Maximizing the Net Benefits of Pollution

Read this section about how to apply the Coase Theorem to solve environmental problems.

4. Property Rights and the Coase Theorem

The problem of getting the efficient amount of pollution arises because no one owns the right to the air. If someone did, then that owner could decide how to use it. If a nonowner did not like the way the owner was using it, then he or she could try to pay the owner to change the way the air was being used.

In our earlier example, if Mary and Jane own the right to the air, but Sam and Richard do not like how much Mary and Jane are polluting it, Sam and Richard can offer to pay Mary and Jane to cut back on the amount they are polluting. Alternatively, if Sam and Richard own the air, then in order to pollute it, Mary and Jane would have to compensate the owners. Bargaining among the affected parties, if costless, would lead to the efficient amount of pollution. Costless bargaining requires that all parties know the source of the pollution and are able to measure the quantity emitted by each agent.

Specifically, suppose Mary and Jane own the right to dump pollutants into the air and had been emitting 60 units of the pollution per day. If Sam and Richard offer to pay them $13 for each unit of pollutant they cut back, Mary and Jane will reduce their pollution to 34 units, since the marginal benefit to them of the 35th to 60th unit is less than $13. Sam and Richard are better off since the marginal cost of those last 26 units of pollution is greater than $13 per unit. The efficient outcome of 34 units of pollution is thus achieved. Mary and Jane could reduce their emissions by burning their fires for less time, by selecting more efficient fireplaces, or by other measures. Many people, for example, have reduced their emissions by changing to gas-burning fireplaces rather than burning wood.

While the well-being of the affected parties is not independent of who owns the property right (each would be better off owning rather than not owning the right), the establishment of who owns the air leads to a solution that solves the externality problem and leads to an efficient market outcome. The proposition that if property rights are well defined and if bargaining is costless, the private market can achieve an efficient outcome regardless of which of the affected parties holds the property rights is known as the Coase theorem, named for the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase who generally is credited with this idea.

Suppose instead that Sam and Richard own the right to the air. They could charge Mary and Jane $13 per unit of pollution emitted. Mary and Jane would willingly pay for the right to emit 34 units of pollution, but not for any more, since beyond that amount the marginal benefit of each unit of pollution emitted is less than $13. Sam and Richard would willingly accept payments for 34 units of pollution at $13 each since the marginal cost to them for each of those units is less than $13.

In most cases, however, Coase stressed that the conditions for private parties to achieve an efficient outcome on their own are not present. Property rights may not be defined. Even if one party owns a right, enforcement may be difficult. Suppose Sam and Richard own the right to clean air but many people, not just two as in our example, contribute to polluting it. Would each producer that pollutes have to strike a deal with Sam and Richard? Could the government enforce all those deals? And what if there are many owners as well? Enforcement becomes increasingly difficult and striking deals becomes more and more costly. Finally, monitoring is extremely difficult in most environmental problems. While it is generally possible to detect the presence of pollutants, determining their source is virtually impossible. And determining who is harmed and by how much is a monumental undertaking in most pollution problems.

Nonetheless, it is the insight that the Coase theorem provides that has led economists to consider solutions to environmental problems that attempt to use the establishment of property rights and market mechanisms in various ways to bring about the efficient market outcome. Before considering alternative ways of controlling pollution, we look first at how the benefits and costs might be measured so that we have a better sense of what the efficient solution is.

Another insight that comes from Coase's analysis is that the notion of "harm" is a reciprocal one. In our first example, it is tempting to conclude that Mary and Jane, by burning fires in their fireplaces, are "harming" Sam and Richard. But if Sam and Richard were not located downwind of the smoke, there would be no harm. In effect, Mr. Coase insists that the harm cannot be attributed to one party or another. Sam and Richard "cause" the harm by locating downwind of the fireplaces. While there is clearly harm in this situation, we could as easily attribute it to either the generators of the smoke or the recipients of the smoke. Before Coase wrote his article, "The Problem of Social Cost" in 1960, the general presumption was that decision makers such as Mary and Jane "cause" the harm and that they should be taxed for the costs they impose. Mr. Coase pointed out the alternative that Sam and Richard could avoid the harm by moving. Indeed, all sorts of alternative solutions come to mind even in this simple example. Mary and Jane could select types of wood that emit less smoke. They could use fireplaces that emit less smoke. They could make arrangements to time their burning to minimize the total amount of smoke that affects Sam and Richard. The goal, Coase said, is to select the most efficient from the alternatives available.

Consider a different problem. Suppose that an airport has been built several miles outside the developed portion of a small city. No one lives close enough to the airport to be "harmed" by the noise inevitably generated by the operation of the airport. As time passes, people are likely to build houses near the airport to take advantage of jobs at the airport or to gain easy access to it. Those people will now be "harmed" by noise from the airport. But what is the cause of this harm? By definition, there was no "harm" before people started living close to the airport. True, it is the airport that generates the noise. But the noise causes harm only because people now live near it. Just as Mary and Jane's campfires only generate "harm" if someone is downwind of the smoke, the noise from the airport causes damage only if someone lives near the airport. The problem of the noise could be mitigated in several ways. First, people could have chosen not to live near the airport. Once they have chosen to live near the airport, they could reduce the noise with better insulation or with better windows. Alternatively, the airport management could choose different flight patterns to reduce noise that affects neighboring homeowners. It is always the case that there are several potential ways of mitigating the effects of airport operations; the economic problem is to select the most efficient from among those alternatives.