The Distribution of Environmental Damages

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Most regulations designed to reduce environmental externalities impose costs on individuals and firms. A large and growing literature examines whether these costs are disproportionately borne by different sectors of the economy and/or across different groups of individuals. However, much less is known about how the environmental benefits created by these policies are distributed, which mirror the differences in environmental damages associated with existing environmental externalities. We review this burgeoning literature and develop a simple general framework for empirical analysis. We apply this framework to findings concerning the distributional impacts of environmental damages from air pollution, deforestation, and climate change and highlight priorities for future research. A recurring challenge to understanding the distributional effects of environmental damages is distinguishing between cases in which populations are exposed to different levels or changes in an environmental good and those in which an incremental change in the environment may have very different implications for some populations. In the latter case, it is often difficult to empirically identify the underlying sources of heterogeneity in marginal damages because damages may stem from nonlinear and/or heterogeneous damage functions. Nevertheless, understanding the determinants of heterogeneity in environmental benefits and damages is crucial for welfare analysis and policy design.

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