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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
(Data edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

3. Urban Impacts on Natural Resources

Box 3.2 Los Angeles Copes with Air Pollution

In the past two decades, in the face of sustained population and economic growth, air quality in the Los Angeles area has improved dramatically. (See Figure 1.) From 1955 to 1992 the peak level of ozone declined sharply from 680 to 300 parts per billion. Smog levels in the early 1990s were the lowest on record (1).

Despite these gains, the citizens of Los Angeles suffer from the worst air pollution in the United States. Pollution reaches unhealthful levels on roughly half the days each year--as opposed to 279 days in 1976--causing irritation for many and illness for some (2) (3). A 1991 study found that those living in areas where particulate pollution exceeded government standards for 42 days per year or more had a 33 percent greater risk of contracting bronchitis and a 74 percent greater risk of contracting asthma (4).

Several ingredients contribute to the city's air pollution problems, including a bowl-like setting, abundant sunshine that drives photochemical reactions, low average wind speeds, and rapid growth in the numbers of people, cars, and factories. From 1950 to 1990, the region's population grew from 4.8 million to 14 million; the vehicle population jumped from 2.3 million to 10.6 million (5).

In an effort to improve air quality, state and regional agencies are implementing a stringent and innovative pollution control effort that targets industry, transportation, and consumers. The political arrangements have evolved over many decades.

As early as the 1940s and 1950s, pollution levels in the city were bad enough to prompt public outrage and political action. The Los Angeles Times published dozens of editorials demanding action to reduce smog, and several efforts were started to study the chemistry of the atmosphere above Los Angeles (6). By the mid-1970s, each of the four counties that make up the metropolitan region--Los Angeles, Orange, and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties--had its own pollution control program. But it was already apparent that local programs would not be able to solve problems that were regional in nature.

In response, the California legislature in 1976 created the South Coast Air Quality Management District and gave it jurisdiction over much of the air quality throughout the four counties. The District was given responsibility for stationary sources of air pollution, which include about 31,000 businesses ranging from large power plants to small gas stations and which account for about 40 percent of the area's pollution (7). Also under the District's purview are consumer products, such as house paint, charcoal lighter fluid, and products containing solvents. The District's air quality plans must be approved by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and then by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. CARB also was given jurisdiction over mobile sources of pollution such as cars, trucks, and buses (8).

The region has used a variety of strategies to curb air pollution. For example, programs were initiated to recover vapors that escape when gas or other petroleum products are transferred and to eliminate industrial solvents, which play a major role in the formation of ozone. To help combat the region's continuing growth, officials in 1976 issued "new source" regulations requiring industries to use the cleanest technology available for any expansion or new construction (9).

Even so, if Los Angeles is to meet federal health standards by 2010, more stringent requirements will be needed. Hydrocarbon emissions must be cut by about 80 percent, nitrogen oxides by 70 percent, sulfur oxides by 62 percent, and particulates by 20 percent. The benefits will be immense; meeting the federal standards for ozone and particulates could provide $9.4 billion in health benefits every year (10). The penalties for not meeting this target could be severe, however, including the possible loss of millions of dollars in federal money for highway and mass transit construction. The California Clean Air Act also requires steady progress--emissions reductions of 5 percent per year--until the standards are met (11).

To meet the 2010 deadline, the District has devised an elaborate two-stage air quality management plan, relying on both current technologies and some that do not yet exist. The first stage includes some 135 different measures, all using existing technologies that can be adopted by 1996. For example, electric companies will install new burners and catalysts that will cut nitrogen oxide emissions. Reformulated charcoal lighter fluid will help cut pollution from backyard barbecues. Manufacturing plants and construction companies are using newly formulated paints, solvents, and adhesives that minimize pollution.

The second stage will take advantage of technologies that are just entering the commercial market, such as a new house paint that does not release hydrocarbons and automobile engines that run on methanol, natural gas, or other alternative fuels. The District has invested over $40 million in seed money to support new technologies (12).

