MYTH 7: OUR CITIES ARE BECOMING MORE POLLUTED
of us believe that increased energy use inevitably harms the environment. More
than 83 percent of respondents replied that they believe that our cities are
becoming more polluted as a result of our increased energy use. And why shouldnt
they believe this? More energy use means increased economic growth and greater
industrial production. Add to that a 38 percent increase in U.S. population,
and it also means more coal and gasoline burned and more miles driven or flown.
Indeed, from 1970 to 2002, Americans total energy consumption rose by
more than 40 percent, including 543 million extra tons of coal per year and
an additional 5.4 million barrels per day of oil for our cars, trucks, and planes.
But here is a fact that most people dont know: pollution has been cut
nearly in half over this period, despite rising energy consumption and an expanding
economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agencys 2003 Air
Quality and Emissions Trends Report, which looked at the period from 1970
to 2002, Aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants have been
cut 48 percent. During that same time, U.S. gross domestic product increased
and vehicle miles traveled increased 155 percent.
Journalist Gregg Easterbrook took note of these trends in The Progress Paradox:
Since 1970, smog has declined by a third, even as the number of cars has
nearly doubled and vehicle-miles traveled have increased by 143 percent; acid
rain has declined by 67 percent, even though the United States now burns almost
twice as much coal annually to produce electric power; airborne soot particles
are down, which is why most cities have blue skies again; airborne lead, a poison,
is down 97 percent.
to explain this seeming paradoxmore energy use by more people, but less
overall pollution? Part of the answer may lie with the pollution controls codified
in the Clean Air Act of 1970. Some observers, though, argue that air quality
in the United States had been improving substantially even before the passage
of that landmark legislation and that a combination of advanced technologies
and state and local laws would have guaranteed continued improvement in air
quality even without the federal governments regulatory involvement. Whatever
the reason, there is little doubt that by most measures (clean air being just
one), Americas environment is cleaner today than it was several decades
Many who acknowledge the improvements in air quality are often quick to credit
the federal Clean Air Act (CAA), passed in 1970 and amended several times since.
The CAA costs the economy more than $20 billion each year, according to Environmental
Protection Agency estimates. Critics claim that the costs are significantly
higher. In any event, the jury is still out as to what degree the CAA is responsible
for cleaner air. Though we have seen significant improvements in air quality
since 1970, those improvements were under way before the law went into effect.
To a large degree, these improvements are the result of advancements in automotive
technology independent of federal regulations.