Breathing easy: the case for clean air

Sound policies make for healthy people and a humming economy

In 1990, the Clean Air Act Amendments passed Congress with bipartisan support and were signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. These amendments expanded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s role in regulating air pollutants that negatively affect our health.

Under the law, the EPA used market incentives and other tools to limit air pollution emissions from power plants, automobiles, and other sources. States that contained areas with especially bad air quality were required to enact stricter plans to reduce emissions.

The collective efforts of the federal government, state governments, utilities, automakers, and other industries were largely positive; the United States has seen major reductions in air pollution emissions and wide-spread improvements in air quality. Emissions of two pollutants linked to negative health impacts — Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) — have fallen by more than 60% since 1990 even as our demand for energy has increased.

Recently, I worked with a group of researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta, GA on a study funded by the Health Effects Institute to show that air quality regulations had major impacts on emissions, air quality, and public health across the eastern United States. We found that regulations on power plants and automobiles since the 1990s have led to tens of thousands of avoided air pollution-related emergency department visits in Atlanta.

Even with these substantial benefits, political discourse has eroded bipartisan support of environmental regulations.

Common sense rules designed to protect our health are being delayed or repealed entirely over fears that they are a drag on the economy, imposing unnecessary costs and limiting job growth.

It is true that regulations cost money. In a 2016 report, the congressional Office of Management and Budget (OMB) found that federal regulations imposed annual costs of between $74 and $110 billion (in 2014 dollars). Costs, however, are only part of the story. That same OMB report estimated regulatory benefits at between $268 and $872 billion. The EPA projected an economic benefits:costs ratio of better than 20:1 ($2 trillion to $85 billion) for the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments through 2020.

Notably, air quality regulations contribute the largest percentage to nationwide regulatory benefits and costs. While perfect estimates of costs and benefits are difficult to make due to limited data availability, these numbers still paint a pretty clear picture: the financial benefits of current environmental regulations far outweigh the costs.

Economic theory could support arguments for both job creation and elimination due to air quality regulations, and empirical evidence suggests that effects are essentially a wash. Study after study has found little to no evidence of links between environmental regulations and employment. Potentially, a few jobs move away from areas with dirty air to those with clean air when the EPA imposes stricter oversight, or maybe a few move back because of increased labor demands required to meet regulatory requirements.

The evidence, therefore, points to a major net positive economic impact of air quality regulations due largely to a healthier, more productive population and little impact on employment. The EPA recently removed multiple cities from its list of those required to impose stricter air quality regulations, and the number of people who aren’t having asthma attacks thanks to regulations keeps growing.

This success story, however, is far from over. Many cities still see poor air quality on some days that exceeds the EPA’s newest health guidelines. We’ll need continued efforts from the government and industries to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens stay healthy.

Given our recent experience, regulations that clean up our air and improve public health should be bipartisan slam dunks. The Trump administration (including EPA administrator Scott Pruitt), however, has shown that it is not above delaying or removing environmental regulations purely for business reasons, without regard for their potential health benefits. While there’s a fair amount of uncertainty in designing effective regulations, we have plenty successful examples to learn from moving forward.

Air quality and health researcher arguing for scientifically sound policy.

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