This paper 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 upstream polluting firms face a 27% reduction in Total Factor Productivity (TFP), and a 48% reduction in emission intensity, as compared to their downstream counterparts. We find that the discontinuity in TFP does not exist in non-polluting industries, only emerged after the government explicitly linked political promotion to water quality readings, and was entirely driven by prefecture cities with career-driven leaders. Linking the TFP estimate with the emission estimate, a back of the envelope calculation indicates that China’s current water-pollution abatement target leads to an annual economic loss of more than 30 billion dollars.

Award: Gregory Chow Best Paper Award, Chinese Economists Society, 2018