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The Benefits of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990
This essay is in response to: What is the most important achievement we've gained through air pollution management? What remains to be done to safeguard public health from air pollution?
While there have been many achievements during the 40-year tenure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) provided tremendous and tangible benefits at a few different levels. First, as described in the EPA’s recent analysis of the benefits and costs of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020, the public health and environmental benefits are enormous relative to the economic costs – EPA estimated benefits of approximately $2 trillion in 2020, versus a cost of $65 billion. This was driven in part by the projected reduction of 230,000 premature deaths per year by 2020, relative to a world in which the CAAA were not implemented. While these benefits are staggering and clearly justify the costs of control, the CAAA had multiple additional and more subtle achievements.
First, this bipartisan effort (passing the House of Representatives by a margin of 401-25 and the Senate by a margin of 89-10) illustrated that a combination of market-based initiatives and health-based standards can bring together the best ideas of both parties to protect public health and the economy. The “cap and trade” system used to address acid rain was a primary illustration of using economic tools to drive down the cost of controlling pollution, and truly changed the paradigm for how air pollution management could be done. The acid rain program was also an excellent example of how pollution control can sometimes yield unanticipated benefits – the CAAA preceded the scientific understanding of the health risks of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, but controlling the precursors of acid rain also reduced population exposures and health risks to PM2.5 and other pollutants.
Related to this topic was the growing recognition that air pollution was not strictly a local phenomenon, and that certain air pollutants emitted in one state could influence concentrations in another state. Provisions in the CAAA to address this interstate transport issue led to a number of successful measures to reduce emissions from power plants and other sources, and this framework continues to be important in addressing air pollution in the US.
Another achievement articulated in EPA’s recent analysis is the fact that pollution control turned out to be good for the economy, not a drag on the economy. More specifically, although there was clearly a direct cost of installing pollution control devices and using cleaner fuels, this was counterbalanced by growth in other economic sectors and the improved productivity of a healthier and longer-living workforce. By 2020, the GDP was estimated to be higher with the CAAA than if the Amendments had not been implemented, and the amount of household welfare increased to an even greater extent. In other words, the US economy is stronger, not weaker, as a result of these investments in air pollution control.
The CAAA also contributed to the phase-out of chemicals that contribute to holes in the ozone layer, and greatly expanded the number of air toxics that needed to be addressed. In total, this was a wide-ranging and important bipartisan effort that put the country on a trajectory for cleaner air, better health, and a stronger economy.
While these successes were substantial and many pollutants have much lower concentrations now than decades ago, there is still more to do to continue to protect the public from air pollution. EPA’s recent analysis assumed that the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) or similar policies to control power plant air pollution would be in place, which is not currently the case. A significant amount of the benefits accrued under the CAAA were attributable to CAIR, so it would be important to address this lingering public health issue, potentially through EPA’s proposed Transport Rule. In addition, though levels of ozone and PM2.5 have come down, health evidence continues to demonstrate effects at lower levels. Continuing to implement science-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards reflecting this evidence is an important step in protecting the public.
Finally, we need to keep an eye toward addressing pollutants that don’t fit well in our current regulatory system. Ultrafine particulate matter is not readily addressed under any existing standard, but is of growing concern for people living and spending time close to major roads. We also don’t have a straightforward mechanism for determining optimal management strategies for pollutants that influence public health directly and through global climate change. However, history has shown that the Clean Air Act can be used to address emerging problems in a cost-effective manner, and continued efforts to do so will help to ensure that the public is protected from the health risks of air pollution.
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