Clearing the Air


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 theEnvironmental Protection Agency shows that air quality was alreadyimprovingrapidly before federalization. The improvements were especially pronouncedin urban areas, which had the worst pollution problems. Sulfur dioxideemissions declined 40 percent between 1962 and 1969. Smog, a problem firstand foremost in the Los Angeles area, had been lessening in that regionsince the 1950s.

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

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

Another justification for federalization is that pollution can haveinterstate impacts, but 30 years of experience show that federalizationdoesnot guarantee successful solutions to interstate problems such as acidrain.

Moreover, several international environmental agreements indicate thatcross-boundary problems can be addressed collegially, without imposedsolutions from above.

The rise and subsequent decline of air pollution during this century trackswell with the premise that states continually strive to improve theirquality of life. In the early stages of economic development, societiesfocus on becoming wealthier so that they can better afford basic publichealth and social services like sewage treatment, electricity andhospitals.

During this period, the environment suffers. Initially, the "race to thetop" of the quality of life is mirrored in a "race to the bottom" ofenvironmental quality.

To continue to improve a society's quality of life, more resources must bedevoted to solving environmental problems. Increased wealth andtechnological advances makes this task easier. Thus, environmentaldegradation is first arrested and then reversed; that is, society goesthrough an environmental transition. After the transition, greater wealthand technology improve rather than worsen environmental quality. This isborne out in America's environmental evolution: the first improvements camevoluntarily when prosperous households, businesses and industries startedswitching from coal and wood to cleaner fuels like oil and electricity, andbegan installing more efficient technologies that conserved energy and rawmaterials.

Since the rationale for federalization is weak and the nation is past itsenvironmental transition, devolution of responsibility for air quality tothe states is unlikely to roll back past gains. To ensure that furtherimprovements in environmental quality and the quality of life go hand inhand, environmental requirements should be fine-tuned to each state'sspecial circumstance, something impossible with one-size-fits-all federalregulations. Moreover, the current command-and-control,pollutant-by-pollutant approach should be replaced with one that wouldminimize overall risks to public health and welfare. Emissions tradingshould be broadened to allow trading across pollutants. Trading shouldencourage not just emission reductions but reductions in risks to healthandwelfare.

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

Solutions to interstate pollution problems should be negotiated by theaffected states. Downwind states should be free to accept alternative riskreductions if they would provide greater benefits. For example, a downwindstate might accept funding to provide some health insurance for itsindigentpopulation instead of additional scrubbers upwind. Because many factorsaffecting the quality of life are unquantifiable, optimizing the quality oflife should be left to each state's political process.