Economics » Environmental Protection and Externalities » The Benefits and Costs of U.S. Environmental Laws

Benefits and Costs of Clean Air and Clean Water

Government economists have estimated that U.S. firms may pay more than $200 billion per year to comply with federal environmental laws. That is big bucks. Is the money well spent?

Benefits and Costs of Clean Air and Clean Water

The benefits of a cleaner environment can be divided into four areas: (1) people may stay healthier and live longer; (2) certain industries that rely on clean air and water, such as farming, fishing, and tourism, may benefit; (3) property values may be higher; and (4) people may simply enjoy a cleaner environment in a way that does not need to involve a market transaction. Some of these benefits, such as gains to tourism or farming, are relatively easy to value in economic terms. It is harder to assign a monetary value to others, such as the value of clean air for someone with asthma. It seems impossible to put a clear-cut monetary value on still others, such as the satisfaction you might feel from knowing that the air is clear over the Grand Canyon, even if you have never visited the Grand Canyon.

Although estimates of environmental benefits are not precise, they can still be revealing. For example, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency looked at the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act from 1970 to 1990. It found that total costs over that time period were roughly $500 billion—a huge amount. However, it also found that a middle-range estimate of the health and other benefits from cleaner air was $22 trillion—about 44 times higher than the costs. A more recent study by the EPA estimated that the environmental benefits to Americans from the Clean Air Act will exceed their costs by a margin of four to one. The EPA estimated that “in 2010 the benefits of Clean Air Act programs will total about $110 billion. This estimate represents the value of avoiding increases in illness and premature death which would have prevailed.” Saying that overall benefits of environmental regulation have exceeded costs in the past, however, is very different from saying that every environmental regulation makes sense. For example, studies suggest that when breaking down emission reductions by type of contaminants, the benefits of air pollution control outweigh the costs primarily for particulates and lead, but when looking at other air pollutants, the costs of reducing them may be comparable to or greater than the benefits. Just because some environmental regulations have had benefits much higher than costs does not prove that every individual regulation is a sensible idea.

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