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Since 1970, Air Pollution Down 73%, Economy Tripled

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may have taken a drastic change of direction under Scott Pruitt, but plenty of the agency’s staff is still devoted to facts and science. In fact, the EPA’s latest annual air quality report shows that environmental regulation and business growth are not mutually exclusive. The report also provides a case study for long-term sustainable development, as yes, growth and clean air can occur hand-in-hand.

After all, in the almost five decades since Richard Nixon established the EPA, as a nation we are collectively driving more, leaving the lights on more frequently, and flick our home and office switches on more often. But despite almost a 60 percent increase in population since 1970, the nation’s air is cleaner, and the ways in which we light our rooms and power our automobiles have become far more efficient.

Some of the most impressive statistics have emerged since 1990, when the first President Bush and a Democratic-dominated Congress revamped the Clean Air Act. Since 1990, carbon monoxide levels are down 77 percent, lead concentrations in our air have cratered 99 percent and nitrogen dioxide pollutants have fallen by at least half. Various forms of particulate matter have decreased by about 40 percent overall the past 27 years, and cleaner transportation fuels have helped sulfur dioxide emissions to collapse by 85 percent.

But when one looks at the EPA’s entire history, the overall improvement in our air quality is even more impressive. Some of the differences can be seen with our eyes – ask your parents and grandparents if they remember visiting Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s and seeing that brown haze blanket California’s largest city. Some of us are old enough to remember “smog alerts,” which meant staying inside the classroom instead of cavorting around the playground.

But as two American presidents, John Adams in the 18th century, and Ronald Reagan over 200 years later said, “facts are stubborn things.” And that statement is true when it comes to discussing the EPA’s role in reducing pollution while the U.S. economy, despite some fits and starts, underwent steady growth during the late 20th and early 21st century.

The combined emissions of six common air pollutants, which include particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide and lead, have fallen 73 percent since 1970. Over the same time period, the U.S. economy has grown over three and half times in size, the total number of miles Americans have driven almost tripled and energy consumption has increased 44 percent. Those differences have been seen across the U.S., from large cities to the country’s national parks.

Meanwhile, air quality continues to improve even this century. In 2000, the number of “unhealthy air quality days” was over 2,000 days, and it increased slightly the following year. By 2010, that number had almost halved. Last year, the number of those days totaled just under 700.

Critics of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, including the current president, have been quick to say that such laws have been a drag on the U.S. economy. But the data shows that just is not true. In fact, some of the EPA’s programs have been market-friendly, such as the Acid Rain Program that launched in 1990 due to the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels that were polluting much of the northeastern U.S. and Great Lakes region. That allowance trade system reduced emissions and improved public health while pushing companies to become far more efficient in their operations.

The fight is far from over. Pruitt and the Trump White House have been determined to unravel much of the progress made during the Nixon, George H. W. Bush and Obama administrations, despite the evidence that the EPA’s rules have improved public health and the environment nationwide without punishing the economy. State officials are pushing back, however. This week, 16 attorneys general are suing Pruitt’s EPA for blocking any implementation of the EPA’s smog rules, despite their health and safety benefits.

Image credit: Todd Jones/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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