19th Century Urban Transport Was An Environmental Problem

A Pollution Tale With 2 Happy Endings

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 10, 2012    •    680 Views

Sometimes green incentives can have unintended consequences.

Our story begins in an airport. About to board a flight, an environmentally concerned individual purchases “carbon offsets.”  Yes, that flight will pollute the air but the offset could be used to fund a project that reduces emissions. The offset purchase is the incentive. It encourages others to pollute less if the payment is more than the reduction costs. Yes?

Maybe not.

Unfortunately, firms that produce air conditioning coolants figured out how to use payments for polluting less to pollute more. Located in countries ranging from India to Mexico, plants producing gases used in air conditioning and refrigeration started making more coolant than they otherwise would have produced. Then, by capturing and destroying harmful waste gases, they could get thousands of “waste gas credits” from the United Nations. Selling the credits made them millions of dollars. Meanwhile the buyer of the credits could now legally pollute. The result? Some of the producers are overproducing the coolant to get huge waste gas credit revenue.

Another air conditioning story that we looked at recently also had unintended consequences. Hoping to reduce pollution, Mexico subsidized low emission air conditioner and refrigerator purchases. Because they were so cheap, though and because electricity was also inexpensive, people ran them longer than the inefficient units they had previously used. The result? More emissions.

But the last chapter of our story has a happy ending. Its unlikely title is the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Connecting more affluence in poor nations to pollution, the curve reflects data showing that as people become richer, first their country pollutes more and then it pollutes less. Why? More affluent households have greater political power. More affluent countries have the resources to lower pollution.  The turn around point seems to be average annual income of $11,000 in 2007 dollars.

In a second happy ending, the European Union has announced that it will prohibit coolant producers from purchasing waste gas credits for manipulated emission reductions. I am concerned, though, that people will outmaneuver whatever solution regulators figure out as a replacement.

This academic paper and this paper tell more about Kuznets Curves. My facts about coolant producers are based on this excellent NY Times article. I also recommend 2 Teaching Company lectures from economist Robert Whaples about pollution.

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