ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS and its coverage in the media focus on the negative, the controversial, and the adversarial. That is the way it is. I gave up trying to change that reality a long time ago.
There are, of course, many policy issues that are subject to intense disagreement due to disputes over the underlying science, policy, law, and the economic tradeoffs inevitably involved in these matters. Certainly, climate change is the biggest controversy implicating every conceivable aspect of the environment and the economy. In this policy debate, every day is the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Being of sunny disposition and gregarious temperament, I always take advantage of the annual Earth Day rites to focus on the progress Americans are making on the conservation and environmental protection fronts.
The most under-reported, positive story, since the last Earth Day, was the release of the report of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which concluded that the United States improved its environmental performance, i.e., reduced pollution, in the last 8 years even as its Gross Domestic Product increased 30% and its population expanded by 10%.
The report, based on more than 700 interviews and a peer review by representatives of Australia, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom, commended the U.S. for “decoupling” environmental pressures from economic growth. One might quibble that prosperity enables environmental cleanup, but it is surely correct that American industry is becoming more efficient and, therefore, less polluting every day.
The OECD also notes progress in several areas. Air emissions declined. Drinking water standards were strengthened. National conservation lands were expanded. And market-based solutions have been pioneered.
THE NEWS OF THE OECD report, at the beginning of January, was overshadowed by a more downbeat report later in the month. Yale and Columbia Universities released their Pilot 2006 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) which ranked the U.S. 28th behind such nations as New Zealand (#1), Portugal (#11), and Slovakia (#25). This report seemed to penalize the U.S. on greenhouse gas emissions, overuse of water, and unsustainable agricultural practices (e.g., subsidies).
But hold off on the Valium. First place New Zealand had a score of 88 while the U.S. came in at 78.5, for a total point differential of less than 10. There were 133 countries on the complete list with Niger coming in dead last at 25.7.
These kinds of exercises yield some pretty bizarre results. Slovakia (#25) beat out the Netherlands (#27). And Malaysia (#9) trumped Ireland (#10). Of course, the usual suspects did very well in the EPI. Sweden came in second, Finland third, Denmark seventh, and Iceland thirteenth.
But even in the realm of greenhouse gas emissions, a matter for which the U.S. receives untold amounts of criticism from so many quarters, at home and abroad, the record is not without some remarkable achievements. On April 17 EPA released its latest report on greenhouse gas emissions prepared for the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. The report shows that, while the U.S. economy expanded by 51% from 1990 to 2004, emissions have grown by only 15.8% over the same period.
Some countries, like Russia, reduce their emissions, in absolute terms, but only by running their economies into the ditch. Others tolerate flat growth, high unemployment, and declining populations. Some just let emissions rip in the face of hard-charging economic growth. But the U.S. seems to be decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions — with only a small portion of its economy relying on nuclear energy. There is no telling how far this kind of progress can take us, but it is an impressive accomplishment nonetheless.
Indeed, the U.S. has made outstanding progress in reducing air pollution, generally, without inhibiting economic growth. Over the last 30 years, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants have decreased by more than 50% while Gross Domestic Product increased by more than 185%. Air toxics are expected to decrease by approximately 1.7 million tons from 1990 levels when all current regulations are fully implemented. Richer is greener, as the free-market environmentalists always remind us.
Ninety percent of the 272 million people served by 53,000 community water systems across the country received drinking water that met health-based standards as of the end of fiscal year 2004. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a goal of 95% by 2008.
Not only can you drink the water, you can splash in it. EPA tracks beach closings and advisories. In 2004, the latest year for which there is complete data, only 4% of beach days were lost due to advisories or closures caused by monitoring for bacteria. These closures were usually quite short. Over 2,700 closings were two days or less, and only 59 closings lasted more than 30 days.
The number of beaches monitored has more than tripled from 1,021 in 1997 to 3,574 in 2004, which means better protection for swimmers and more incentive for local water authorities to clean up their waters.
Moreover, this country is also doing a better job on the quantitative side of water management, i.e., water efficiency and conservation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, all water use in the U.S. amounts to 408 billion gallons per day for all uses in 2000, the last year for which we have aggregated data. This total has varied less than 3% since 1985. In other words, water use has essentially flattened out despite growing population, accelerating economic growth, and growing communities. It seems that withdrawals have stabilized for the two largest uses — thermoelectric power and irrigation.
True, fresh groundwater withdrawals increased by 14%, but no one is perfect. Also, groundwater use is small compared to surface water use: 83.3 billion gallons per day versus 262 billion gallons per day. Now that this information is in the public domain, local communities will mobilize to meet the challenge.
THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY voters are approving state and local ballot initiatives for conservation. According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national conservation organization, voters supported $1.7 billion for land protection and opens spaces in 2005. This past November voters in 17 states cast ballots on 67 different measures; 49 or 73% were approved.
TPL claims that it has helped communities pass 290 local and state ballot measures, since 1996, which has generated more than $48 billion in new conservation-related funding, including $19 billion for land acquisition and restoration.
A recent article by Wayne Curtis in the on-line environmental magazine, Grist, described the revitalization of “community forestry” in New England (“Mapled Crusaders”), February 23, 2006. In Maine, for instance, employment in the forest industry fell by 23% between 1997 and 2002 with a loss of more than 5,000 jobs. This is part of a nationwide trend reflected in about 30 million acres, half the private industrial forestland, having been sold since 1996.
According to Curtis, “Increasingly, communities are reclaiming their working woods, with residents and towns banding together to purchase tracts for two purposes: to protect the land and to bolster the local economy. In some cases, the land is set aside specifically for low-income residents.” In Vermont, approximately 120 of the state’s 251 municipalities own a total of 140 forests. “Town forests” seem to be a New England tradition which is experiencing a renewal in the face of a changing economy.
This being Tocqueville’s America, the private sector has also been active in conserving the nation’s natural resources. Today 1,500 private land trusts are conserving farmland, forests, wetlands, coastal areas, and scenic views. According to the Land Trust Alliance, nonprofit groups have doubled the acreage protected just five years ago and are protecting 800,000 new acres a year through outright purchases or other voluntary land agreements that limit future development.
Local and regional land trusts have conserved over 9 million acres as of 2003. These voluntary associations are being formed at the rate of two per week, with the fastest growth in the West. With 2 million acres a year being consumed by suburban development, these organizations offer a truly unique American response to the challenge of conservation.
Private stewardship can also display an urban aspect. In St. Louis, Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair and larger than New York’s Central Park, was a tarnished jewel in the City’s crown. Since 1995 it has undergone a magnificent renewal through a public-private partnership that raised $94 million for repair of infrastructure such as sewers, roads, and bike paths as well as the restoration of ecological features such as forests, meadows, and prairies. Lakes and lagoons were transformed into a “river-like” system that promotes better water quality, reduces flooding, and increases habitat. Half of the money for this project was raised by Forest Park Forever, a private, non-profit organization that has broad support from the business and philanthropic communities.
This is a big country, blessed with resources both material and spiritual. To find success in conservation and environmental protection, you need to look at the state, local, and private spheres, not just the federal, important as that is. The genius of our federal system is that we do not put all our eggs in one basket but many. So this Earth Day bask in the light of the accomplishments of a nation that does a fine job of reconciling environmental conservation with a dynamic economy.