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Happy 40th, Clean Air Act

Tuesday marked the 40th Anniversary of the signing of the Clean Air Act (CAA).  The CAA is a landmark piece of legislation that has not only led to significant environmental and public health benefits for citizens over the past 40 years, but it could also be the key to curbing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the near future.

A conference held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bipartisan Policy Center offered an opportunity to look back at the history of the CAA, review the successes and challenges over the past 40 years, and explore the future of the CAA as a tool to further increase  air quality and combat climate change.

Among the most significant take aways from the conference were:

1) The Clean Air Act works

The first 20 years of the Clean Air Act prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths, and avoided almost 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis.

2) The Clean Air Act has driven technological advancements aimed at improving our air quality and public health

Catalysts, scrubbers, low-VOC paints and coatings, are part of a long list of technologies that bloomed to address air quality after the passage of the CAA.

3) There is no tension between economic health and environmental health

Over the last 20 years, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants have decreased by more than 41 percent, while the Gross Domestic Product has increased by more than 64 percent.

The total benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to more than 40 times the costs of regulation. For every one dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return.” Lisa Jackson

4) Doomsday scenarios trumped up by Big Energy – in an attempt to fight new regulations mandated by the CAA – never come to pass.

“In the 1970s, lobbyists told us that using the Clean Air Act to phase in catalytic converters for new cars and trucks would cause “entire industries” to “collapse.” Instead, the requirement gave birth to a global market for catalytic converters and enthroned American manufacturers at the pinnacle of that market.

In the 1980s, lobbyists told us that the proposed Clean Air Act Amendments would cause, quote, “a quiet death for businesses across the country.” Instead, the US economy grew by 64 percent even as the implementation of Clean Air Act Amendments cut Acid Rain pollution in half. The requirements gave birth to a global market in smokestack scrubbers and, again, gave American manufacturers dominance in that market.

Yet again in the 1990s, lobbyists told us that using the Clean Air Act to phase out CFCs – the chemicals depleting the Ozone Layer – would create “severe economic and social disruption.” They raised the fear of “shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets … office buildings, our hotels, and hospitals.” In reality, new technology cut costs while improving productivity and quality. The phase-out happened five years faster than predicted and cost 30 percent less. And, by making their products better and cleaner, the American refrigeration industry created new overseas markets for themselves.

In fact, thanks in no small part to the Clean Air Act, America is home to a world-leading environmental technology industry. By conservative estimates, in 2007 environmental firms and small businesses in the U.S. generated $282 billion in revenues and $40 billion in exports, while supporting 1.6 million American jobs.”  – Lisa Jackson

5) We need to protect the integrity of the Clean Air Act and the authority of the EPA to control pollutants from those in Congress who are attempting to pass legislation that would weaken and delay this vital tool to curb climate change.

Allison Fisher is the Energy Organizer for Public Citizen