To ease the financial burden for the business community, the District has provided free technical assistance and has offered loans for the purchase of pollution control equipment. The program also enables firms to adopt the least expensive ways to cut nitrogen and sulfur emissions to meet standards. In the first multipollutant emissions trading effort for an urban area, businesses can either reduce emissions themselves or buy emissions credits from companies that have reduced their emissions below the standards (13).

In 1987, the District implemented a carpooling program that by 1994 had increased the average number of persons per vehicle by 13 percent since the program's inception. The ride share program was expensive for businesses, however, costing about $110 per employee, or $17,421 per metric ton of pollution reduced. In April 1995, the District revised the program by allowing firms to voluntarily substitute emissions reduction measures. Alternatives include scrapping old, high-polluting cars and trucks to earn emissions credits, using remote vehicle sensing equipment to identify high-polluting employee vehicles and earning credits for repair of the vehicles, or paying $110 per employee per year into an air quality escrow account, which would be used for other programs such as the purchase of clean-fuel school buses. Some of the alternatives provide substantial savings to businesses. For example, old vehicle scrapping costs $2,755 to $6,102 per metric ton of pollution reduced, which amounts to a 65 to 84 percent reduction in the cost of the program (14).

Perhaps the most ambitious plan to cut automotive emissions was a 1990 statewide mandate that required that 2 percent of all passenger vehicles sold in the state by 1988 be emission free, increasing to 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003 (15). For more than 5 years, the mandate has been driving technology advancement in electric cars (16). However, in December 1995, the California Air Resources Board decided to ease the mandate and proposed suspending current requirements for zero emission vehicles until 2003 (17), citing technology constraints as the major concern. Yet some believe the Board is submitting to pressure from the auto and oil industries (18).

Promoting widespread penetration of electric vehicles will be complicated by other factors as well. The current price for most such vehicles is $25,000 and up, which is too expensive for the average U.S. buyer. Conventional lead-acid batteries take up to 8 hours to recharge and must be changed every 2 to 3 years at a cost of $2,000. Most prototypes have a limited range of 96 to 121 kilometers. Research is under way on batteries that provide twice the cruising range and can be recharged in an hour or two, though such batteries currently are twice the price of lead-acid cells (19). Southern California Edison is developing an elaborate network of recharging stations in Los Angeles, but few other power companies in the United States are making similar plans (20).

References and Notes

1. James M. Lents and William J. Kelly, "Clearing the Air in Los Angeles," Scientific American, Vol. 269, No. 4 (October 1993), p. 32.

2. South Coast Air Quality District Governing Board, Final 1994 Air Quality Management Plan: Meeting the Clean Air Challenge (South Coast Air Quality Management District and Southern California Association of Governments, Diamond Bar, California, 1994), pp. 2-1 to 2-5.

3. Ibid. , p. 2-1.

4. Op. cit. 1, p. 38.

5. Op. cit. 1, p. 32.

6. Op. cit. 1, p. 33.

7. Op. cit. 2, pp. 1ţ5.

8. South Coast Air Quality Management District, "Introducing AQMD," March 1994 (public information brochure).

9. Op. cit. 1, pp. 35, 37.

10. Op. cit. 1, pp. 38-39.

11. Op. cit. 2, pp. 6-1 to 6-22.

12. Op. cit. 1, pp. 38-39.

13. Op. cit. 1, pp. 38-39.

14. South Coast Air Quality Management District, "Air Quality Officials Approve Major Overhaul of Rideshare Rule," April 14, 1995 (press release).

15. Marla Cone, "State Panel Puts Electric Car Mandate in Reverse," Los Angeles Times, (December 22, 1995), p. A1.

16. Ibid.

17. Electric Transportation Coalition, "California Air Resources Board Proposes to Suspend ZEV Mandates Until 2003 and to Institute a 'Cal/Big 7' Technology Development Partnership," memorandum from Kateri Callahan, Executive Director, Electric Transportation Coalition, to Board of Directors and Members, Washington, D.C., December 27, 1995, p. 1.

18. Marla Cone, "Air Panel Bending Under Pressure," Los Angeles Times (December 20, 1995), p. A3.

19. Gary Lee, "California Recharges Electric Car Development," Washington Post (April 18, 1995), pp. A1, A8.

20. Ibid.

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