Why Attack the Clean Air Act When It Prevents Our Air from Looking like Beijing's


On a recent visit to China, air pollution was so dense I hardly ever saw the sun.  In Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai, the smog obscured buildings that were just a mile away.

The trip gave me a renewed appreciation for the Clean Air Act—the law that for four decades has steadily removed pollution from America’s air. It is shocking that the Clean Air Act is under attack in Washington when the benefits of it are so obvious: without this law, our air would be just as dirty as China’s.

In many ways, Beijing is becoming a city of the future, with its sleek skyscrapers, gleaming new airport, and high speed rail lines. But the air pollution throws Beijing back into the past. It’s like New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo in the Fifties and Sixties, when a “London fog” would make the noontime look like night and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide pollution led to soaring numbers of people suffering from asthma and bronchitis.

Here's the view from NRDC's Beijing office recently:

China is starting to confront its air pollution problem. It has taken the occasions of the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai World Expo, and the Guangzhou Asian Games to carry out a series of dramatic efforts in building more public transit, limiting traffic, shifting to cleaner fuels and moving polluting factories away from the city center.

In China’s current 11th Five-Year Plan, it has made the reduction of sulfur dioxide pollution one of the country’s top priorities and the work appears to have made a difference.  Earlier this year, China’s State Council passed guidelines on the handling of regional pollution in China. 

But no one would deny that the air pollution situation is still dire, especially in cities around the country without Beijing’s resources.

NRDC is working with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to examine U.S. best practices in air pollution control—strong enforcement mechanisms and permitting systems, greater transparency, and tighter standards to protect public health to name a few—to see what could be adapted to China.

Yet even as China is trying to solve its pollution problem, powerful American business interest and misguided politicians in Washington are trying to turn back the clock in the United States. They want to undermine the law and block it from doing its job of reducing global warming pollution. It’s shocking, considering the Clean Air Act is what stands between clean, healthy air and what China is facing today. 

America marked the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act this year, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (who is traveling to China on Sunday) noted that this law has been one of “the most cost-effective things the American people have done for themselves in the last half century.”  Indeed, EPA analysis has shown that the total benefits of the Clean Air Act exceed the cost of compliance by 40 to 1.

In the process, the Clean Air Act has achieved extraordinary benefits, including:

  • Prevented, in just the first 20 years of the act, 205,000 premature deaths, 672,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and10.4 million lost I.Q. points in children - mostly from reducing lead in gasoline, and 18 million child respiratory illnesses
  • Removed 1.7 million tons of toxic emissions from our air every year since 1990
  • Reduced emissions of six common pollutants by 41 percent.
  • Made the cars we drive in America 95 percent cleaner than past models

We achieved all this while at the same time America’s GDP rose by 207 percent.

China is very keen on learning from our valuable experiences. It seems, however, that powerful special interests in Washington have ignored these lessons and would like to return us to unregulated, polluted skies.

I have seen those skies, and we must do everything to make sure they are a thing of the past—here and in China.