The warnings are dire; a new World Health Organization report says that more than one in four deaths of children under 5 is due to environmental risk – mostly air pollution.
“The evidence is clear: air pollution has a devastating impact on children’s health,” the report says. “…Globally, 93 percent of all children live in environments with air pollution levels above the WHO guidelines.”
Though the report notes that low-income and developing nations are most at risk, we receive the same warnings here in the U.S.
“We’re actually at the point in many areas of this country where on a hot summer day, the best advice we can give you is don’t go outside,” Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in 2011. “Don’t breathe the air, it might kill you.”
That’s the environmentalist narrative, certainly, and we hear it constantly. Modern humans are killing the planet, and only drastic action can save it. We must consume less, produce less, do less and expect less.
But is this true? Air quality in the United States – which produces more and consumes more than any other country in the world – is improving at a dramatic rate.
According to information compiled by the World Health Organization itself, the United States is one of the leading nations in meeting the WHO’s safe limits for healthy air quality.
The magnitude of improvement in air quality is stunning. According to “Our Nation’s Air 2018,” the EPA reports that the aggregate emissions of the six main pollutants listed in the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) have declined by almost 75 percent since 1970.
Here’s why that’s so remarkable: Air pollution fell while the economy grew by more than 260 percent, vehicle miles traveled rose by almost 200 percent, and population and energy consumption increased.
One reason for the dramatic drop in pollutants is the fact that, in industrial processes, waste is inefficiency. As the 2011 Almanac of Environmental Trends explains: “The industrial drive for cost-saving efficiency typically leads to cleaner technology.”
EPA’s early regulations under the Clean Air Act played a key role, but the main engines driving this transformation were technological advances in emission control and efficiencies – innovations spurred and made possible by economic growth.
The U.S. now produces more with less inputs and waste. What’s more, the affluence made possible by economic growth is what has allowed business and consumers to absorb the steep cost of elaborate emission controls.
The environmentalist narrative is wrong.
While air quality in America and the rest of the developed world is improving, in developing nations, 3 billion people still “rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating,” according to the U.N. And they suffer the health consequences of this premodern life. As the new WHO report points out, “the burden of disease attributable to particulate matter in air is heaviest in low- and middle-income countries…”
The differences are dramatic. Most citizens in China and India live with levels of particulate matter that are 10-20 times higher than in the U.S. Kanpur, India, for example, has dangerous levels of fine particulate matter (referred to as PM 2.5) of 173 micrograms per cubic meter. The standard for safety in the U.S. is just 12 micrograms, which is significantly lower than the E.U. limit of 18 micrograms, and all but 20 of the more than 3,000 U.S. counties meet that standard.
The right prescription, then, isn’t for the developed world to become less modern; it’s for the developed world to help developing nations catch up. If they had access to inexpensive, reliable energy, the economic, health and welfare benefits would be enormous.
Yet the United Nations’ own Sustainable Development Goals work to restrict access to energy for developing nations, by focusing on “sustainable” goals and rejecting development of new generation facilities that rely on fossil fuels – the fuels that got us where we are.
Current programs intended to assist developing countries limit financing on new projects to renewable energies, namely solar and wind. Relying on these energy sources results in limited, expensive and unreliable energy systems that are more apt to perpetuate poverty than to alleviate it through economic growth, the growth that facilitates environmental protections.
Shouldn’t they have the freedom to expect more, just as we do?
Instead of restricting economic growth under the guise of sustainability, developed nations should export to developing nations the very things that made our air more breathable – economic freedom, economic growth and the technologies and fuels to power their own destinies.
This commentary was originally published in Real Clear Energy on Dec. 4, 2018.
The Honorable Kathleen Hartnett White is Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment and Senior Fellow for Life:Powered. She previously served as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.