Covid-19 has brought air pollution to the attention of experts and the public, reminding us that poor air quality is correlated with higher death and infection rates. While lockdowns across the globe led to significant air improvements in many regions, these seem to be short-term due to the influence of fossil fuel industries to return to “normal.” Air pollution policy lobbyists who work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry continue to seek exemptions from environmental laws, regulatory rollbacks, and corporate influence protections — all of which contribute to the degraded air that we must breathe.
Burning of fossil fuels and solid biomass releases hazardous chemicals into the air. Anthropogenic emissions have transformed atmospheric composition to the extent that biogeochemical cycles, air quality, and climate have changed globally and profoundly. In a 2020 paper titled “Reducing Air Pollution: Avoidable Health Burden,” Jos Lelieveld outlines how ambient (outdoor) air pollution causes an excess mortality rate of about 4.5 million per year, associated with 122 million years of life lost annually, mostly due to the detrimental health effects of fine particulate matter.
It is clear that governments around the world need to enact further measures to lower the public health burden from air pollution. Clean air is a human right and connected to sustainable development goals of the United Nations such as good health, climate action, sustainable cities, clean energy, and protecting life on land and in the sea.
The Intersection of Lobbyists & Air Pollution Policy
The US policymaking process is a complex set of rules, institutions, and influences that work together to generate laws. Set within this context is environmental policymaking, where several different agencies, Congressional committees, and a slew of special interests work tirelessly and spend millions in an attempt to create legislation. Business interests are a key player in the environmental policy debate.
Interest groups play an important role in shaping environmental policy, especially air pollution policy, and their influence depends on various factors such as strategic choices, relationships with non-state actors, venue selection, and involvement in elections. As groups seek to address pressing issues such as the climate crisis, they confront deepening partisan polarization and a sophisticated climate change denial movement.
The interaction of science, evidence, and air quality policy coalesce into 2 phases for air quality mitigation, according to 2020 research.
- The first phase is driven by the air quality emergency, as the pollution is visible and the effects can be relatively obvious to the public.
- The second is led by the scientific community and is directed towards continuous improvement. This phase focuses on an evidence base.
Informed air pollution policy-making is optimal, the authors state, when guided by the “ideal of co-creation of knowledge and policy options between scientists and policy-makers.” Tensions emerge among the ambition to reduce emissions, improve air quality, and reduce the impacts on public health in relation to the environment and questions of cost, technical feasibility, and societal acceptability on the other.
Lobbyists exacerbate these tensions considerably.
Environmental Regulations & Lobbyists in the US
A small number of people at a few federal agencies have vast power over the protection of US air and water. When candidate Donald Trump campaigned for the executive office, he promised to “drain the swamp.” Instead, at the EPA, nearly half of the political appointees hired by the Trump Administration have had strong ties to industries regulated by the agency industry, according to the Associated Press.
Indeed, among 20 of the most powerful people in US government environment jobs, most have ties to the fossil fuel industry or have fought against the regulations they now are supposed to enforce. A New York Times expose uncovered how, under the Trump administration, the people appointed to those positions overwhelmingly used to work in the fossil fuel, chemical, and agriculture industries.
Their government positions allowed them to loosen or eliminate nearly 100 environmental protections from pollution and pesticides, as well as weakening air pollution policy, natural resource preservation, and efforts to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Earlier this year, BP successfully lobbied US policymakers to weaken a landmark environmental law, the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, clearing the way for major infrastructure projects to bypass checks.
US Air Pollution Policy & the Cross State Air Pollution Rule
Air pollution has risen up the political agenda in recent years, as studies link it to a range of health conditions, including lung cancer, asthma, and heart disease, with lobbyists having significant effects of public health. For example, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) was finalized in 2011 and required 28 states, primarily the eastern half of the US, to reduce air pollution and improve air quality by controlling ozone and fine particle pollution that cross state lines and worsen health in these areas. The rule required a reduction of annual sulfur dioxide emissions and nitrous oxide emissions and was predicted to deliver health and environmental benefits in the amount of $120 to $280 billion annually at a cost of just $1.6 billion in investments and $800 million in annual costs.
This air pollution policy helped downwind areas attain and maintain EPA’s health-based soot and smog air quality, known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The attorneys general of New York and Connecticut sued the EPA for missing an August 2017 deadline to comply with the “good neighbor” update provision.
These challenges to the Rule were addressed by the courts, and the response included language that some parties contended that the Rule was too strict, while others found it is too lenient. Such false equivalence — logic in which difference is disregarded and, as a result, equivalences emerge illogically — is common when lobbying results in legislative review. Open Secrets argues that, while environmentalists have grown far more influential in Washington with increased public awareness of the climate crisis, lobbying efforts and political contributions from environmental groups are “but a fraction of those given by the industries they generally oppose.”
Air Pollution Policy — Lobbyists in the UK
It’s not just in the US where influencers work nonstop to delay or dilute clean air measures. Air pollution has been classified as the largest environmental risk to UK public health. In cities across the UK, members or funders of lobby groups have been working to weaken air quality measures while leaving the companies they represent with environmentally-friendly reputations untarnished.
An investigation by DeSmog UK reveals that arm’s-length trade associations and campaign groups have an estimated combined annual revenue of £130 million and enjoy high-level political access. A plan to cut pollution in the worst-affected UK cities outside of London has now been postponed until at least next year, with proposed Clean Air Zones (CAZs) in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, and Greater Manchester all delayed. Low emission zones in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow will not be brought in before 2022.
Logistics UK, whose members operate more than half of all lorries in the UK, lists one of its 2019 policy achievements as delaying six Clean Air Zones (CAZ) “for as long as possible.” In a briefing for local authorities, the Freight Transport Association, which renamed itself Logistics UK in July, claimed CAZs were “not necessary to deliver improved air quality” and their benefits would be “short-lived.” They strongly urged the councils to consider alternatives.
Ample evidence exists that correlates the effectiveness of air pollution legislation and consequent public health. Public health gains can continue if governments around the world enact more stringent air pollution control measures. The fraction of avoidable life-long exposure from anthropogenic air pollution that can be attributed to fossil fuel use is nearly 2/3 globally and up to about 80% in high-income countries.
Efficient mitigation strategies need to be implemented for substantial environmental and health co-benefits. Eliminating the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists is a necessary step toward increased air quality for public health.