By Donella Meadows
June 22, 1989
Everyone who breathes is hurt by air pollution; so are plants, animals, lakes, rivers, buildings, and the climate. That doesn’t make any of us terribly eager to stop our personal share of the polluting. We zoom around in inefficient cars, heat and cool poorly insulated houses, squander electricity, splash around volatile chemicals. We choke and cough, wonder when the government is going to do something about air pollution — and then feel imposed upon when it does.
Businesses resist changing their polluting habits even more than consumers do. That’s not because they’re evil, it’s because they’re rational. If they can load onto the public the burden of their noxious emissions, they are rewarded with lower costs, increased competitiveness, and less hassle. All of which explains why air pollution is inevitable in a free country with a free market; why it worsened over the last eight years of deregulation; why it’s so good to hear a president speak at last of using the force of government to protect us from our own narrow rationality — and why the struggle for breathable air is far from over.
The clean air proposal George Bush has just put forward is not yet drafted into legal language. It has not yet been worked upon in the back halls of Congress by the auto, coal, utility, petrochemical, and no-tax-increase interests. Even if it became law tomorrow, miraculously undiluted, it would have to be enforced, by a government that has postponed the deadlines of the original Clean Air Act by 14 years (so far). And even if it were enforced, it would produce only modest improvements in air quality.
The good news about the president’s plan is, above all, that it exists — which says something about the leadership vacuum we’ve been enduring in environmental matters.
Another piece of good news is that the general approach of the plan is just right. For the most part it sets standards and lets industry and municipalities work out the best way to comply. It doesn’t dictate that coal burners shall install sulfur dioxide scrubbers, for example. It declares the amount by which sulfur dioxide emissions shall be reduced and unleashes American ingenuity to figure out how to reduce it.
The worst news about the plan is that it doesn’t always follow its own central principle. There is a section on “long-term clean fuels,” for instance, which mandates exactly how many methanol-burning vehicles shall be operating in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Chicago and several other cities in various future years.
That section is simply crazy, a product of the regulatory mind at its worst. The government has no way of ensuring that anyone will buy or use these vehicles, or that they will stay in a given city — and methanol burning is a poor choice among possible solutions for reducing smog. It worsens emissions of cancer-causing formaldehyde. If the methanol is made from coal, it DOUBLES emissions of carbon dioxide, the major gas that causes global warming.
Something else that needs to be fixed before the Bush proposals become law is the way some of the clean-air goals are set. The acid rain targets, for example, are stated in tons of emissions to be cut, rather than actual improvements in the acidity of precipitation. We don’t know that the cuts called for (about 35 percent in sulfur dioxide and only six percent in nitrogen oxides) are sufficient. The ideal law would state the result we want to produce (rain that does not dissolve buildings or kill fish, crops, or trees) and set up a mechanism to keep tightening emission standards until that result is accomplished.
The greatest weakness in the president’s plan is that in many places it sets standards in terms of permissible emissions per vehicle or per power station. That sets us up to halve emissions per tailpipe and smokestack but to double the number of tailpipes and smokestacks — which is the primary reason why the previous Clean Air Act didn’t work.
The most effective solutions to clean air lie not in putting diapers on emissions sources, but in generating less gunk in the first place. That means two things the president’s plan does not address at all — increasing efficiency and limiting growth. We’ll know we’re getting serious about clean air when we start empowering cities and corporations with the technical, financial, and legal means to choose those options too, as they figure out how to meet air quality standards.
If we want healthy air, we’re going to have to exert pressure and vigilance for a long time to come. We can breathe a sigh of relief that we now have a president who’s willing to work with us. But for awhile yet that sigh better not be a very deep one.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989