This paper could have been called, “What Has Worked Well and What Ideas Are Worth Copying.” It
summarizes some of the unique elements of the U.S. clean air program, provides an evaluation of their
effectiveness, and suggests some ideas for improving the program.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the U.S. experience, it is that one must act to clean up the
atmosphere. Studying air pollution won’t do it. It takes action. Vice President Gore recognized this when
he wrote his book in 1991 while he was in the Senate. He said:
But research in lieu of action is unconscionable. Those who argue that we should do
nothing until we have completed a lot more research are trying to shift the burden of proof
even as the crisis deepens. This point is crucial: a choice to “do nothing” in response
to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the
reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand.
Now this sounds like an obvious statement, but politically it is often palatable to merely study a
problemCindeed, study it to deathCand never take any action. Three examples illustrate this point. The
Mexican government has deployed a number of air monitoring stations throughout the basin in which
Mexico City is located. The air pollution problems in the city are readily apparent, and although it is
interesting to know the magnitude of the problem, that knowledge does not really affect the clean-up
strategy. Cleaning the air in Mexico City will be based on controlling emissions from motor vehicles and
from industrial sources.
In Europe, Austrian researchers are spending a good deal of money developing a numerical model for
studying the rather complicated airshed of Graz. It is nice to know the source of the problems, but, clearly,
clean-up efforts will be the combined result of reducing industrial emissions and instituting strong programs
to minimize vehicle emissions.
In Taiwan, several million dollars are being spent on an elaborate monitoring network to study air pollution
around major industrial centers. Again, the information is interesting, but the money could be better spent
on clean-up programs, the development of regulations, and an effective enforcement program to assure
compliance with regulations.
In these three examples, it appears that studies have been substituted for strong regulatory action requiring
that industry and society change “the way things have always been done.” Air pollution control requires
some unpopular decisions to 1) develop regulations, 2) implement a comprehensive emission inventory
system, 3) institute a permit system, 4) regularly inspect polluting facilities and vehicles, and 5) take
enforcement action when violations are found. Often, making these unpopular decisions is easier for a
political body that represents a large electorate than one that represents a small, local constituency.