Monday, January 07, 2008

US Manufacturing and Pollution: Abatement or Displacement

Arik Levinson has written a good summary piece on the clean-up of US manufacturinga nd the relationship between trade and technology on the reduction in pollution experienced in the US.

Matt Cole and I have done some work in this area and Matt even manages to sneaks in with a citation in the Levinson article.

This paper of ours covers a similar topic:

Why the Grass is Not Always Greener: The Competing Effects of Environmental Regulations and Factor Intensities on US Specialization

The global decline in trade barriers means that environmental regulations now potentially play an increasingly important role in shaping a country’s comparative advantage. This raises the possibility that pollution intensive industries will relocate from high regulation countries to developing regions where environmental regulations may be less stringent. We assess the evidence for this possibility by examining the USA’s revealed comparative advantage (RCA) and other measures of specialization. We demonstrate that US specialization in pollution intensive sectors is neither lower, nor falling more rapidly (or rising more slowly) than in any other manufacturing sector. We offer an explanation for this finding. Our analysis suggests that pollution intensive industries have certain characteristics - specifically they are intensive in the use of physical and human capital - that makes developing countries less attractive as a target for relocation. We demonstrate econometrically the economic and statistical significance of these factors and illustrate how they appear to oppose the effects of environmental regulations as determinants of US specialization.

Suggested Citation

Matthew A. Cole, Robert J.R. Elliott, and Kenichi Shimamoto. "Why the Grass is Not Always Greener: The Competing Effects of Environmental Regulations and Factor Intensities on US Specialization" Ecological Economics 54.1 (2005): 95-109.

Here is the link to the Levinson article. It is worth reading in full. His findings fit well within the literature and his results are intuitive and most importantly plausible (which always helps).

What accounts for the clean-up of US manufacturing: technology or international trade? [Vox]

Since the 1970s, US manufacturing output has risen by 70% but air pollution has fallen by 58%. Was this due to improved abatement technology or shifting dirty production abroad?

Antiglobalisation protesters display signs denouncing international trade's role in polluting the environment.1 Pundits write Op-Ed pieces cautioning that increased trade has environmental costs.2 And a majority of Americans agree that "freer trade puts the United States at a disadvantage because of our high ... environmental standards".3

Are they correct? Over the past thirty years, while the real value of US manufacturing output has increased by more than 70 percent, the total annual air pollution emitted by US manufacturers declined substantially, by 58 percent for the sum of four common air pollutants.4

One explanation for the clean-up of US manufacturing is that the protesters are correct, and that thanks to freer trade, the US now imports polluting goods it once produced domestically, and concentrates domestic manufacturing on goods less likely to incur environmental regulatory costs. Of course, there is an alternative explanation: thanks to improved technology (cleaner fuels, end-of-pipe abatement, process changes, etc.) US manufacturers may now be able to produce more output using less pollution. Which of these explanations, trade or technology, accounts for the dramatic clean-up of US manufacturing pollution?


What is the bottom line? Increased net imports of polluting goods account for about 70 percent of the composition-related decline in US manufacturing pollution. The composition effect in turn explains about 40 percent of the overall decline in pollution from US manufacturing. Putting these two findings together, international trade can explain at most 28 percent of the clean-up of US manufacturing.

Why should we care?

If the 75% reduction in pollution from US manufacturing resulted from increased international trade, the pundits and protestors might have a case. Environmental improvements might be said to have imposed large, unmeasured environmental costs on the countries from which those goods are imported. And more importantly, the improvements in the US would not be replicable by all countries indefinitely, because the poorest countries in the world will never have even poorer countries from which to import their pollution-intensive goods. The US clean-up would simply have been the result of the US coming out ahead in an environmental zero-sum game, merely shifting pollution to different locations. However, if the US pollution reductions come from technology, nothing suggests those improvements cannot continue indefinitely and be repeated around the world. The analyses here suggest that most the pollution reductions have come from improved technology, that the environmental concerns of antiglobalization protesters have been overblown, and that the pollution reduction achieved by US manufacturing will replicable by other countries in the future.

Our own composition/scale/technique effect paper came out a few years ago in JEEM:

Determining the Trade-Environment Composition Effect: The Role of Capital, Labour and Environmental Regulations

Matthew A. Cole, University of Birmingham
Robert J.R. Elliott, University of Birmingham


This paper argues that pollution intensive sectors may be subject to opposing forces of comparative advantage since these sectors are also typically capital intensive, yet regions with low environmental regulations tend to be those that are the least capital abundant. We examine therefore, whether compositional changes in pollution arising from trade liberalization originate due to differences in capital-labor endowments and/or differences in environmental regulations. The contribution of the paper is threefold; first, we provide a comprehensive empirical analysis of the determinants of four common pollutants, paying particular attention to the nature of the trade-induced composition effect; second, we investigate whether the result of Antweiler et al. (2001), who find evidence that both environmental regulations and capital-labor endowments determine sulfur dioxide concentrations, also holds for sulfur dioxide emissions; third, we examine whether this result holds for altogether different pollutants. Our results, while providing partial support for Antweiler et al., also raise a number of points for discussion.
Suggested Citation

Matthew A. Cole and Robert J.R. Elliott. "Determining the Trade-Environment Composition Effect: The Role of Capital, Labour and Environmental Regulations" Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 46.3 (2003): 363-383.


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