Maximizing the Net Benefits of Pollution

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

11. Case in Point: Estimating a Demand Curve for Environmental Quality

Amsterdam New York

Figure 18.5

Amsterdam New York - Toxic Ghost Town Amsterdam, New York

How do economists estimate demand curves for environmental quality? One recent example comes from work by Louisiana State University economist David M. Brasington and Auburn University economist Diane Hite. Using data from Ohio's six major metropolitan areas (Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo), the economists studied the relationship between house prices and the distance between individual houses and hazardous waste sites. From this, they were able to estimate the demand curve for environmental quality - at least in terms of the demand for locations farther from environmental hazards.

The economists used actual real estate transactions in 1991 to get data on house prices. In that year, there were 1,192 hazardous sites in the six metropolitan areas. The study was based on 44,255 houses. The median distance between a house and a hazardous site was 1.08 miles. The two economists found, as one would expect, that house prices were higher the greater the distance between the house and a hazardous site. All other variables unchanged, increasing the distance from a house to a hazardous site by 10% increased house value by 0.3%.

Other characteristics of the demand curve shed light on the relationship between environmental quality and other goods. For example, the study showed that people substitute house size for environmental quality. A house closer to a hazardous waste site is cheaper; people take advantage of the lower price of such sites to purchase larger houses.

While house size and environmental quality were substitutes, school quality, measured by student scores on achievement tests, was a complement. If the price of school quality were to fall by 10%, household would buy 8% more environmental quality. The cross-price elasticity between environmental quality and school quality was thus estimated to be −0.80.

There is no marketplace for environmental quality. Estimating the demand curve for such quality requires economists to examine other data to try to infer what the demand curve is. The study by Professors Brasington and Hite illustrates the use of an examination of an actual market, the market for houses, to determine characteristics of the demand curve for environmental quality.