Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Turbulent Air

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Turbulent Air

Article excerpt

The Earth's atmosphere is unlike any other natural resource. No one owns it, and no one controls it. As a result, anyone can pollute it. And therein lies the rub.

As Lynda Warren of the University of Wales explains, the atmosphere is a global commons. Although some nations regulate air pollutants, others do not. Binding international agreements offer the most promise, Warren believes, but they must have a strong compliance component. Voluntary programs will not work, she says.

The Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol are similar models for such an agreement; one worked, the other didn't. Warren says that Montreal succeeded because it created market opportunities, while Kyoto did not. The real challenge, however, as Warren notes, is balancing "the economic and political interests over the timescales involved in agreements designed to operate for the mid-to-long term.

Among the world's worst pollutants, according to David Wheeler and his colleagues at the World Bank, are small dust particles, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels. The largest sources of these particles are motor vehicles and coal-fired power plants. The authors conclude that such air pollution has been responsible for 10 million deaths during the past decade in the developing world.

While many of these nations have recently employed a variety of policy tools such as pollution charges, emissions trading, fuel taxes, and the conversion to high-occupancy-vehicle fleets, other nations have barely even begun to deal with air pollution. "Without sustained political commitment from domestic policymakers and strong financial support from the international aid community," the authors conclude, "the air in the developing world will remain deadly."

The air in the United States, thankfully, is not nearly that bad, thanks to three decades of regulatory evolution in air-quality control. Environmental Defense's Vickie Patton looks at the Clean Air Act, the bulwark of America's clean air initiatives, and sees a durable structure that has proved highly effective in improving air quality during that period. …

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