While the COVID-19 pandemic has killed almost five million, more people die every year because of air pollution, which accounts for about one in five deaths worldwide. The problem, moreover, is especially acute in low- and middle-income countries, where exposure to high levels of air pollution affects 90 percent of the population. Given the substantial human and economic costs, why don’t governments in the developing world implement stricter policies and regulations to combat the problem?
As has been the case with the adoption of prevention measures against COVID-19, the key is trust. Trust is the belief that others will not act opportunistically. They will not make promises they cannot keep, renege on promises they can keep, or violate norms to take advantage of other people who adhere to them. In short, trust is faith in others—in their honesty, dependability, and good will.
Opportunistic behavior is particularly acute in those cases in which there are informational and power asymmetries. That is, in cases in which a person has to take an action today but the other person, or entity, has more information, more power, and must take the action only in the future.
The characteristics of many environmental public policies, including those for combating air pollution, unfortunately allow governments to act opportunistically. Many environmental policies are characterized by short-term costs and long-term commitments. Although citizens recognize that air pollution is a problem, they may not trust that the government has the capacity and the commitment to implement effective, long-term solutions. That, in turn, is one reason governments in developing countries do not pursue and implement policies that lead to better air quality: Citizens do not trust them to implement effective policies.
Air Pollution, Trust, and Public Policy in Mexico City
In a recent paper, we explore the relationship between trust and the demand for public policy in Mexico City (CDMX) using survey data we collected from June–August 2019 as part of a larger randomized controlled trial. Mexico City’s air quality has improved significantly since the early 1990s, but it is still above international targets and ranked as the 30th worst among the world’s capital cities. Citizens are aware of the issue; in our survey sample of about 2,000 individuals, nearly 95% of participants report that air quality is “a problem” or “a very big problem” in Mexico City. Meanwhile, only 29% of individuals surveyed think that Mexico City’s government takes effective measures to control air pollution. On average, participants rated the effectiveness of the anti-pollution program managed by the Environmental Commission of the Megalopolis (an umbrella organization that includes the Federal District and 224 municipalities located in the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Morelos, Puebla and Tlaxcala) a 6 (on a rising scale from 1 to 10), and the effectiveness of the control carried out to measure compliance by companies a 5.
It is hardly surprising in this context that trust in the government is not very high in Mexico. Similar to many other low- and middle- income countries, Mexico’s citizens have relatively low trust in the government, especially in politicians. According to an OECD survey of 42 countries, Mexico falls near the median in terms of trust in government. Citizens can proxy for opportunistic or untrustworthy behavior by the ability of governments to deliver on promises and whether politicians engage in corruption. Mexico ranks poorly on both metrics.
Examining the Demand for Public Policies
In order the evaluate the demand for public policies, survey participants were asked a series of questions that attempted to capture: (i) support for an additional tax to improve air quality; (ii) preference for government retention and control over revenue vs. distribution to citizens (that is whether the money would be better spent by the government or by individual citizens), and; (iii) preference for public spending on environmental public vs. private goods (that is, whether the money should be spend in public goods that would benefit everybody in the long run or in private goods to mitigate the impact on those more directly affected).
Participants also reported their trust in political figures and institutions as well as people in their general lives and surroundings.
Our findings shows that trust is significant to explain citizens’ attitudes and public policy demands. We find that about three out of four participants would be willing to pay a $100 peso additional tax to prevent contingencias (environmental emergencies declared on days in which air pollution levels exceed or are predicted to exceed official Mexican standards) and that this support for the tax increases correlates with trust in the government. Specifically, willingness to pay the tax is 3-5 percentage points higher for each 1 unit increase of trust in the president (measured on a 4-point trust scale).
Participants, however, generally prefer to allocate more of the potential fees paid by polluting firms to citizens than to allow the government to control the revenue. Again, higher the trust higher the support for the government to control it.
Figure. Trust and Citizen Support for Environmental Policy in Mexico City
Panel A: Support for a tax to improve air quality
Panel B: Preferred percent of pollution fees retained by government
Finally, we find that participants are more likely to report that they prefer allocating the revenue received by the government to providing public goods rather than providing private goods to individuals.
Our Findings Implications for Combatting Air Pollution and Climate Change
Our results have important policy implications for Latin America and the Caribbean, where less than one in three people trust their government, among the lowest levels in the world. In low-trust contexts, governments may not be able to garner citizen support for public policies that have intertemporally unbalanced costs and benefits, require high levels of competence to implement, have an effectiveness that is difficult to observe, and give governments greater discretion over how to allocate resources. Our finding that less than one-third of citizens think that local government takes effective measures to control air pollution is one illustration of how some of these issues affect Mexico City. So is our finding that people generally prefer pollution fees to go to private citizens, rather than to the government, to deal with the pollution problem.
Fortunately, many steps that governments can take to increase their citizens’ trust are simply good policies. For example, providing high quality public services and local investment, implementing effective responses to crises and disasters, and increasing the transparency of government actions provide direct benefits to citizens. They also lead to greater citizen trust in government. In the long run, there is a virtuous circle connecting policies that generate greater trust with demand for better policies. This is crucial in addressing some of the largest collective action problems of our generation, including those of air pollution and climate change.