The Clean Air Act: Successes and Challenges Since 1970


Jan. 6, 2020

News Type

Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC—Resources for the Future (RFF) today published a new, retrospective review of the Clean Air Act, 50 years after it was greatly expanded in 1970. In the new paper, the authors report that the Clean Air Act led to substantial emissions reductions and health improvements—as well as some unintended consequences.

“Despite the quadrupling of gross domestic product since 1970, air quality across the United States has improved substantially . . . [atmospheric concentration of] fine particles declined 41 percent since 2000, ozone fell 32 percent since 1980, and lead decreased 99 percent since 1970,” the authors note. As increases in gross domestic product (GDP) are usually associated with increased production and, therefore, emissions, this decrease in pollution is significant. The decline in pollutants and increase in GDP since 1980 are shown in the chart below.

“The CAA has delivered clear success stories—removing lead from gasoline, phasing out chlorofluorocarbons and other substances that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, dramatically reducing sulfur emissions from power plants and transportation fuels. Emissions of air toxics have also declined substantially,” the authors highlight in their introduction.

In addition to these benefits, however, the Clean Air Act (CAA) has had unexpected consequences and costs. The paper’s authors examine some of the challenges regulators have faced over the years of implementation of specific CAA regulatory programs. For example, they note that the variation in regulations from region to region bring substantial costs to some local economies, and that some of the current cap-and-trade programs implemented fall short of cost-efficiency expectations (even though they reduce emissions more efficiently than conventional regulations). They also find that the effectiveness of certain fuel based regulations has fallen short of expectations. These challenges, and more, are outlined in the authors’ key findings.

Over 100 “ex ante” regulatory analyses have projected the effects of specific Clean Air Act regulations, but these studies are based on quite limited information—before the regulations’ effects could be observed. In this paper, the authors review over 35 retrospective (or “ex post”) analyses of the Clean Air Act, examining the actual, realized costs and benefits of specific programs and deciphering how the impacts stack up against what was expected ex ante from these programs.

Learn more about the real impacts of the Clean Air Act and how much of an impact it has had on human health, the environment, and the economy—read “Looking Back at Fifty Years of the Clean Air Act,” by Joseph E. Aldy, Maximillian Auffhammer, Maureen Cropper, Arthur Fraas, and Richard Morgenstern.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

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