US environment improving continuously, report claims

Technological innovation and economic growth have led to the continuous improvement of environmental trends in the US, according to a study by the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, The Fraser Institute, and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Using the US government’s own data, the 4th annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, found that environmental indicators in the areas of air and water pollution, toxic releases, and resources and wildlife have improved significantly.

The study attributes these improvements to prosperity and progress. “The facts suggest that as the world has become more prosperous, the United States has become wealthy enough to afford high environmental standards, and has developed the political support for environmental protection among its citizens. Having conquered the main causes of human misery – war, famine, and disease – we are now able to concentrate on aspects of our civilization that have hitherto been secondary, such as the environment,” the report says.

“For that reason,” the report’s authors say, “conservatives need to overcome their inordinate fear of environmentalism. And environmentalists need to overcome their inordinate fear of progress. The two go hand and hand and are not mutually exclusive.”

The study concludes that future environmental policy should emphasize markets, property rights, incentives, and co-operation instead of adversarial one-size-fits-all regulatory regimes.

The study’s findings include:

  Ambient air pollution levels decreased significantly between 1976 and 1997: Sulphur oxides by 66.7 percent; nitrogen oxides by 37.9 percent; ozone by 30.9 percent; carbon monoxide by 66.4 percent; particulates (PM10) by 25.5 percent; and lead by 97.3 percent. (Note: The most recent available government data is for 1997.)

  Releases of toxic chemicals have declined by at least one-third since 1988. The percentage decline is actually higher, but the measurements that are currently used include chemicals that are disposed of in safe hazardous-waste facilities or are recycled on the premises.

  Although 40 percent of news stories about cancer name man-made environmental factors as a primary cause, only 2 percent of all cancer cases are caused by man-made environmental factors, according to the latest research.

  Discharges into the US water supply have been near zero since 1993. For example, discharges of toxic organics from point sources have declined by 99 percent and discharges of toxic metals from point sources have declined by 98 percent.

  Forests today cover nearly 30 percent of the United States’ total land area. Since 1950, net growth of trees has exceeded net harvest of trees every year. At least two-thirds of all US deforestation occurred between 1850 and 1910.

  Wetlands conversion continues to decrease dramatically. For every 60 acres of wetlands converted to cropland annually from 1954 to 1974, only 3 acres were converted annually from 1982 to 1992.

Environmentalists have accused the report of over-selectivity in its choice of indicators, accusing the three institutes of being funded by big business.

“This report is politically motivated, and as a result misleading,” said Duncan McLaren of UK Friends of the Earth’s Sustainable Development unit. “It is promoted by organizations which are funded and supported by big industry, which wish to weaken regulations and undermine the democratic process.”

McLaren points out that the report ignores increases in carbon dioxide concentrations because global warming is seen as an unproven theory.

The report’s fundamental failing, according to McLaren, is that it concentrates on local environmental quality. “The broadly accepted analysis is that the environment is getting better in the developed world because we are exporting out environmental problems to the poorer countries. Economic activity has shifted to those countries, with heavier, more polluting industries relocating… while raw materials are increasingly sourced from outside the rich countries.

“This set of statistics has nothing to say about other countries or about overfishing of ocean fish stocks, for instance. In that way, this is an extremely partial account. That is not to say that some of the local improvements aren’t welcome. They are, but the report is motivated by the desire to remove the regulations that generated the improvements in the first place.”

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