China began enforcing a system of pollution levies in 1982. However, senior environmental officials expressed doubt that this system was improving the environment and, in 1996, they began to place greater reliance on mill closure as the penalty for poor environmental performance. Since then, managers have found means of subverting many of the intended mill closures, and this causes us to return to the question of the abatement efficiency and effectiveness of the levies.
This paper uses production evidence from 34 papermills in two representative provinces to examine the abatement efficiency and effectiveness of the levies. The paper industry is an important industry for this question because it is the largest polluter of China’s rural environment. We use a distance function to determine individual output-based and revenue-based shadow prices for each mill during the years that the levies were the main environmental incentive. The output-based shadow prices for pollutants display no recognizable trends over time and they are very different for firms in different locations. The revenue-based shadow prices are widely variable between mills and locations as well. These findings indicate that the marginal opportunity costs of abatement were also widely divergent and that there was no trend toward improved abatement efficiency. The way to correct this is to improve the performance of the market—not to reject the market altogether as the more recent reliance on mill closures does. This observation suggests that a system of tradable permits would be an improvement on relatively less successful administrative measures such as forced mill closures.
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