Reflecting on the 41st Anniversary of the Clean Air Act

At this time of year, when many of us will be traveling to visit families--either by plane, train or automobile, it is worth reflecting upon one of the United States’ seminal pieces of environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act, established in 1970, is celebrating its 41st anniversary this December 17.

In 1970, California’s population was only 20 million. During that same decade, in 1975, the Los Angeles basin recorded 118 Stage 1 smog alerts. By 1980 the state’s population had reached 24 million and 17 million automobiles racked up over 155 billion vehicle miles (!) By 2010 our population reached over 38 million, a doubling from 1970, but many air quality statistics demonstrate some remarkable improvements: the number of smog alerts in the South Coast has fallen by over 95% and some years have seen zero such incidents; emissions of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from cars are down 200,000 tons from the peak in 1990 despite vehicle miles growing to 280 billion miles annually.

See the ARB’s website for an excellent timeline of California air quality milestones. The same story by the way has been replicated in many parts of the country. An enormous amount of air quality data is available on the U.S. EPA website, including information about where you live and work.

While the stats are encouraging, how we got there is just as fascinating. The Clean Air Act was one of the earliest pieces of legislation to take a science based approach to environmental policy, with the essence being numerical limits for what the Act dubbed “priority pollutants”. In the decades that followed its enactment, both California and the nation have added numerous technical rules aimed at curbing pollution from stationary sources (e.g. factories) and mobile sources (i.e. cars and trucks). Most recently, California has taken advantage of its ability to issue California-only rules to issue heightened emission controls on automobiles. On December 7, the California Air Resources Board released its staff proposal for its nation-leading advanced clean cars standards that will lay the groundwork for bringing the cleanest most advanced vehicles to driveways across the state. As goes California, so goes the nation -- and often the rest of the world.

I’m fortunate in my role here at Applied as head of our Sustainability program to have the opportunity to serve as the California Clean Cars Campaign Co-Chair. The coalition of community, health and business organizations that make up the Campaign see these standards as not only a catalyst to bring the cleanest, most efficient cars to California – it’s a boost for our extraordinarily competitive global economy. As a business, Applied knows that California's leadership on clean technology policies drives innovation, attracts investment and hastens job growth. In the third quarter of this year, California attracted 52 percent of the $1.1 billion in U.S. venture capital invested in the clean tech sector, according to Ernst and Young. And a new report from Next 10 found that California captured 69 percent of all global investment in electric vehicle development in 2011. The suite of standards that make up the Advanced Clean Cars Program will enable California greenhouse gas standards to dovetail with recently updated national vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards.

No legislative scheme is perfect and the Clean Air Act is no exception – there are still too many Spare the Air days, poor air quality in the Valley due to atmospheric conditions is a burden on low-income communities and a source of health issues, and we are still seeing increasing vehicle miles traveled due to the State’s land use patterns. For the latter, the landmark SB 375 (The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008) will hopefully help address some of those issues.

As the year draws to a close, here at Applied we are always looking for creative ways to innovate how we live and work sustainably. Our carbon footprint is roughly 14% less than it was in 2006 and in the coming year we hope to implement additional conservation and efficiency projects and take up the question of what our next set of goals should look like. Our leadership in such programs as the Solar Decathlon and the recent launch of the Clean Tech Competition, a technology challenge for students ages 13-18 in the Bay Area and China are among the ways we seek both ideas and inspiration. See more information via our Corporate Responsibility programs page.

Here’s looking forward to an enjoyable, safe and sustainable holiday season and New Year!

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