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Sustainable Development and Air Quality: The Need to Replace Basic Technologies with Cleaner Alternatives

March 2002

Citation: ELR 10277

Author: David M. Driesen

Imagine a world where the air, even in major cities, poses no serious health threat, even during the summer. Lakes once dead from acid rain have begun to recover. And trees and crops no longer die from air pollution. Many large cities and all rural areas have taken down their transmission wires, because the owners of homes, apartment buildings, factories, and offices rely upon fuel cells or upon solar power produced on-site. We may be too late already to avoid serious disruption from global warning, but this world would, over time, ameliorate climate change as well. Our reality is far different, but movement toward sustainable development must involve substantial steps toward creating the technological pattern that might make this world possible.

Sustainable development requires the replacement of old technologies with new, cleaner ones. Generally, the United States has adopted the type of air quality programs that Agenda 211 recommends; indeed, those programs were in place at the time of the Earth Summit in 1992. Owing to a lack of fundamental technological change, however, the United States has not met the ambitious goals for environmental programs implicit in the broad principles of the Rio Declaration.2 Fully meeting those goals requires a phaseout of coal-fired power generation, a substantial movement toward renewable energy, a thorough going change in vehicular technologies, enforcement of the Clean AirAct (CAA), and improvements in emissions monitoring. We must redesign regulation with an explicit goal of encouraging fundamental innovation in order to achieve this sort of change.

This Article begins by canvassing the commitments made in Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration that have special relevance to air quality. This review of international commitments also provides basic background on air pollution, explaining why achievement of the relevant international goals matters. This first part also links air quality concerns to the problem of sustainable development. The Article then turns to an assessment of progress toward these commitments, through a look at emission trends and the movement toward sustainable technology. The final section articulates recommendations for improving U.S. conformity to Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United National Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In September 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in the book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

The author is an Associate Professor at Syracuse University College of Law. J.D. Yale Law School, 1989.

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