How environmental regulations work

Robert Stavins cites an older paper which makes an interesting point on the way in which environmental regulations affect markets (the example is the chlorine industry):
We found that the effects of the regulations on the likelihood of adopting membrane technology were not statistically significant. Mercury plants, which were subject to stringent regulation for water, air, and hazardous-waste removal, were no more likely to switch to the membrane technology than diaphragm plants. Similarly, TRI reporting appeared to have had no significant effect on adoption decisions.

We also examined what caused plants to exit the industry, with data on 55 facilities, 21 of which ceased operations between 1976 and 2001. Some interesting and quite striking patterns emerged. Regulations clearly explained some of the exit behavior. In particular, indirect regulations of the end-uses of chlorine accelerated shutdowns in some industries. Facilities affected by the pulp and paper cluster rule and the Montreal Protocol were substantially more likely to shut down than were other facilities.
The point is that, while regulators expected their actions to increase the number of plants using membrane technology, they ultimately did so via subtraction (of old plants), not addition (of new ones).
It is good to remember that the diffusion of new technology is the result of a combination of adoption at existing facilities and entry and exit of facilities with various technologies in place. In the case of chlorine manufacturing, our results indicated that regulatory factors did not have a significant effect on the decision to adopt the greener technology at existing plants. On the other hand, indirect regulation of the end-uses of chlorine accelerated facility closures significantly, and thereby increased the share of plants using the cleaner, membrane technology for chlorine production.

Environmental regulation did affect technological change, but not in the way many people assume it does. It did so not by encouraging the adoption of some technology by existing facilities, but by reducing the demand for a product and hence encouraging the shutdown of facilities using environmentally inferior options. This is a legitimate way for policies to operate, although it’s one most politicians would probably prefer not to recognize.
As Stavins implies, environmental regulations are not necessarily job creators, and the politically catchy myth of the green job revolution is not very helpful for the public dialogue on this contentious topic.

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