Commentary

Clearing the Air

By Indur M. Goklany
November 23, 1999
Here in the United States, the air is generally cleaner today than it has been in many decades. Conventional wisdom credits this to the federal government’s intervention in air pollution control in 1970. That federalization was justified by the claim that air quality was worsening because states were engaged in a “race to the bottom,” sacrificing the environment in the competition for jobs and economic growth. That rationale has since been extended to justify Washington’s top-down micromanagement of environmental regulation in general.

A fresh analysis of nationwide air quality and emissions data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that air quality was already improving rapidly before federalization. The improvements were especially pronounced in urban areas, which had the worst pollution problems. Sulfur dioxide emissions declined 40 percent between 1962 and 1969. Smog, a problem first and foremost in the Los Angeles area, had been lessening in that region since the 1950s.

National emissions per dollar of gross national product peaked in the 1920s for sulfur dioxide, the 1930s for the volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that produce smog, and the 1940s or earlier for particulate matter and carbon monoxide. At least 70 percent of the reductions between those peaks and the 1997 levels predated federalization.

Actual data refute claims of a “race to the bottom” and prove that the air was not getting worse in the years before federalization. Furthermore, federalization seems not to have accelerated declines in emissions or improvements in air quality for the most important pollutants.

Another justification for federalization is that pollution can have interstate impacts, but 30 years of experience show that federalization does not guarantee successful solutions to interstate problems such as acid rain.

Moreover, several international environmental agreements indicate that cross-boundary problems can be addressed collegially, without imposed solutions from above.

The rise and subsequent decline of air pollution during this century tracks well with the premise that states continually strive to improve their quality of life. In the early stages of economic development, societies focus on becoming wealthier so that they can better afford basic public health and social services like sewage treatment, electricity and hospitals.

During this period, the environment suffers. Initially, the “race to the top” of the quality of life is mirrored in a “race to the bottom” of environmental quality.

To continue to improve a society’s quality of life, more resources must be devoted to solving environmental problems. Increased wealth and technological advances makes this task easier. Thus, environmental degradation is first arrested and then reversed; that is, society goes through an environmental transition. After the transition, greater wealth and technology improve rather than worsen environmental quality. This is borne out in America’s environmental evolution: the first improvements came voluntarily when prosperous households, businesses and industries started switching from coal and wood to cleaner fuels like oil and electricity, and began installing more efficient technologies that conserved energy and raw materials.

Since the rationale for federalization is weak and the nation is past its environmental transition, devolution of responsibility for air quality to the states is unlikely to roll back past gains. To ensure that further improvements in environmental quality and the quality of life go hand in hand, environmental requirements should be fine-tuned to each state’s special circumstance, something impossible with one-size-fits-all federal regulations. Moreover, the current command-and-control, pollutant-by-pollutant approach should be replaced with one that would minimize overall risks to public health and welfare. Emissions trading should be broadened to allow trading across pollutants. Trading should encourage not just emission reductions but reductions in risks to health and welfare.

In combating intrastate pollution, the federal government should become an equal partner with states, with Washington setting idealized goals and states determining their own schedules and control measures to attain those goals. This is only appropriate since they will be the major winners or losers from their own actions (or inaction).

Solutions to interstate pollution problems should be negotiated by the affected states. Downwind states should be free to accept alternative risk reductions if they would provide greater benefits. For example, a downwind state might accept funding to provide some health insurance for its indigent population instead of additional scrubbers upwind. Because many factors affecting the quality of life are unquantifiable, optimizing the quality of life should be left to each state’s political process.

Indur M. Goklany is the author of Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution, published this month by the Cato Institute.