The environment in the U.S.: not so bad and getting better

I know it is in style to emphasize bad news about the environment, but that is silly. We have enjoyed a lot of successes and we should let that inspire us. I was doing some research for something on earth day and found a lot of good news. We usually hear all the bad stuff, so I wrote something about the good news. I expect some of you will want to fill in the bad.

The quality of U.S. air and water is better today than on the first Earth Day in 1970. Although the economy has grown almost 170 percent, population increased nearly 40 percent, and we use 42 percent more energy, pollution from the six big air pollutants dropped by almost half.

Forests are returning. This I know from my own observation driving across the U.S. (I have done it five times Pacific to Atlantic), but the statistics also back it up. The U.S. added 10 million acres of forestland in the last decade alone. Much of this happened with no government help, but President Bush has set an aggressive new national goal to have an overall increase of wetlands in America each year. The President's goal is to create, improve, and protect at least three million wetland acres over the next five years. There is an interesting article re forests in Atlantic Magazine from 1995 called "An Explosion of Green." (it is not available as a free link.)

Wildlife is coming back. Consider two American symbols. The bison population on the Great Plains is greater than at anytime in the last century and the bald eagle is soaring even in many urban areas. I saw two bald eagles outside my house in suburban N. Virginia.

Most obvious big pollution sources are gone. Continued progress means we have to be smarter. One example is the often out of sight and so far largely ignored problem of non-road engines (diesel engines used in industries such as construction, agriculture and mining). Walk past a construction site and you know that these few machines are making more pollution than hundreds of cars and trucks on the road.

This pollution source is being addressed in one of most dramatic advancements in clean air protection since passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. New stringent pollution controls will slash sulfur content in diesel fuel and cut emissions from nonroad diesel equipment by over 90 percent. Other changes mandate that "off road" power plants such as outboard motors and construction-machine engines be much cleaner and that refineries reduce the inherent pollution content of diesel fuel.

Working smarter means harnessing human ingenuity. Building on the successful cap and trade rules that since 1990 reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by about 40%, at half the cost of the old command-and-control approach, the proposed Clear Skies Initiative will use market mechanism to cut sulfur dioxide emissions another 73 percent, from 11 million tons to a cap of 4.5 million tons in 2010 and to 3 million tons in 2018, emissions of nitrogen oxides by 67 percent, from 5 million tons to a cap of 2.1 million tons in 2008 and to 1.7 million tons in 2018 and slash mercury emissions by 69 percent. The trading aspect and incentives for early reductions ensure that it will be done faster, cheaper, and more certainly.

While the U.S. environment has improved, this is not so everywhere and the bulk of "new pollution" will come from developing countries. In some ways, we are all dependent on decisions made in China and India and so far they have been exempted from a lot of the rules (read Kyoto).

One more thing - plant a tree and get others to do it too. This year, I am buying fifty little trees (ponderosa & loblolly pine) to give to my coworkers. You can get inexpensive trees from the Arbor Day Foundation.

Posted by Jack at April 4, 2005 12:10 PM