Working Paper

Policy Evolution under the Clean Air Act

Nov 21, 2018 | Richard Schmalensee, Robert N. Stavins

Summary

It’s effectively become impossible to amend the Clean Air Act to address climate change because of increasingly polarized policy debates and complex rules to address air pollution.

Key Findings

  • The Clean Air Act, passed with bipartisan support, was the first environmental law to give the Federal government a serious regulatory role, formed the structure of the US air pollution control system, and became a model for ensuing environmental laws.
  • The evolution of policy instruments over the past fifty years has been driven at various times by the emergence on the policy agenda of new problems, by innovation and experimentation by EPA, and by changes in the Clean Air Act itself.
  • Until roughly 2000, EPA made increasing use of market-based instruments, enabled in part by major amendments to the CAA in 1977 and 1990 that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
  • In more recent years, however, environmental policy has become more partisan, and debates more polarized, to the point that it has become virtually impossible to amend the Act or pass other legislation to address the new threat of climate change.
  • The climate effects of CO2 emissions are predicted to last for many centuries, so if this paralysis persists and U.S. inaction slows global reductions of emissions, the damage will likely be both profound and long lasting.

Abstract

The US Clean Air Act, passed in 1970 with strong bipartisan support, was the first environmental law to give the Federal government a serious regulatory role, established the architecture of the US air pollution control system, and became a model for subsequent environmental laws in the United States and globally. We outline the Act’s key provisions, as well as the main changes Congress has made to it over time. We assess the evolution of air pollution control policy under the Clean Air Act, with particular attention to the types of policy instruments used. We provide a generic assessment of the major types of policy instruments, and we trace and assess the historical evolution of EPA’s policy instrument use, with particular focus on the increased use of market-based policy instruments, beginning in the 1970s and culminating in the 1990s. Over the past fifty years, air pollution regulation has gradually become much more complex, and over the past twenty years, policy debates have become increasingly partisan and polarized, to the point that it has become impossible to amend the Act or pass other legislation to address the new threat of climate change.