LA's Pollution from Car Exhaust is Down 98% from the 1960s

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My earliest memories of L.A. are colored with a grey, dystopian palette—I remember staring out at a hazed-over full moon, actually impressed by the way the smog smeared the city lights and hung thick in the air even at night. It was surreal and noirish and pretty repulsive. And that was just over ten years ago.

It never really occurred to me to again be impressed by how quickly that industrial fog has lifted. But I think back to more recent visits to California's sprawling metropolis, and it's striking: I'd never again seen it so choked by pollution. The smoky city derided by we northern Californians has given way to more vibrant hues and blue skies. Or at least bluer skies.

In fact, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has just released a new study of the air quality in Los Angeles, and the findings are stunning. They corroborate my almost fantastical impressions of the gridlocked city: Since the 1960s, the amount volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in L.A.'s air has declined by an astonishing 98%. VOCs are primarily the products of car exhaust, and are among the biggest contributors to the city's air pollution problem. They're "a key ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone, which, at high levels, can harm people’s lungs and damage crops and other plants," NOAA says.

And they're disappearing. During the period between 2002 and 2010 alone (coincidentally, that's precisely the period described above), the concentration of VOCs dropped by half. And yet there are way more cars on the road now than there ever have been before.

NOAA/Public Domain

So, anyone want to venture a guess as to what drove the truly massive improvement in air quality in what is still the most congested city in the nation? Air pollution regulations and vehicle efficiency standards, of course!

NOAA explains that "Requirements for catalytic converters, use of reformulated fuels less prone to evaporate, and improved engine efficiency of new vehicles have all likely contributed to overall declines in vehicle-related pollution, including VOCs."

Catalytic converters were invented in 1975 to meet federal emissions standards; the national Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard was introduced that same year.

The EPA also amended the Clean Air Act in 1970 and 1977 to cover "mobile" emitters like cars. And California's Air and Resources Board (established in 1967 by then-governor Ronald Reagan) has also pushed for more stringent vehicle emissions standards with a series of progressive Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) regulations.

In essence, these tough regulations—which were loudly protested by automakers—directly and rapidly led to cleaner cars and cleaner cities. And a dangerous pollutant has almost been eradicated altogether. Note that VOCs are just one air pollutant contributing to L.A.'s haze, but it's an important one.

The turnaround is a great example of regulation driving innovation, too. Stories like this are always striking, especially during a moment where we're constantly hearing complaints about government intervention, how tougher air pollution or greenhouse gas emission rules would derail the economy.

And yet, the government enacts a law ratcheting up emissions standards, and boom—out goes the carburator and in come the fuel injection systems and the catalytic converter.

Cases like this should underscore every argument in favor of climate and clean energy policy. If we enact tough restrictions on carbon emissions, believe you me—industry will innovate its ass off. Don't think it can't either—if Exxon devoted 1/100th of the resources it devotes to developing technologies to leech every last drop of oil from its deepwater wells, we'd probably have solar farms hitting grid parity already.

So tax carbon emissions. Regulate them. Price them. Whatever. We'll get more efficient buildings, still-cleaner cars, breakthroughs in renewable energy sources, and new pollution-scrubbing technologies. And if we do it right, the next generation could have a comparable experience to our evolving impressions of LA. They might think—isn't it wild that just a decade ago all of our cars and power plants pumped out so much carbon?

Tags: Air Pollution