Many Americans are unaware that the United States is a world leader in environmental protection. We’ve made great strides in improving the quality of our air and water over the past fifty years, especially in our cities. Thanks to America’s free and prosperous economy, technological innovations, and reasonable environmental regulations, the U.S. has reduced the aggregate emissions of the six “criteria pollutants” listed in the Clean Air Act by 77% since 1970.
These improvements have come as U.S. GDP has nearly tripled and energy consumption, primarily from fossil fuels, has grown by 48%. The WHO reports that U.S. cities have lower densities of particulate matter than most cities across the world. In fact, our ambient air pollution levels are so low as to be near natural levels!
Environmental regulations need to apply a predictable regulatory framework, be based on demonstrated and practical technology, and be targeted to reduce known health risks based on sound science. Current efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions have abandoned these guiding principles, and Europe’s decision to focus heavily on CO2 emissions provides an unfortunate example of this problem. To meet their CO2 goals, E.U. member states subsidized diesel vehicles, which are more fuel efficient and emit less CO2, while setting less stringent standards than the U.S. for nitrous oxide (NOx) and particulate matter, which diesels emit more of. The widespread use of diesel vehicles has led to more smog, caused by NOx emissions, and higher particulate concentrations in European cites. Now, the E.U. is trying to lower NOx levels closer to U.S. standards, and many cities are trying to limit or ban diesel vehicles from their central cores. Many European countries also get a significant amount of power from burning “biomass,” better known as wood, which is sometimes referred to as renewable but generates a significant amount of particulate matter pollution.
It is also critical to consider the economic impacts and human costs of increasing the regulation of fossil fuels, and consequently their price, while we continue to demand the energy and products that they provide. The first effect of more regulation is that industrial production can migrate to other countries that lag far behind the U.S. in terms of pollution controls. From a worldwide environmental perspective, do we want to incentivize industries to move to Asia, where particulate pollution levels are often 10 times higher than in the U.S.? Second, as we make energy more expensive, less money is available for nutrition, health care, and other essentials. The human costs of making energy more expensive are difficult to measure and easy to ignore for those who can afford it, but we cannot push more regulations while hand-waving these costs away.
Rather than blindly pursue the impossible task of reducing pollution concentrations to zero, the U.S. should focus on adequately enforcing current regulations and only increase the level of regulation based on sound data regarding real human health impacts. And most of the threats to human health and safety in the U.S. are solved through economic growth and smart planning and investments, not more regulation. By promoting policies that focus on pollutants most harmful to human health, reflect measurable costs and benefits, and consider the capability of current or near-term technologies, we can continue to improve lives both in America and abroad.