There is a widespread belief that stopping smog will also reduce carbon emissions, or vice versa, that reducing carbon emissions will reduce air pollution. But according to Christopher Sellers, professor of history at Stony Brook University in the US, this is a mistake. Experience in the US shows that taming air pollution actually made it possible to burn more carbon.
In the wake of the momentous accord sealed in Paris to curb future carbon emissions, Dehli’s air continues to scale new heights of befoulment, and Beijing, choking from the roiling murk in its own sky, has extended its second, unprecedented red alert to cover some two thousand factories. Much as the Paris deal deserves celebrating, its fruits could well wind up doing little about these cities’ aerial plights, which have helped make air pollution the single biggest cause of death and disease in our world today.
Even as average ozone levels are now 40% lower than in the 1970’s, Los Angeles has twice as many cars
A hope has prevailed across most media commentators and environmental groups that curbs on carbon emissions will also fix the dirty air in these nations’ metropolises. But that’s naïve. It doesn’t take into account how the past of pollution control inside the United States and other long-industrialized nations has conditioned us to tackling one enormous environmental problem while ignoring the other.
After a stinging haze began swirling across the Los Angeles basin in the mid-1940’s, a political furor arose, and scientists and regulators set about trying to understand and contain the problem. At first they looked for solid particles and the sulfur oxides often associated with these, and like what now troubles Beijing and Dehli skies. Like these, Los Angeles’ smog pooled only across the basin, especially when trapped by overlying layer of cooler air. It stung eyes, obscured buildings, and stirred far-reaching concerns about Angelenos’ health. It drove so many residents to local clinics or emergency rooms that in the 1950’s local doctors recognized a pervasive “smog disease” and became convinced it was triggering lung cancers.
The earliest emergency measures did significantly curb the overall amount of carbon being ignited across the basin. Sternest of these, accompanying a new smog alert system starting in 1955, a highest “health hazard” level set for sulfur dioxide and other recognized pollutants would trigger a far-reaching shutdown of industry, traffic, and businesses. Like that recently declared in Beijing, however, it was imposed only rarely, and for a very short time.
The pollution control ushered in by the Clean Air Act actually enabled the United States to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon over the late twentieth-century and the single greatest contributor to global climate change
Most of the other ways in which Los Angeles and other American cities tamed this sort of air pollution, by contrast, actually enabled more carbon to be burnt. New science, laws, monitoring, and enforcement aimed only at alleviating local or regional accumulations of contaminants. They concentrated far less on conflagrations of carbon than on human exposures, especially threats to people’s health.
California then the entire U.S adopted a similar strategy: enclosing those fires that blazed in factories or power plants or cars, or else filtering out the least healthy effluents. Catalytic converters, for instance, “solved” only one part of the environmental problems posed by cars, what went out the tailpipe. They didn’t address either how much or what kind of fuel was being burned.
Successful as this earlier wave of environmental regulation has been with what thereby became known as conventional pollutants, it has remained all too effectively disengaged from the burgeoning torrent of fossil fuels Americans have continued to kindle. Even as average ozone levels are now 40% lower than in the 1970’s, Los Angeles has twice as many cars. A few measures, like the advent of mass transit and of hybrid vehicles, have kept Americans’ carbon emissions from rising as much as they might have.
But overall, the pollution control ushered in by the Clean Air Act actually enabled the United States to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon over the late twentieth-century and the single greatest contributor to global climate change.
We Americans also have a hard time remembering that half a century ago in our country, “conventional” pollution provided a tremendous spur for mobilizing citizens. Its localized, palpable and downright pathological presence in and around American cities furnished the single most powerful rationale for a mass environmental movement.
Among the fruits of its crowning legacy, the Clean Air Act, are the Obama administration’s new rules targeting carbon emissions. Yet their imperceptible, non-toxic character long made it very hard to rouse a comparable movement on the climate’s behalf in a nation such as the United States, at least until the effects of climate change started hitting home.
Now, those of us cheering the new climate pact in nations whose cities seem less afflicted need to understand that the push to curb the carbon emissions in countries such as China or India cannot, and should not, be the same as our own. Politically speaking, only by tying the deadly skies over their cities to the imperative of reducing carbon emissions can leaders, activists, and policy-makers outside the West stand a chance of actually accomplishing or going beyond what they’ve promised in Paris.
This pollution is killing and sickening millions right now, not just in a future of rising sea-levels and worsening droughts or storms
To support them, the “capacity building” promised for developing nations in the new pact should prioritize shifts in these countries’ fuel mixes that actually do target the dirty air afflicting cities like Beijing and Dehli. And this assistance should not be limited to the problem as we in the global North tend to define it: reducing the burning of carbon itself.
Instead, throughout the global South, this aid should strengthen counterparts to all the monitoring, expertise, and enforcement that many of us in North America and Europe now take for granted, to alleviate their citizens’ exposures to the most dangerous by-products of fossil-fueled fires. This pollution is killing and sickening millions right now, not just in a future of rising sea-levels and worsening droughts or storms. And with such cities set to receive the greatest share of global population growth in coming decades, this problem too threatens to get worse before it gets better.
Christopher Sellers (@ChrisCSellers) is professor of history at Stony Brook University and author of Crabgrass Cubicle: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America, winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in 2013.
This article was first published on The Energy Collective and is republished here with permission.