The Cheapest Way to Skin a Cat

BBC News reports on a study arguing that pollution targets in the European Union are not strict enough:

A study confirming a link between atmospheric pollution and heart-attack risk strengthens the EU case for tougher clean-air targets, experts say.

Research in the BMJ looking at long-term data for 100,000 people in five European countries found evidence of harm, even at permitted concentrations.

Experts stressed that the risk to an individual was still relatively small.

And some argued the results were not conclusive as they did not take account of previous exposure to higher levels.

All this seems fine, but the next paragraph struck me:

Other factors, such as smoking or having high blood pressure, contribute more to a person’s risk of heart attack than pollution from traffic fumes and industry, they say.

It may well be that smoking and high blood pressure contribute more to the risk of a heart attack than local pollution, but this paragraph seems to imply that the “some experts” are saying we shouldn’t work on cutting down pollution and instead should be more concerned about battling smoking and high blood pressure. (And I’m not saying this is what the experts are saying, it’s just the impression that the paragraph gives the reader.)

In environmental economics we learn about cost-effectiveness analysis.  Cost-effectiveness analysis is used to determine the least-cost way to achieve some goal.  So, for example, if we want to reduce the risk of heart attack, we might put resources into discouraging smoking (anti-smoking campaigns), battling high blood pressure (anti-salt campaigns?), lowering local pollution (emissions taxes), or other strategies. We then try to determine how much we should invest in each strategy to reach a given goal (e.g. lowering the risk of heart disease by 10%) in the cheapest – that is, most cost-effective – way.

So, even though smoking and high blood pressure lead to a greater risk of heart attack than local pollution, it may yet be that, for a given reduction in the risk of a heart attack, it is more cost-effective to put our efforts into battling local pollution. Whether it is actually more or less cost-effective is another issue – I don’t know the answer because I haven’t studied the issue.  But unfortunately, while the article cites experts from environmental and respiratory medicine, it does not cite the views of any economists who have studied the issue.

That’s how an environmental economist would think about this issue…