Our Air Would Never be this Clean Without the Government


Photo credit: lowjumpingfrog via Flickr/CC BY

Imagine an alternate American history, one in which the Clean Air & Water Acts were never passed -- despite industry pumping such massive amounts of pollution into our skies, lakes, and rivers that one of those rivers eventually caught on fire. What happens next, after 1970? According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and prominent idea-generator for the GOP, those polluting industries begin cleaning up their acts on their own accord, because it's the right thing to do. The nation gets cleaner and cleaner, thanks to technological improvements and good ol' American innovation. There's really no need for the Clean Air Act, Heritage argues in a recent paper, and there never was -- polluting emissions were already declining before it was passed, driven by improving technology, which would have continued to this very day. That's a nice, patriotic vision of a world driven by free enterprise, right?It sure is -- and if it weren't for lousy government regulations getting in the way, we'd probably have invented coal plants that only emit rainbows by now, too. Except that the vision put forward by the Heritage Foundation is very, very wrong -- both conceptually and factually.

Here's the Heritage Foundation:

it is simply preposterous to assume that air quality would worsen unabated over the course of 30 years in the absence of a particular statute. History has proven otherwise, of course. Long before the original CAA was enacted in 1963, industrial emissions were declining as a result of technological advances and efficiency improvements. And both factors, as well as others, will continue to drive environmental improvements regardless of regulation
Heritage offers no evidence to back up those first claims, however, as a simple look at the emissions data collected over the past decades will reveal:


(Graph via the NRDC, which also has a great take down of the Heritage study)

As you can see, air pollution was clearly worsening until around 1970 -- when the Clean Air Act was passed, whereupon pollution controls brought about a fairly dramatic decline in emissions; especially nationwide emissions of particulate matter. It is anything but preposterous to assume that air quality would have continued to worsen -- that's exactly what would have happened. We have hundreds of coal plants across the nation, and many of them were already decades old, even by 1970. And since it was -- and still is -- so cheap to burn coal, there would be no need to retrofit those plants with "efficiency improvements" using more advanced technology. The need for more advanced scrubbing technology only arose with government-mandated rules requiring those plants to meet certain air quality standards.

It all comes back to the tragedy of the commons -- there is, to this day, no financial incentive for companies to clean up their coal plants other than to avoid fines and penalties from the government. Why else would a company invest in technology that would reduce pollution? It wouldn't help their bottom line -- no company can increase its profit margin by running the cleanest power plant (unless there was a cap and trade system in place ...), so the incentive is always going to be to skirt pollution controls, not invest in more of them.

It just makes no sense. Sure, it'd be nice to believe in a version of America where the titans of industry are spurring such innovation that pollution is rendered obsolete, but the truth is, without government controls like the Clean Air Act, the technology would only advance towards the aim of burning more coal for cheaper. And the air would no doubt be a whole lot dirtier.

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More on the Clean Air Act
Enforcing Clean Air Act Rules Will Create 1.5 Million Jobs, Study Says
Clean Air Act Will Save $2 Trillion & 230000 Lives by 2020 ...

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