By Dan Byers
Several years ago, a group of state government officials coined the phrase “The Greatest Story Seldom Told” to describe the incredible progress that the United States has made in reducing emissions, and America’s underappreciated standing as having one of the best and cleanest environments in the world. Despite even more progress and renewed focus on our climate and the environment, that story is still seldom told.
Perhaps now more than ever, Americans are concerned about the growing challenge of climate change. The Biden Administration is rightfully focused on American participation in the United Nations Paris Agreement, while Congress has advanced the most significant energy and climate legislation in decades.
For many reasons, we can, and must, do more to address climate and environmental issues. But that should not diminish the remarkable progress that has already been made, thanks to the widespread availability of natural gas, greater use of renewables, energy efficiency and other innovations. The business community has led the way, with billions invested in new technologies.
Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the progress being made to reduce emissions and the public awareness of these efforts. This year’s Gallup annual survey of Americans’ views on a number of environmental issues shows that 52 percent of Americans believe that the quality of the environment in the U.S. is getting worse. With respect to air quality specifically, 73 percent of Americans say they worry about air pollution either a great deal or a fair amount.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer, sector-by-sector look at some of the important progress that should encourage Americans concerned about our planet:
The electric power sector is leading the way in emissions reductions. Consider:
There has also been a great deal of progress on vehicle emissions. The increasing availability of hybrids and electric vehicles along with widespread use of more advanced powertrains, sensors and emissions control technologies have significantly improved the environmental footprint of our 260 million strong vehicle fleet. For example:
Cleaner Manufacturing and Industry
The contributions from America’s industrial sector to air quality improvements are often overlooked, but they shouldn’t be.
Cleaner, Stronger Economy
Add these success stories up sector by sector, and it should come as no surprise that economy-wide progress on air quality tracks them very closely. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlights in its annual State of the Air report and in the striking chart below, since 1980 the U.S. economy has grown by 182 percent and population has grown by 44 percent, while aggregate emissions of pollutants of concern have fallen by 71 percent.
Over the last 15 years, the United States has made impressive progress reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. As detailed in this recent “Fuel for Thought” blog post, economy-wide GHG emissions in 2019 were now 13 percent below 2005 levels —an important reference point because it will serve as the baseline year for U.S. emissions reductions commitments under the Paris Agreement. EPA’s new data also show that total 2019 emissions are now just 2 percent higher than they were in 1990 — an especially remarkable accomplishment considering that the U.S. population and economy have respectively grown by 32 percent and 104 percent during this period. The chart below displays this progress relative to other major countries around the world.
There should be no doubt that more work needs to be done. By assuming a global leadership role on climate, the United States has an opportunity to develop and export technologies that will help improve the entire planet, while supporting jobs and economic growth at home. But we should be encouraged by the progress that has been made to date, and the collective investments and innovations that it has taken to get there. That’s something to celebrate — even if it is the greatest story still seldom told.
Dan Byers is vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber’s Global Energy Institute.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.