April 22, 2005,
You’re not hearing much about this, but the environment seems to be doing quite well, or is at least showing signs of improvement, in the United States.
Notwithstanding lively debate over the Kyoto Protocol and the vagaries of climate, America is making astounding progress with a greenhouse-gas emissions rate that is less than a third of its economic-growth rate. On March 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its draft annual inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions which reported that emissions increased a mere 13 percent while the U.S. economy cruised along at 46 percent for the period of 1990 to 2003. Clemson economics professor Robert E. McCormick has observed that higher-income countries emit more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but they also sequester more carbon through landfills, better farming, less burning of wood products, reforestation, and the like. In other words, if the economy continues to grow, McCormick says, “the U.S. is likely to become a carbon sink.”
Moreover, the EPA’s new Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) will achieve the largest reduction in air pollution in more than a decade by dramatically reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the eastern U.S. When fully implemented, CAIR will reduce these two pollutants by 70 and 60 percent, respectively. Health benefits will amount to $85 to $100 billion per year, plus an extra $2 billion in “visibility benefits.” Thus, by 2015, CAIR will provide benefits 25 times the cost of compliance by industry. The new Clean Air Mercury Rule will eventually cut that toxic air pollutant by nearly 70 percent. Yet the environmental community criticizes this effort as not enough, soon enough.
This expected progress is consistent with the data for the last 30 years or so. In June of 2003 the EPA released its first “Draft Report on the Environment” in order to provide a national picture of U.S. environmental quality and human health. The document garnered all available scientific data from more than 30 federal agencies, departments, states, tribes, and nongovernmental organizations. The report did not hesitate to highlight issues lacking necessary data for evaluation as well as areas requiring greater effort. Yet, the report documented undeniable progress in terms of environmental protection.
Thus, air pollution declined 25 percent over the past three decades despite (or maybe because of) gross domestic product increasing by 161 percent, a 42-percent increase in energy consumption, and a jump in vehicle-miles-traveled of 149 percent. The percentage of days that air quality violated an applicable health standard dropped from almost 10 percent in 1998 to 3 percent in 2001. Releases of toxic chemical to all media (air, land, and water) also declined by 48 percent since 1988.
There are environmental challenges ahead as the U.S. continues to enjoy increased economic growth. But it is important to realize that economic growth is part of the solution to current and future problems. A recent policy statement of the Society of Conservation Biology, North America Section, got this completely wrong. It posited a “fundamental conflict” between economic growth and biodiversity conservation and ecological services on the other. It called, instead, for a “steady state economy” which “is generally indicated by stabilized (or mildly fluctuating) real gross domestic product (GDP) or real gross national product (GNP).”
One could not imagine a better way to destroy the national consensus on environmental and natural-resources protection than to embrace this view of the role of economic growth in human progress. Where in the old Soviet Union did a backward economic policy which substituted command-and-control state planning for private property, the rule of law, and free markets provide anything other than a fouled nest and threats to human health and nature? Where in the developing world does poverty offer anything but sickness, premature death, poaching of valued species, and overexploitation of natural resources?
Economic growth may not be a sufficient condition of environmental progress, but it is a necessary one. Culture and an open political process are important, too. Still, prosperity provides both the opportunity and the means of restoring and protecting the environment, both in terms of human health and the ecosystem. Richard Stroup, a professor of economics at Montana State University and a senior associate of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)has reviewed several studies which document the link between income and environmental quality. One study showed that in countries where rising incomes reached about $6,000 to $8,000 per year in 2001 dollars, air pollution began to decline. In other words, the kinds of water and air pollution that very poor people confront fell steadily with rising incomes.
Stroup also cites a study which suggests that the willingness of citizens to spend and sacrifice for a better environment rises far faster than income itself increases more than twice as fast in fact. “The fact that readers of Sierra magazine (most of whom are members of the Sierra Club) have incomes almost twice as high as that of average Americans is another indicator that there is a link between income and active concern about environmental matters,” notes Stroup.
T. S. Eliot once said that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. Life is a parade of challenges which must be met with perseverance and ingenuity. This is also true of mankind’s relation to the natural world and its quest for improvements in human health and welfare while, simultaneously, generating economic development. Americans have a record of environmental accomplishment which is the envy of the world. This should be cause, not for complacency, but for a wholesome pride in our abilities to reconcile economic growth and environmental protection.
G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency, 2001-2003. Presently, he is principal with the Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm.