SUMMARY
INTRODUCTION

ENERGY MYTHS

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
APPENDIX


 

 

 

 

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

MYTH 7: OUR CITIES ARE BECOMING MORE POLLUTED

Most 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 shouldn’t 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 don’t know: pollution has been cut nearly in half over this period, despite rising energy consumption and an expanding economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 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 164 percent … 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.”[11]

How to explain this seeming paradox—more 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 government’s regulatory involvement. Whatever the reason, there is little doubt that by most measures (clean air being just one), America’s environment is cleaner today than it was several decades ago.

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.


 

 

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: MYTHS AND FACTS

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Clarice Smith
Deputy Director,
Communications
Manhattan Institute
(212) 599-7000

 

 


Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2007