Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, recently spoke in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act (CAA). She spent equal time discussing both the environmental and economic impacts that the bill and its amendments have made in its four decades since its signing into law by President Nixon.
The environmental and public health impacts are expectedly positive and fairly straightforward. Many problematic pollutants, including lead, ground-level ozone, and particulate matter, have been reduced nationwide. Through the 1990 CAA amendments, a cap-and-trade system was implemented to dramatically drop sulfur dioxide and acid rain quantities and initiate the phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in the US. Looking ahead, new vehicle standards (fully implemented by 2030) will effectively offset about 1 billion tons of CO2 from the air.
But what are the economic costs to all of these effects? Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are used to fund and sustain these regulations, and industries such as electrical utilities and automotive manufacturers must spend money to update their production methods. But there are indirect economic benefits which include averting premature deaths and medical conditions that amount to large medical bills. These include childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease, skin cancer from penetrating UV rays, and lost IQ points due to leaded gasoline. Aside from saving lives, the CAA has saved Americans $2 trillion through these indirect benefits; the CAA has achieved a 40:1 return on money invested.
The results of the CAA challenge the long-standing belief in the dichotomy between economic growth and environmental cleanliness. Just as the Clean Air Act was passed with strong bipartisan support 40 years ago, the achievements of the bill today should convince those of all political agendas that “cleaning up” does not mean cutting profits. Through mechanisms like cap-and-trade (for sulfur dioxide reductions), technology, competition, and innovation always seem to be underestimated with regards to environmental action.