Economics » Environmental Protection and Externalities » The Economics of Pollution

Pollution As a Negative Externality

Pollution as a Negative Externality

Pollution is a negative externality. Economists illustrate the social costs of production with a demand and supply diagram. The social costs include the private costs of production incurred by the company and the external costs of pollution that are passed on to society. This figure shows the demand and supply for manufacturing refrigerators. The demand curve (D) shows the quantity demanded at each price. The supply curve (Sprivate) shows the quantity of refrigerators supplied by all the firms at each price if they are taking only their private costs into account and they are allowed to emit pollution at zero cost. The market equilibrium (E0), where quantity supplied and quantity demanded are equal, is at a price of $650 and a quantity of 45,000. This information is also reflected in the first three columns of this table.

Taking Social Costs into Account: A Supply Shift

The graph shows how equilibrium changes based on whether a firm focuses on its own costs or social costs.

If the firm takes only its own costs of production into account, then its supply curve will be Sprivate, and the market equilibrium will occur at E0. Accounting for additional external costs of $100 for every unit produced, the firm’s supply curve will be Ssocial. The new equilibrium will occur at E1.

A Supply Shift Caused by Pollution Costs

PriceQuantity DemandedQuantity Supplied before Considering Pollution CostQuantity Supplied after Considering Pollution Cost

However, as a by-product of the metals, plastics, chemicals and energy that are used in manufacturing refrigerators, some pollution is created. Let’s say that, if these pollutants were emitted into the air and water, they would create costs of $100 per refrigerator produced. These costs might occur because of injuries to human health, property values, wildlife habitat, reduction of recreation possibilities, or because of other negative impacts. In a market with no anti-pollution restrictions, firms can dispose of certain wastes absolutely free. Now imagine that firms which produce refrigerators must factor in these external costs of pollution—that is, the firms have to consider not only the costs of labor and materials needed to make a refrigerator, but also the broader costs to society of injuries to health and other values caused by pollution. If the firm is required to pay $100 for the additional external costs of pollution each time it produces a refrigerator, production becomes more costly and the entire supply curve shifts up by $100.

As illustrated in the fourth column of this table and in this figure, the firm will need to receive a price of $700 per refrigerator and produce a quantity of 40,000—and the firm’s new supply curve will be Ssocial. The new equilibrium will occur at E1, taking the additional external costs of pollution into account results in a higher price, a lower quantity of production, and a lower quantity of pollution. The following Work It Out feature will walk you through an example, this time with musical accompaniment.

Identifying the Equilibrium Price and Quantity

This table shows the supply and demand conditions for a firm that will play trumpets on the streets when requested. Output is measured as the number of songs played.

Supply and Demand Conditions for a Trumpet-Playing Firm

PriceQuantity DemandedQuantity Supplied without paying the costs of the externalityQuantity Supplied after paying the costs of the externality

Step 1. Determine the negative externality in this situation. To do this, you must think about the situation described and consider all parties that might be impacted. A negative externality might be the increase in noise pollution in the area where the firm is playing.

Step 2. Identify the equilibrium price and quantity when only private costs are taken into account, and then when social costs are taken into account. Remember that equilibrium is where the quantity demanded is equal to the quantity supplied.

Step 3. Look down the columns to where the quantity demanded (the second column) is equal to the “quantity supplied without paying the costs of the externality” (the third column). Then refer to the first column of that row to determine the equilibrium price. In this case, the equilibrium price and quantity when only private costs are taken into account would be at a price of $10 and a quantity of five.

Step 4. Identify the equilibrium price and quantity when the additional external costs are taken into account. Look down the columns of quantity demanded (the second column) and the “quantity supplied after paying the costs of the externality” (the fourth column) then refer to the first column of that row to determine the equilibrium price. In this case, the equilibrium will be at a price of $12 and a quantity of four.

Step 5. Consider how taking the externality into account affects the equilibrium price and quantity. Do this by comparing the two equilibrium situations. If the firm is forced to pay its additional external costs, then production of trumpet songs becomes more costly, and the supply curve will shift up.

Remember that the supply curve is based on choices about production that firms make while looking at their marginal costs, while the demand curve is based on the benefits that individuals perceive while maximizing utility. If no externalities existed, private costs would be the same as the costs to society as a whole, and private benefits would be the same as the benefits to society as a whole. Thus, if no externalities existed, the interaction of demand and supply will coordinate social costs and benefits.

However, when the externality of pollution exists, the supply curve no longer represents all social costs. Because externalities represent a case where markets no longer consider all social costs, but only some of them, economists commonly refer to externalities as an example of market failure. When there is market failure, the private market fails to achieve efficient output, because either firms do not account for all costs incurred in the production of output and/or consumers do not account for all benefits obtained (a positive externality). In the case of pollution, at the market output, social costs of production exceed social benefits to consumers, and the market produces too much of the product.

We can see a general lesson here. If firms were required to pay the social costs of pollution, they would create less pollution but produce less of the product and charge a higher price. In the next module, we will explore how governments require firms to take the social costs of pollution into account.

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