October 28, 2020
Air quality could be improved for all people, and disproportionately for people of lower socioeconomic status, even if the relative positions of groups within the pollution distribution remained the same.
Air quality improvements may drive up housing prices and force residents to pay more than they are willing for clean air.
Environmental quality can affect a host of health and economic outcomes, and the heterogeneous distribution of pollution potentially explains a substantial portion of the gaps in outcomes across groups based on race and class. Despite documentation of environmental disparities between different racial and ethnic groups, little systematic evidence exists about the evolution of environmental disparities over time and the factors contributing to their change.
In a perspective piece in Science, considered by many to be the premier journal across all the sciences—natural, physical, and social—Lala Ma comments on recent research in this field and the implications for policy. She notes the advances associated with access to fine-grained pollution data linked to neighborhood characteristics, and how that improves the measurement of neighborhood exposure because local pollutants can vary greatly over short distances and yield disparate health implications within communities.
In addition, recent attention to ambient air quality, rather than on a particular type of polluting facility, broadens the perspective on air pollution exposure, because it captures emissions from both stationary and mobile sources. How this new research factors into implementing environmental justice in practice is still largely unresolved. Ma notes that it is unclear what rank persistence for locations (e.g. persistently in the top or bottom quartiles of ambient air quality) implies about the trend in distributional equity. Rank persistence may be of second-order importance for environmental equity if considered alongside the magnitude of air quality improvements across the entire pollution distribution. Regulation, with its focus on efficiency, is likely to target the dirtiest places first, which would drive pollution reductions in the most disadvantaged communities.
Thus, air quality could be improved for all people, and disproportionately for people of lower socioeconomic status, even if the relative positions of groups within the pollution distribution remained the same. As well, the implication of this research on overall well-being remains an open question. Air quality improvements may drive up housing prices and force residents to pay more than they are willing for clean air. Equilibrium market price effects accompanying improvements in environmental quality can therefore significantly alter welfare and gaps in welfare.