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Why Air Pollution Will Continue to Decline

View the full text and press release.

The United States has made tremendous progress in reducing air pollution during the last few decades. But many environmental activists, newspaper editorialists and other opinion leaders believe that Bush administration policies will cause increases in air pollution, and that stringent new pollution control measures are necessary if air pollution is to improve. They are incorrect. It would be virtually impossible for anyone, no matter how tenacious or determined, to prevent continued and substantial reductions in air pollution:

Most air pollution comes from motor vehicles. But emissions data collected on the road and in vehicle inspection programs shows that with each new model-year, automobiles have been starting out and staying cleaner than previous models. Fleet turnover to progressively cleaner vehicles has been reducing emissions by about 10 percent per year. These reductions will continue as earlier vehicle models are replaced by vehicles built during the last several years. Much tougher standards that start phasing in this year will also continue these ongoing reductions. Even after accounting for population growth and the popularity of SUVs, and suburbs, total vehicle emissions will drop at least 80 percent during the next 20 years. These reductions are unstoppable, because they depend only on older vehicles being retired, rather than on additional requirements for new vehicles.

  • Diesel truck emissions will likewise unavoidably decline as the fleet turns over to trucks built to tougher standards progressively implemented during the last 15 years. Furthermore, already-adopted EPA standards that phase in starting in 2007 will reduce diesel truck emissions by an additional 90 percent below current requirements.
  • Declining caps on emissions from coal-fired power plants will reduce systemwide nitrogen oxides by 60 percent and sulfur dioxide by 20 percent during the next few years. These requirements have broad bipartisan support and have no chance of being repealed. Because total emissions are under declining caps, planned changes to the New Source Review program will likewise have no effect on the required emission reductions.
  • A range of already-adopted requirements for several other pollution sources will achieve additional pollution reductions.

Claims that air pollution will increase are not only false, but the exact opposite what will actually happen. As a result of fleet turnover, and already-adopted regulations, most remaining air pollution will be eliminated during the next 20 years or so--even without adoption of any new regulations.

The long-term problem of air pollution has thus already been solved. Remaining air pollution concerns are now a near-term problem. Yet air pollution policy is being driven by the false premise that air pollution will rise unless we redouble our efforts to reduce it. For example, regulators continue to focus on expensive policies to reduce long-term emissions, such as electric vehicles, transit, and restrictions on suburbanization. In reality, no one can stop continued and substantial improvements in air quality. Policymakers should therefore focus on flexible, least-cost measures to more quickly mitigate remaining near-term pollution, rather than imposing costly and restrictive ongoing new requirements on the public.

Joel Schwartz is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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Monday, September 22, 2014 | 2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Policy implications of the new US labor market normal

We welcome you to join us as a panel of economists discuss US wage and price prospects in the coming months and the implications for the Federal Reserve’s current unorthodox monetary policy.

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