Fifty years ago, in 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, and the U.S. Clean Air Act was passed. Much has transpired with air pollution policy in the United States since that time. Given the current state of Federal clean air policy in this country, it may be helpful to reflect on these fifty years of policy evolution, which is what Richard Schmalensee (of the MIT Sloan School of Management) and I do in a new article that appears in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Volume 33, Issue 4, Fall 2019), “Policy Evolution under the Clean Air Act.” I hope this brief essay will stimulate you to download and read the full article.
Setting the Stage
In the article, Professor Schmalensee and I review and assess the evolution of air pollution control policy under the Clean Air Act with particular attention to the types of policy instruments used. After outlining key provisions of the 1970 act and its main changes over time, we trace and assess the historical evolution of the policy instruments used by EPA in its clean air regulations. This evolution was sometimes driven by the emergence of new air quality problems, sometimes by innovation and experimentation within EPA, and sometimes by changes in the Clean Air Act itself.
It is striking that until about 2000, EPA made increasing use of market-based instruments, enabled by major amendments to the Act in 1977 and 1990, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. In recent years, however, environmental policy has become a partisan battleground in the United States, and until now, it has not been possible to provide an effective response to climate change or to address other new and evolving air quality problems.
Policy Instruments Used under the Clean Air Act
Three major types of policy instruments have been employed under the authority of the Clean Air Act: technology standards, which specify the equipment or process to be used for compliance; performance standards, which specify the maximum quantity of emissions or maximum atmospheric concentrations that are allowed; and emissions trading systems, either in the form of emissions-reduction credit (offset) systems or cap-and-trade. In addition, taxes have sometimes been employed, although their use under the Clean Air Act has been peripheral.
The Evolution of Air Quality Policy Instruments
Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, all federal air pollution regulation involved either technology standards or performance standards. At that time, some environmental advocates argued that facilitating greater flexibility through tradable emission rights would inappropriately legitimize environmental degradation, while others questioned the very feasibility of such an approach. But over time, as the Clean Air Act was amended and as its interpretation by EPA evolved, air pollution regulation evolved from sole reliance on conventional, command-and-control regulations to greater use of emissions trading.
In the article, we examine EPA’s early experiments with emissions trading in the 1970s, and then turn to the leaded gasoline phasedown in the 1980s, implemented via a tradable performance standard by the Reagan administration. We also take a look at the U.S. approach to complying with the Montreal Protocol for stratospheric ozone protection, which involved both an excise tax and a trading system.
Next up in our review and assessment is the path-breaking sulfur dioxide allowance trading program, under the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. We also examine several regional programs that were executed under the authority of the Clean Air Act, including the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) in southern California, NOx trading in the eastern United States, and the NOx budget trading program.
We conclude that the supporters of the 1970 Clean Air Act, who no doubt hoped that it would produce major environmental benefits, would be pleased that despite the fact that real U.S. GDP more than tripled between 1970 and 2017, aggregate emissions of the six criteria pollutants declined by 73 percent.
On the other hand, the original supporters of the 1970 Clean Air Act might be quite surprised by some aspects of the evolution of clean air regulation under the Act. For example, it is difficult to imagine that any of the supporters of the 24-page 1970 Act would have predicted how complex air pollution regulation would become over the subsequent half century. And we suspect that the evolution toward more intensive use of market-based environmental policy would also have been a surprise to those involved in passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
However, those involved in the bipartisan passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act would likely be disappointed that environmental policy has become a partisan battleground. It has become impossible to amend the Clean Air Act or to pass other legislation to address climate change in a serious and economically sensible manner.
The Path Ahead
In the final part of the article, we note that an implication of these five decades of experience may be that policies to address climate change and other new environmental problems should be designed in ways that make them more acceptable in the real world of politics. This could mean, for example, giving greater attention to suboptimal, second-best designs of carbon-pricing regimes, such as by earmarking revenues from taxes or allowance auctions to finance additional climate mitigation, rather than optimizing the system via cuts in distortionary taxes, or using such revenues for fairness purposes, such as with lump-sum rebates or rebates targeted to low income and other particularly burdened constituencies.
Economists might also be more effective by sometimes working to catch up with the political world by examining better design of second-best non-pricing climate policy instruments, such as clean energy standards, subsidies for green technologies, and other approaches. At some point the politics may change, of course, which is why ongoing economic research on climate policy instruments of all kinds is important.