The Tradeoff between Economic Output and Environmental Protection

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Apply the production possibility frontier to evaluate the tradeoff between economic output and the environment
  • Interpret a graphic representation of the tradeoff between economic output and environmental protection

The tradeoff between economic output and the environment can be analyzed with a production possibilities frontier (PPF) such as the one shown in Figure 1. At one extreme, at a choice like P, a country would be selecting a high level of economic output but very little environmental protection. At the other extreme, at a choice like T, a country would be selecting a high level of environmental protection but little economic output. According to the graph, an increase in environmental protection involves an opportunity cost of less economic output. No matter what their preferences, all societies should wish to avoid choices like M, which are productively inefficient. Efficiency requires that the choice should be on the production possibility frontier.

The graph shows a trade-off example in which a society must prioritize either economic output or environmental protection.

Figure 1. The Tradeoff between Economic Output and Environmental Protection. Each society will have to weigh its own values and decide whether it prefers a choice like P with more economic output and less environmental protection, or a choice like T with more environmental protection and less economic output.

Economists do not have a great deal to say about the choice between P, Q, R, S and T in Figure 1, all of which lie along the production possibility frontier. Countries with low per capita gross domestic product (GDP), such as China, place a greater emphasis on economic output—which in turn helps to produce nutrition, shelter, health, education, and desirable consumer goods. Countries with higher income levels, where a greater share of people have access to the basic necessities of life, may be willing to place a relatively greater emphasis on environmental protection.

However, economists are united in their belief that an inefficient choice such as M is undesirable. Rather than choosing M, a nation could achieve either greater economic output with the same environmental protection, as at point Q, or greater environmental protection with the same level of output, as at point S. The problem with command-and-control environmental laws is that they sometimes involve a choice like M. Market-oriented environmental tools offer a mechanism either for providing either the same environmental protection at lower cost, or providing a greater degree of environmental protection for the same cost.

Keystone XL

So how would an economist respond to claims of environmental damage caused by the Keystone XL project? Clearly the environmental cost of oil spills would be considered a negative externality, but how many external costs would arise? And are these costs “too high” when measured against any potential for economic benefit?

As this chapter indicates, in deciding whether construction of the pipeline is a good idea, an economist would want to know not only about the marginal benefits resulting from the additional pipeline construction, but also the potential marginal costs—and especially the marginal external costs of the pipeline. Typically these come in the form of environmental impact statements, which are usually required for these kinds of projects. The most recent impact statement, released in March 2013 by the Nebraska Department of State, considered the possibility of fewer miles of pipeline going over the aquifer system and avoiding completely environmentally fragile areas; it indicated that “most resources” would not be harmed by construction of the pipeline.

As of press time, the Obama Administration has not approved construction of the Keystone XL project. While the economic benefits of additional oil in the United States may be fairly easily quantified, the social costs are not. It seems that, in a period of economic expansion, people want to err on the side of caution and estimate the marginal costs to be greater than the marginal benefits of additional oil generation. Those estimates may change, however, if the price of gasoline continues to rise.


Depending on their different income levels and political preferences, countries are likely to make different choices about allocative efficiency—that is, the choice between economic output and environmental protection along the production possibility frontier. However, all countries should prefer to make a choice that shows productive efficiency—that is, the choice is somewhere on the production possibility frontier rather than inside it. Revisit Choice in a World of Scarcity for more on these terms.



The Tradeoff between Economic Output and Environmental Protection Copyright © 2020 by Rice University; Dean, Elardo, Green, Wilson, Berger. All Rights Reserved.

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