Pollution from Asia is increasingly being detected in the western United States. That was the gist of a widely circulated Associated Press story recently. The lesson is that pollution freely crosses political and geographical borders. Even so, we need to remember it flows out of our country, too.
While some pollution moves long distances or affects the world as a whole, the effects of other emissions are quite localized. The fact that damage from some pollutants disperses widely does not imply all nations should adopt identical environmental policies. Indeed, such uniformity would hurt the poor of the world more than help them.
The headline of the article, "We have our pollution; now we have Asia's too," had a whining tone. Yes, we are getting particulates from Asia that include dust, sulfur, soot and trace metals. But U.S. emissions have blown into other nations for decades.
As the world's largest economy and one with abundant fossil fuels, the U.S. has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country. It also discharges the lion's share of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. We may be getting some of Asia's pollution, but Asia as well as Europe, Africa and Latin America get some of ours.
Economic theory shows that whenever people can produce something that benefits themselves while others bear part of the cost, too much of that particular good will be produced. That is as true for nations as for individuals or companies.
Society as a whole will suffer unless there is government action or some sort of "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" to limit such external costs. Human nature is such that appeals to voluntarism never are sufficient.
That said, it is important to recognize there are many different forms of pollution. Some pollutants, such as those that could change Earth's climate, really are global in nature. Effective responses inherently must involve many, if not all, nations. Other emissions might affect only the people within a mile or two of a particular factory.
Some argue that all environmental standards need to apply worldwide. One hears the argument that imports from India, Mexico or China should be restricted unless pollution regulations in those countries match those of the U.S. or Europe.
Resources are limited, however, particularly in poor countries. Requiring these countries to apply exactly the same antipollution measures inevitably means that people in those countries could be poorer and less healthy than if those nations weighed the benefits and costs of alternative policies themselves.
Emission-reduction equipment adds greatly to the cost of new power plants in the United States. While this equipment reduces emissions that harm the environment and human health, the cost per life saved by cleaner air is many millions of dollars. That might be a good tradeoff in our country but a poor one in India, where the same resources could save many more lives if used in other ways.
Economist Edward Lotterman teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minnesota. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org