Watering Down Environmental Regulation in China

Journal Article
Published on 22 June 2020

Working paper available through PEDL. Published article available here.


This paper, by He, Wang and Zhang (2020), estimates the effect of environmental regulation on firm productivity using a spatial regression discontinuity design implicit in China's water quality monitoring system. Because water quality readings are important for political evaluations and the monitoring stations only capture emissions from their upstream regions, local government officials are incentivized to enforce tighter environmental standards on firms immediately upstream of a monitoring station, rather than those immediately downstream. Exploiting this discontinuity in regulation stringency with novel firm-level geocoded emission and production datasets, we find that immediate upstream polluters face a more than 24% reduction in Total Factor Productivity (TFP), and a more than 57% reduction in chemical oxygen demand emissions, as compared to their immediate downstream counterparts. We find that the discontinuity in TFP does not exist in nonpolluting industries, only emerged after the government explicitly linked political promotion to water quality readings, and was predominantly driven by prefectural cities with career-driven leaders. Linking the TFP estimate with the emission estimate, a back of the envelope calculation indicates that China's water regulation efforts between 2000 and 2007 were associated with an economic cost of more than 800 billion Chinese yuan.


Guojun He

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Shaoda Wang

University of Chicago

Bing Zhang

Nanjing University