What is the Clean Air Act in the United States?

What is the Clear Air Act in the United States, and does it actually improve the air quality in the United States – and country that leads in producing excessive greenhouse gas emissions?

6 min

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6 min

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September 23, 2022

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Given the United States is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, it’s fitting that the country has established the Clean Air Act as an attempt to reduce the effects of global warming. 

Does the U.S. Clean Air Act actually help to reduce carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions? Does the Clean Air Act help to improve the air quality? 

What is the Clean Air Act?

The Clean Air Act, otherwise known as the CAA for short – is a federal law that regulates the amount of air emissions produced from multivarious sources. The Clean Air act allows the Environmental Protection Agency, otherwise known as the EPA, to implement air quality standards for the country – better known as  National Ambient Air Quality Standards or NAAQS for short. These air quality standards are put in place to protect the health of Americans, public welfare, and to both monitor and mitigate the amount of emissions produced alongside harmful toxins that are subsequently released into the air. 

The ultimate goal of the Clean Air Act is to improve the quality of the air across the United States, through the reduction of emissions and setting standards in every state to improve awareness on the importance of National Ambient Air Quality Standards. 

What are some of the regulations included in the Clean Air Act?

The Clean Air Act has many regulations set in place to mitigate toxic air pollutants, and also allows the EPA to dictate how the amount of emissions or toxic substances that can come from various sources such as chemical plants, utilities, and mills. All states within the United States must have local legislation that is at least on par with the regulations set forth by the EPA, though – a state, such as California, is more than welcome to make those regulations stronger. 

How are the regulations for the Clean Air Act Established?

Well, first the Environmental Protection Agency, otherwise known as the EPA – provides the Clean Air Act with new information regarding emissions, greenhouse gasses, and ideas on how to reduce these emissions. The EPA will provide the Clean Air Act with the same information so that regulations can be made or adjusted accordingly. 

The Clean Air Act has made it compulsory for the EPA to implement National Ambient Air Quality Standards for the six most common pollutants: which are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, particle pollution, and sulfur oxides. All states within the U.S. are given the imperative to create and maintain a plan to implement these air quality standards. 

The EPA is responsible for accidents involving radiation – including reporting radiation levels to communities, responding to emergencies, assessing the risk of said radiation, and setting limits on emissions to prevent a radiation hazard from occurring. The Clean Air Act cannot help Americans with indoor air, though – they are happy to help assist anyone who needs expertise on how to better regulate the air in their homes to prevent mold or other toxic substances. 

In short, the Clean Air Act helps to set standards for air quality control across the country – to ensure that there is a minimum standard for regulating air quality throughout the United States. Many subcategories, such as toxic substances or protecting the ozone layer – are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, as the Clean Air Act has assigned responsibility to the EPA for these areas.

What are the pros and cons of the Clean Air Act?

The good thing about the Clean Air Act, is that it has been successful in improving the air quality across the United States – but it presents a few flaws that make its success difficult to maintain. 

In the United States, each individual state is allowed to create and pass their own legislation regarding climate change and emission reduction. While it’s true that they must all meet the emission requirements demanded by the Environmental Protection Agency – it still makes it difficult for the Clean Air Act to create a nationwide standard. States have the jurisdiction to make their own climate change laws, meaning some states can be more aggressive than others – like California. 

Nationwide emission rates are constantly changing, especially during this post-pandemic period where socialization, travel, and transportation have resumed. Therefore, the Clean Air Act has to be monitored and adjusted accordingly to ensure its future success. The Clean Air Act has already been adjusted twice – in 1977 and in 1990. 

As emissions continue to rise, it is likely that the Clean Air Act will have to be adjusted again. The continuous need to alter the Clean Air Act to ensure its effectiveness presents a problem in terms of success in maintaining the air quality as it is now. For instance, as large bodies of water like the Great Salt Lake continue to dry up due to global warming – more harmful toxins will be released into the air. Bodies of water like the Great Salt Lake drying up increase the risk for those with asthma or other respiratory diseases. Therefore, the Clean Air Act will have to continue to adjust accordingly in order to prevent harmful substances from resulting in health, financial, and climate problems amongst Americans. 

