Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Clean Air
Last Wednesday (4/14) I commented on an article in the NY Times Magazine concerning the New Source Review policy of the Environmental Protection Agency. Yesterday's NY Times carried an editorial by David Brooks that also mentions New Source Review, as part of an overall report card on the Bush administration's environmental record. Brooks's basic conclusion is that things have improved pretty dramatically in the last couple of decades, but there are still some important gaps, notably on climate change. My view is pretty close to his.

To see why, you have to turn the clock back to the first Earth Day in 1970 and then fast forward to the present. It makes for an interesting movie. Watch the US population grow from 203 million to 293 million, and the number of vehicles on the road climb from 111 million to 235 million, each driving 19% more than their 1970 predecessors. Gross Domestic Product zooms from $3.8 trillion to 10.2 trillion, in year 2000 dollars. Against this background, a major focus on improving the environment delivers air that is cleaner in many places, and water that is generally purer. The dire predictions about the environment from the 1970s fail to materialize, because of hard work, tough policies and a large amount of investment. This brings us to to where we are today.

If we want to extend this improvement trend, should we continue the same policies as in the past--the ones that got us the benefits we can see--or do we need to try something different? Most environmentalists would probably say stick with what we know, but make it tougher. But this flies in the face of some awkward facts.

Consider vehicle tailpipe pollution. Modern cars emit only a small fraction of the pollution of a 1970 model, thanks to changes in fuel quality and engine technology, and the addition of catalytic converters. But the benefits of these advances are partially offset by the dramatic increase in total miles traveled, a trend that seems set to continue. Short of eliminating fossil fuels or replacing the internal combustion engine--either of which will take decades--we are approaching the point of rapidly diminishing returns.

What this suggests to me is that we should celebrate our achievement of the last two decades, scrutinize its history for what worked well and what didn't, and formulate new policies based on that learning and on the recognition that the problems we face have evolved and our old levers to move them have become less effective, as a direct result of their past success. Is it possible even to float such an idea, let alone get it enacted, in light of the quasi-religious zeal exhibited by both extremes of the argument? It would be close to heresy, and you know what they do to heretics.

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