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Air Quality - The Clean Air Act (caa)—a Huge Success

benefits epa pollution caaa

In 1970 the U.S. Congress passed the landmark CAA, proclaiming that it would restore urban air quality. It was no coincidence that the law was passed during a 14-day Washington, D.C., smog alert. Although the CAA has had mixed results, and many goals remain to be met, most experts credit it with making great strides toward cleaning up the air.

The Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990

The overall goal of the CAAA is to reduce the pollutants in the air by 56 billion pounds a year—224 pounds for every man, woman, and child—when the law is fully phased in by 2005. Other aims were to cut acid rain in half by 2000, reduce smog and other pollutants, and protect the ozone layer by phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and related chemicals.

The CAAA also encouraged states to pursue market-based approaches to improve air quality. One such program, the Accelerated Vehicle Retirement program, commonly known as Cash for Clunkers, provides economic incentives for the owners of highly polluting vehicles to retire their automobiles from use or repair them. The program gives pollution credits to private corporations for contributing funding to car dealers to entice car owners to trade in their old vehicles.

Resistance to CAA Gets Federal Concessions

During the mid-to late 1990s, a number of states began balking at the strict auto emissions testing that seemed necessary to comply with the CAAA. Under the law, if a reduction does not come from auto emissions, it would have to be made up by other sources—for example, smokestack industries. The states are free to implement whatever methods they choose to cut pollution, but most states with serious air quality problems had previously chosen, with EPA encouragement, the stricter car inspection programs. This meant that many states were faced with testing that a great number of consumers considered overly restrictive and expensive.

The EPA had counted on enforcing the program through sanctions specified by the CAAA, which included cutting off highway money and other federal aid to the states. Some state legislatures, however, seemed willing to forego this aid in what some considered an act of civil disobedience. Rather than provoking a confrontation with the states, the EPA chose to allow greater flexibility in auto emissions testing.

In The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act, 1970 to 1990 (1997), the first report mandated by the CAA on the monetary costs and benefits of controlling pollution, the EPA concluded that the economic value of clean air programs was 42 times greater than the total costs of air pollution control during the 20-year period. The study found that numerous positive consequences occurred in the U.S. economy because of CAA programs and regulations. The CAA affected industrial production, investment, productivity, consumption, employment, and economic growth. In fact, the study estimated that total agricultural benefits from the CAA were almost $10 billion. The EPA compared benefits to direct costs or expenditures. The total costs of the CAA were $523 billion for the 20-year period; total benefits equaled $22.2 trillion—a net benefit of approximately $21.7 trillion.

In Two Decades of Clean Air: EPA Assesses Costs and Benefits (1998), the National Conference of State Legislatures used data from the EPA analysis and found that the act produced major reductions in pollution that causes illness and disease, smog, acid rain, haze, and damage to the environment.

The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (2000), the second mandated review of the CAA and the most comprehensive and thorough review ever conducted, showed similar results. Using a sophisticated array of computer models and the latest cost data, the EPA found that, by 2010, the act will have prevented 23,000 Americans from dying prematurely and averted more than 1.7 million asthma attacks. The CAA will prevent 67,000 episodes of acute bronchitis, 91,000 occurrences of shortness of breath, 4.1 million lost work days, and 31 million days in which Americans would have had to restrict activity because of illness. Another 22,000 respiratory-related hospital admissions will be averted, as well as 42,000 admissions for heart disease and 4,800 emergency room visits.

The EPA estimated that the benefits of CAA programs in reduction of illness and premature death alone will total about $110 billion. By contrast, the study found that the costs of achieving these benefits was only about $27 billion, a fraction of the value of the benefits. In addition, the study reported that there were other benefits that scientists and economists cannot quantify and express in monetary terms, such as controlling cancer-causing air toxins and bringing benefits to crops and ecosystems by reducing pollutants.

At the same time, many cities are still not in compliance with the law. One reason efforts to clean the air have been only partly successful is that they have focused on specific measures to combat individual pollutants rather than addressing the underlying social and economic structures that create the problem—for example, the distance between many Americans' residences and their places of work.

Trading Pollution Credits

In another federal concession, the CAAA created pollution "credits," a free-market innovation that allowed companies that keep their emissions below standards to sell or trade their credits on the open market to other companies that do not keep their emissions below standards. This is often viewed essentially as permission to pollute. Companies can also choose to retire their credits permanently and thus reduce the potential of further pollution.

Air Quality - The Antiregulatory Rebellion [next] [back] Air Quality - The Cost Of Air Pollution And Pollution Control

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