NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Dramatic Increase in U.S. Air Quality

February 15, 2002

U.S. air quality has improved dramatically over the past three decades due to legislative and regulatory requirements, technological advances and voluntary pollution reduction efforts. The progress is all the more remarkable in light of the significant job and economic growth that the nation has experienced since 1970.

Unfortunately, most Americans not only believe air quality has worsened, but that it will worsen in the future. For instance, a 1999 poll commissioned by the Foundation for Clean Air Progress (FCAP) showed that 61 percent of respondents believed air quality had worsened, and only one in five (22 percent) believed it is improving.

According to an analysis by Energy and Environmental Analysis, Inc. (EEA) of data supplied by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Energy Information Agency (EIA), since 1970 overall energy consumption in the United States grew by 41 percent, population grew 38 percent (to 281 million) and employment grew 70 percent to 134 million, annual vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) grew 148 percent to 2.7 trillion miles, and Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew 158 percent, to $9.224 trillion.

Yet there was a the dramatic reduction in five of the Clean Air Act's six identified criteria pollutants since 1970:

  • Airborne lead emissions dropped 98 percent.
  • Particulate matter (PM-10) emissions dropped 75 percent.
  • Volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, which cause smog, dropped 42 percent.
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions dropped 39 percent.
  • And carbon monoxide (CO) emissions dropped 28 percent.

Only nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions have risen since 1970, although the increase has been far less than economic, employment or VMT growth.

Source: Energy and Environmental Analysis, Inc., "Breathing Easier About Energy: A Healthy Economy and Healthier Air," Foundation for Clean Air Progress, January 2002.

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