Did you know the United States leads the world in clean air?
As I walk the halls of the Capitol, meeting with members of Congress and their staff about the energy policies that help and hurt our country’s future, I’m shocked how many people don’t know and can’t believe this fact.
Over the last 50 years, harmful air pollution known as particulate matter has plummeted. Toxic pollutants like lead, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide are now nearly nonexistent in our air. Ozone is down dramatically. We’re the only highly populated nation in the world to meet the World Health Organization’s standards for particulate matter and by a long shot. In fact, our standards are among the strictest in the world.
These radical air quality gains occurred at the same time our population, energy consumption, vehicle miles traveled, and gross domestic product also grew dramatically.
Our ongoing and increasingly fraught national conversation about the environment too often misses the fact that reliable, affordable energy is the critical enabler of innovation.
Countries like Germany have tried to force their way to environmental leadership by mandating a switch to wind and solar energy before the markets and technology were ready. This led to 46% higher electricity costs, massive subsidies to keep coal plants running for backup power, and dependence on imported wood from the U.S. for cooking and heating fuel — with little or no effect on the environment.
Meanwhile, free from the burden of stringent and stifling regulations, Americans have done what we have always done best: rolled up our sleeves and gotten to work.
Take the catalytic converter, which turns toxic exhaust into harmless gases, like water vapor, by catalyzing a chemical reaction. It was perfected for use in gasoline engines in the 1950s by Eugene Houdry, a French scientist who became a U.S. citizen in 1942, and was popularized in the 1970s as an efficient way to meet the Clean Air Act standards.
According to the EPA, which calls the catalytic converter “one of the greatest environmental inventions of all time,” modern cars, SUVs, trucks, and buses are 98-99% cleaner now than they were 50 years ago. Tailpipe pollutants have nearly been eliminated, meaning our cities are no longer stifled by smog. We’re free to take advantage of the independence, mobility, and economic opportunity personal vehicles offer without sacrificing environmental quality.
That’s good old American ingenuity at work. It continues to work today in technologies like baghouse dust collectors that eliminate pollution from commercial plants and renewable natural gas generation from methane captured from landfills or wastewater treatment plants. The limitless potential of the free market and innovation, not government mandates and taxes, have driven both our economy and environment to dramatic success.
All this is made possible by access to abundant, reliable, and affordable energy. Our energy resources have the power to improve our quality of life, power our economies, and lift people out of poverty both at home and abroad, all while improving the environment. Nothing is more powerful to drive human flourishing than energy.
Today, much of America’s air pollution is not of our own making. It’s blown into the West Coast from Asia. More stringent air quality regulations will do far more to export jobs out of the U.S. than they will to make our air safer to breathe.
On the other hand, the more our energy and manufacturing sectors are allowed to flourish, the more we can export to our friends and allies worldwide — which means the more we can export our environmental quality.
This Earth Day, we should celebrate our country’s radical achievements by embracing our abundant energy resources and empowering the free market to drive more environmental and economic progress for generations to come.
This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on April 22, 2019.