Has the Clean Air Act actually improved the air quality in the United States?

Given the U.S. continues to lead as the second largest contributor in global greenhouse emissions – it’s fair to wonder if the Clean Air Act has been successful at all, even if the Clean Air Act has been intact since 1970. However, the Clean Air Act has indeed proven itself to be efficacious in reducing the amount of harmful substances in the atmosphere across the country. 

The Clean Air Act has ultimately helped to improve the clarity of air, mitigate the risk of acid rain, and protect the ozone layer from ozone depleting substances. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that nearly 230,000 deaths were prevented due to the modifications made in the Clean Air Act. 

Since 1990, the last time the Clean Air Act was adjusted, many of the six common pollutants have dramatically decreased – such as carbon monoxide by 74%, and lead by 82%. The decrease in these harmful pollutants in the ozone layer have helped stimulate various environmental benefits, such as improved soil, bodies of freshwater, and livelier vegetation. 

In short, the Clean Air Act has been successful – but it hasn’t evaded all the toxic pollutants that continue to harm the environment, nor has the Clean Air Act prevented some of the largest sources of pollution from continuing to emit these toxic substances into the atmosphere. 

What are the largest sources of pollution in the U.S.?

The United States is the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. These excessive emissions, alongside ozone depleting substances that much of our machinery emits, deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming. 

The U.S. is known to be a powerhouse country: where bigger is better, and better shouldn’t stop until it proves itself even better than before. The values of the country speak for the root cause of the excessive emissions themselves: Americans pride themselves on having the newest iPhone or luxury car – and this culture is illustrated from a young age. 

Growing up in the Washington D.C. area, my fellow peers and adults alike would see my outdated iPhone and retort, “I think it’s time for a new phone…” – this just goes to show how much materialism is valued in the United States, and materialism can’t exist without intensive industrialization. This is why the U.S. is, and continues to be a leader in excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently, some of the largest contributors to excessive greenhouse gas emissions are transportation via gasoline powered cars, industrial production, electricity use, and energy created by both commercial and residential properties. The Clean Air Act delineates any major source of emissions to be a sector that emits ten tons of hazardous substances into the atmosphere annually. 

Trends show that these large sources of emissions aren’t expected to slow down anytime soon, at least – not to the extent necessary to reduce emissions as a whole. Emissions have reduced recently, but that was only due to the halt of high carbon emitting activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, people have been traveling, eating out at restaurants, and doing all sorts of things that have brought emissions back-up to pre-pandemic levels. 

However, the U.S. has recognized this unsustainable trend and is beginning to implement the necessary government action to combat it. The Biden administration recently passed a revolutionary bill that will allocate $369 billion dollars towards the use of clean energy, whereas California has recently implemented several new climate change policies – including one that will ban the purchasing of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. 

There are many new policies being implemented to reduce emissions in the U.S., but how could the Clean Air Act improve upon itself? 

What could be done to improve the Clean Air Act? 

The Clean Air Act has helped the U.S. reduce the amount of harmful pollutants in the air, but given emissions continue to rise – recent studies have subsequently revealed that there is a rise in the amount of toxic pollutants in the atmosphere again. 

Lately, government action towards climate change has been becoming more prevalent in the United States – with the new climate bill and several new laws in California being passed. Given the country is getting serious about reducing emissions, isn’t it time that the Clean Air Act be amended to represent this newfound motivation towards fighting against climate change?

It’s understandable that it may be hard to fix something that has proven successful across a multitude of sectors. The Clean Air Act hasn’t only helped to improve the quality of the air or prevent premature deaths across the country, but it has financially benefited the U.S., too – in a whopping two trillion dollars worth of economic welfare. However, there is still room for improvement, as the U.S. economy still loses about five percent of their gross domestic product due to less than optimal air quality that impacts agriculture, utilities, and transportation. If the air quality in the U.S. were to improve, so would the lucrative benefits of these various sectors – ultimately increasing the total revenue for the country. 

It’s imperative the United States recognizes that they are still responsible for a whopping thirteen percent of the world’s global emissions, and that improving the air quality across the country should be a continuous effort – especially if the U.S. wants to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

What about Greenly? 

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Stephanie Safdie

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