Remember the idea that both parties could put aside their differences in the face of existential threats like the climate crisis and work out the best solutions possible?
It seems antiquated now, but the single most important piece of environmental and climate legislation in US history came under a Republican president.
Chances are, you’ve heard of the Clean Air Act, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
But even if you’ve never heard of the Clean Air Act, you’ve doubtless felt the benefits. After all, by capping the amount of toxic pollution into the air we all breathe, the Clean Air Act has improved air quality and saved millions from premature deaths. (Experts project the Act is preventing over 150,000 premature deaths each year.) In fact, the combined emissions of regulated pollutants have dropped by at least 73 percent since 1970, which has saved us tens of trillions of dollars in health care costs, hundreds of millions of lost work days, and prevented millions of visits to the emergency room for asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments.
That was just for starters. Because the Act’s second, well, act might turn out to be just as important and help the US finally turn the corner on the fossil fuel emissions driving climate change.
That’s because in the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA, the US Supreme Court held that greenhouse gas pollution was included in the Clean Air Act’s “sweeping” and “capacious” language regulating air-borne pollutants. In effect, the decision means the law requires the federal government to address the climate crisis.
It didn’t take long for the consequences to become clear. In the years since the decision, forward-looking policymakers used the Act to increase vehicle fuel economy standards to reduce transportation emissions and to regulate climate emissions from power plants. Policymakers even used the law in a way to give states the flexibility to choose how they would lower emissions.
Naturally, these moves were bad news for the fossil fuel industry, so not long after taking office, President Trump got to work rolling back these efforts. But the next president will want these tools at their disposal.
Where the Clean Air Act Matters: Transportation
The largest source of US emissions is now transportation, and the Clean Air Act is probably our best tool to address them.
We already have a roadmap for how. Using Clean Air Act authority President Obama raised fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016 and had finalized regulations to get the US car fleet to over 54.5 mpg by 2025. The regulations were projected to save Americans $1.7 trillion at the pump and reduce US oil consumption by 12 billion barrels, meaning a whole lot less global warming pollution in the atmosphere and cleaner air for everyone.
In an everyday-is-Christmas gift to the fossil fuel industry, President Trump is now attempting to undo this move. But our next president should use this authority to get us back on track, go beyond President Obama’s standards and dramatically reduce the transportation emissions fueling our climate crisis.
One important note here is that another one of the most important tools we have to address the climate crisis – a price on carbon – is essentially ineffective in addressing transportation emissions. A study by Columbia University and the Rhodium Group found that a $50 per ton price on carbon would add about 44 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline in 2020. Researchers project this would hurt people’s pocketbooks, but it would be unlikely to change behavior much, reducing transportation-related emissions all of . . . wait for it . . . 1 to 3 percent.
In other words, a carbon price would do almost nothing to reduce vehicle emissions. Yes, all reductions are good, but 1 to 3 percent is not much of a drop considering we need to reduce emissions by 100 percent as quickly as possible. On the flip side, the right policy moves with the Clean Air Act could reduce transportation emissions quickly and dramatically. In theory, they could get us all the way to zero emissions from road vehicles.
Where the Clean Air Act Matters: Power Plants
The Clean Air Act can also dramatically reduce emissions in the power sector. Using Clean Air Act authority, President Obama issued the Clean Power Plan, which required states to reduce climate emissions and set emissions standards for new and existing plants. By 2030, carbon pollution from the power sector would have been 32 percent below 2005 levels. That’s huge.
No surprise, pro-fossil fuel officials in some states sued to block this move and the Trump Administration has done everything it could to help since taking office. But as with transportation, the Clean Air Act remains a very powerful tool the next Administration could use to dramatically lower climate pollution from the electricity sector. And again, as with transportation, in theory, the Act could even drive us all the way to zero emissions in the electric power sector.
Where the Clean Air Act Matters: New Strategies
The transportation and electric power sectors represent 57 percent of US emissions, and as we’ve seen, the CAA can be used to dramatically reduce those emissions and do so quickly.
But what about the other 43 percent, such as industrial or agricultural sources? Well, the Clean Air Act can be used to address these too. Some are advocating for greenhouse gases to be listed as “criteria” pollutants. This would allow EPA to have a national cap on these pollutants and require different regions of the country to do their part to get us to zero emissions.
Others think the Clean Air Act could even be used to create a price on carbon. The Clean Air Act gives authority for the US to enter into agreements with other nations to collectively reduce pollution. The US could use this authority to form a joint cap and trade program with Canada and/or China to not only drive down our emissions, but also ensure that our largest trading partners are doing the same.
This is not to say that the Clean Air Act should necessarily be used in these ways or that these actions are a substitute to bold legislative action. In reality, we need bold legislative action on climate, like that outlined in the Green New Deal resolution. But in these politically polarized times, we certainly can’t count on it. Most prognosticators think that climate deniers and delayers will retain their grip on the Senate next year and even if they don’t, it seems highly unlikely that 60 Senators will vote to act as boldly and as quickly as we need to. In other words, it sure seems to adequately address the climate crisis in the short to medium term we could very well need the next president to use existing authorities and perhaps the most powerful existing authority we have is the Clean Air Act.
Now some conservatives really dislike the Clean Air Act. They believe it gives the government too much power over the economy. But what climate solutions do conservatives like? Most conservatives are opposed to any climate solution that might actually be put in place. If you think back to the 2000s, conservatives invented cap-and-trade as a mechanism to provide a market-based way to lower sulfur dioxide pollution (acid rain) from coal-burning power plants. At the time, conservatives denigrated another market-based approach, carbon taxes, as un-American.
Progressives took them at their word and got to work on a cap-and-trade bill including carbon dioxide emissions. But then, in 2009, when there was a danger of cap-and-trade actually becoming law, conservatives suddenly changed their tune. Now they hated cap-and-trade. It was too complicated, they said, and designed for bankers to enrich themselves. Instead, some conservatives said we should pursue a carbon tax.
Call me jaded, but it seems to me that many conservatives are not yet serious about tackling the climate crisis. Until we see a significant number of conservatives currently in office willing to push a good-faith approach, we should take their “suggestions” on how to address the climate crisis with more than one grain of salt.
The bottom line is this: the Clean Air Act has served us very well for 50 years. Its authors have proved to be wise in drafting it in a way where it could meaningfully address new and emerging pollution challenges, including the climate crisis. In this anniversary year, it’s important that we celebrate these 50 years of accomplishment and appreciate the tremendous power of the Clean Air Act, both what it has done and what it can do in the future to address the climate crisis.
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