Compared to regulations in other countries, those of the United States tends to be narrower in scope, with an emphasis on manufacturing processes and specific categories of pollution, and little or no attention to the many other factors that affect environmental quality. An example is the focus on controlling pollution rather than influencing decisions about processes, raw materials, or products that determine environmental impacts. Regulation in the United States tends to isolate specific aspects of production processes and attempts to control them stringently, which means that some aspects of business are regulated tightly, although sometimes not cost-effectively, while others are ignored. Other countries and several American states have recently made more progress in preventing pollution at its source and considering such issues as product life cycles, packaging waste, and industrial energy efficiency.
Environmental regulation in the United States is also more prescriptive than elsewhere, in the sense of requiring specific actions, with little discretion left to the regulated firm. There also is a great reliance on action-forcing laws and technology standards.
These contrasts are illustrated nicely in a 1974 book that used a hare and tortoise analogy to compare air quality regulation in the United States and Sweden. While the United States (the hare) codified ambitious goals in statutes that drove industry to adopt new technologies under the threat of sanctions, Sweden (the tortoise) used a more collaborative process that stressed results but worked with industry in deciding how to achieve them. In the end air quality results were about the same. Similar results have been found in other comparative analyses of environmental regulation. For example, one study of a multinational firm with operations in the United States and Japan found that pollution levels in both countries were similar, despite generally higher pollution abatement expenditures in the United States. The higher costs observed in the United States thus were due in large part, not to more stringent standards, but to the higher regulatory transaction costs. Because agencies in different countries share information about technologies, best practices, and other issues, the pollution levels found acceptable in different countries tend to be quite similar.