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The Conservative Case for Clean Air Regulations

Karl W. Smith

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Skepticism of government regulation is one of the main tenets of economic conservatism, and for the most part is it justified. In one area, however, conservatives need to rethink their position: New research shows that air pollution is much deadlier than previously realized, so they should support greater government efforts to reduce it.

Conservatives have long been dubious about the benefits of stricter regulations on air pollution. Whereas they used to find fault with the methodology detailing the harms of pollution, lately they have focused on the negative impact of regulation on jobs:

That may be true. But the latest research, using huge data sets and extensive computational analysis, is adding new levels of subtlety to the argument for regulation. Even a modest shift in wind patterns, for example, can send enough pollution into major metropolitan areas to have a measurable impact on mortality.

Some of the research findings are mind-bending. One 2011 study found that the introduction of EZ-Pass in New Jersey and Pennsylvania reduced the incidence of premature birth by as much as 9.1% for mothers who lived within 2 kilometers of toll plazas.

It’s worth taking a minute to fully absorb this result. There was no improvement in the emissions of the cars involved, nor is there any evidence that fewer cars passed through the toll plazas (in fact, the prospect of EZ-Pass lanes may have lured more drivers). The only difference is that the cars spent slightly less time idling — and that was enough to greatly improve the health of pregnant mothers living nearby. And the study does not address the health of the newborns later in life.

Yet the economic benefits from this one measure of improved health on one small segment of the population, according to the study, are estimated at up to $13 million over three years. Extrapolated nationwide, the authors say, the savings could reach $444 million per year.

Another study, from 2019, looked at Volkswagen cars that were supposedly “clean” but really weren’t. The authors estimate that roughly 39,000 additional infants had an abnormally low birthweight as a result of the more than 600,000 fake clean diesel cars sold between 2008 and 2015.

Worldwide, air pollution is now estimated to reduce life expectancy more than any other single factor — including malaria, AIDS, smoking, and even war. The U.S. may have some of the strictest air standards in the world, but they may not be strict enough.

In the late 1990s the Environmental Protection Agency strengthened its standards for air quality. As a result, 11 additional localities, home to more than 10 million Americans, were required to adopt plans to improve their air. Obviously, some plans are better than others, and not all plans are successful. Nonetheless, economists at Arizona State estimated that these new plans reduced dementia cases in the U.S. by 140,000.

These new estimates are made possible by the use of big data. The Arizona study used Medicare records to control for differences in behavior, underlying health conditions and health care usage in metropolitan areas that were required to adopt plans and those that just barely avoided having to do so.

Given this new information, economic conservatives should be prepared to adjust their positions on regulation. Yes, it’s true that the U.S. already has some of the best air quality in the world. But the damaging effects of particulate matter and other pollutants persist.

Acceptance of this conclusion doesn’t require abandoning market principles or surrendering to one-size-fits-all regulation. In the 1990s, the U.S. introduced a cap-and-trade program to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, while the EU choose a command-and-control approach. The environmental results of the two approaches were roughly the same, yet the annual costs of the U.S. approach were between $1 and $2 billion a year, while the European approach cost roughly $75 billion a year.

That suggests a market-based approach could help the U.S. improve health outcomes with minimal damage to the economy. The EZ-Pass study is instructive. Congestion pricing, for example, could reduce automobile emissions, improve traffic and provide funding for additional infrastructure.

Instead of attacking all this new research, conservatives should focus on the best way to reduce the pollution it has uncovered. Merely reducing regulations is not effective, politically or policy-wise — especially when there are smarter market-based solutions that improve health without violating conservative principles or impairing economic growth.

To contact the author of this story: Karl W. Smith at ksmith602@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Karl W. Smith is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina's school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior.

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