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Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution // Section 12: Major Laws and Treaties

The first international treaty to protect the ozone layer was signed in 1987. The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer has been amended several times since then in response to new scientific information, and it has been ratified by 190 countries. Under it industrialized countries phased out production of several classes of ozone-depleting substances by 1996, and developing countries are to follow suit by 2010. An international fund created under the protocol helps developing nations find substitutes for ozone-depleting substances. The World Bank estimates that reductions under the Montreal Protocol through 2003 have avoided up to 20 million cases of cancer, 130 million cases of eye cataracts, and severe damage to ecosystems from increased UV radiation reaching Earth's surface (footnote 7).

When nations began to negotiate agreements on reducing greenhouse gases to slow global climate change, many experts believed that the problem could be addressed through a framework similar to the Montreal Protocol—a treaty that set timetables for phasing out harmful emissions, with technical aid to help developing countries comply. But climate change has proved to be a considerably harder problem for negotiators, for several reasons. These negotiations are discussed in Unit 12, "Earth's Changing Climate."

The Clean Air Act (CAA) sets out a comprehensive set of national standards for controlling air pollutants that are considered harmful to public health and the environment in the United States. Under the CAA the Environmental Protection Agency is directed to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) limiting major air pollutants to levels that will protect public health, including the health of sensitive groups such as children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illnesses. NAAQS are set based on input from scientific advisory committees, and the act specifically directs EPA not to consider costs in setting NAAQS, although states can consider costs when they develop their plans for meeting the standards.

EPA has established NAAQS for six "criteria pollutants": SO2, NO2, lead, carbon monoxide, particulate matter less than 10 micrometers and less than 2.5 micrometers (PM-10 and PM-2.5), and ozone. States and counties that fail to achieve these standards are required to develop plans for bringing their air quality into compliance. The CAA also defines major pollution sources, based on their emission levels, and establishes rules governing when new emission sources can be built in polluted areas.

The CAA has been amended several times since its passage in 1970 to tighten standards and institute new controls that reflect advances in scientific understanding of air pollution. The law has achieved some notable successes: for example, it has reduced U.S. automobile emissions considerably from pre-1970 levels, through mechanisms such as phasing out use of leaded gasoline and requiring car manufacturers to install catalytic converters. These devices treat car exhaust in several stages to reduce NOx and oxidize unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide (Fig. 21).

Catalytic converter mounted in a car's exhaust system

Figure 21. Catalytic converter mounted in a car's exhaust system
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Source: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

A set of CAA amendments passed in 1990 has produced significant cuts in SO2 emissions through what was then a new approach to reducing air pollution: capping the total allowable amount of pollution emitted nationally and then allocating emission rights among major sources (mainly coal-burning electric power plants and industrial facilities). Emitters that reduced pollution below their allowed levels could sell their extra pollution allowances to higher-emitting sources. This approach let sources make reductions where they were cheapest, rather than requiring all emitters to install specific pieces of control equipment or to meet one standard at each location. Some companies cut emissions by installing controls, while others switched to low-sulfur coal or other cleaner fuels.

U.S. SO2 emissions have fallen by roughly 50 percent since emissions trading was instituted, and the program is widely cited as an example of how this approach can work more effectively than technology mandates. However, some proposals for emissions trading are more controversial—specifically, whether it is a safe approach for cutting toxic pollutants such as mercury. Opponents argue that letting some large sources continue to emit such pollutants could create dangerous "hot spots" that would be hazardous to public health, and that the only safe way to control hazardous pollutants like mercury is to require specific reductions from each individual source.

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