is a bit grating on the nerves for many environmentalists. The fact that a clean stable environment is positive for our health and the health of the planet should be enough. Unfortunately it’s often not.

For whatever reason be it apathy nihilism or the free-rider problem rationality doesn’t usually prevail when it comes to environmental policy. Showing the impact – in dollar amounts – of pollution (and greenhouse gases) may then be one of the most effective ways to get the general public and policymakers to pay attention. It may be worth gritting our teeth and baring it.

Over at Brookings Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney have put together a brief analysis of the effect of air quality on employment and productivity. In addition to mentioning the negative health impacts associated with bad air quality they raise the point that poor air quality has a negative impact on worker productivity and by extension economic growth. As Greenstone and Looney note “Recent research suggests that 94 percent of the non-climate-change costs of air pollution are health-related. From asthma to premature mortality the list of ways in which air pollution can harm our health is lengthy and well-documented. What is less obvious however is the impact pollution has on employment and productivity.”

Every year research groups put out reports showing the billions of dollars of lost productivity drained from the economy as a consequence of people sitting in traffic on congested roadways ($115 billion in 2009 for example). In the past we’ve advocated for shock ads to get people’s attention on the perils of air quality. Perhaps the best shock ad would be a big arrow turning sharply in the red.

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