JACKSON: LET ME CLEAR THE AIR

Colorado Earth Day success story: Quietly, consistently, air quality improves

GUEST COLUMNIST

Have you heard the good news on the environment?

Well, it’s not exactly new but it may surprise you.

Since 1980, emissions of six common pollutants have declined by two thirds, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, the U.S. population increased by more than a third, energy consumption grew by more than a quarter, and travel by car increased by 92 percent.

It’s the kind of data that’s worth celebrating on Earth Day. Consider:

• Carbon monoxide pollution is down 83 percent.

• Ozone, bad for health at ground level, has been cut by a quarter.

• Lead, whose effects on young brains were linked to a spike in violent crime, has declined by 91 percent.

• Nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems, has been reduced by more than half.

• Sulfur dioxide, which contributed to acid rain, has declined by more than three quarters.

And the good news extends to Colorado. The United Health Foundation ranked Colorado as the eighth healthiest state, in part because of low air pollution levels.

Yet the public may not appreciate these gains. A decade ago, in the midst of this steady improvement in air quality, a poll found that nearly seven out of 10 Americans thought air quality was the same (31 percent) or worse (38 percent) compared to 1970.

Ground-level ozone has been a more stubborn challenge in Colorado but new rules adopted earlier this year on oil and gas production — rules embraced by some big industry players — will help reduce it.

Why are we as a society so trusting of sky-is-falling warnings and so skeptical of good news on the environment? Certainly, environmental activists — who have a vested interest in maintaining high levels of anxiety — contribute with overheated rhetoric.

But do most of us have a tendency to trust bad news more than the positive?

As author Gregg Easterbrook once noted, “Though by almost every measure the Western environment at least has been getting better for decades, voters, thinkers, and pundits have been programmed to believe the environment is getting worse. Thus conditioned, Americans greet environmental bad news with a welcoming sigh as confirming the expected, while regarding environmental good news as some kind of deception.”

Similarly lost in the sometimes apocalyptic narrative is the transformative power of technology.

It’s unlikely we’ll see many flying cars in 2015 — sorry, fans of Back to the Future 2 — but automobile manufacturers continue to unveil a dizzying array of new environment-friendly technologies including flex fuel, clean diesel, electric, hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell and natural gas-powered vehicles. These technologies — along with today’s incarnations of the classic gas-powered internal combustion engine — emit 90-plus percent less on average than vehicles sold in 1970, while offering exponentially better performance, safety and fuel economy.

As Matt Ridley wrote in Wired magazine 2012: “Over the past half century, none of our threatened eco-pocalypses have played out as predicted.”

He added, “Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.”

We all have a role in supporting a clean environment. For example, Colorado’s new car dealers launched the Clear the Air Foundation (cleartheairfoundation.org), which has recycled nearly 1,000 older, higher-polluting cars. And we use the revenue from the value of the scrap to educate tech students interested in entering automotive fields.

Let’s take a moment this Earth Day to celebrate the gains we’ve made, even while we work to extend them for the next generations.

Tim Jackson is president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association.