What's the Cost of Emissions to the United States?

U.S. regulators are now dinging Volkswagen for cheating on nitrogen oxides emissions tests. Data shows that officials are right to be upset.
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U.S. regulators are now dinging Volkswagen for cheating on nitrogen oxides emissions tests. Data shows that officials are right to be upset.
(Photo: Karen Roe/Flickr)

(Photo: Karen Roe/Flickr)

Bad news just keeps coming for Volkswagen. On Wednesday, the company's chief executive resigned after it was discovered that company technicians installed software in certain Volkswagen cars to deceive regulators in the United States about the vehicles' emissions. The software made the cars seem like they emitted less nitrogen oxides, a family of polluting chemicals that exacerbate asthma and are precursory chemicals to other kinds of pollution, including smog.

Just how important are these emissions laws Volkswagen broke? To find out, we looked up the Environmental Protection Agency's 1999 report to Congress, in which the agency modeled the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act between 1990 and 2010. It turns out that restricting how much nitrogen oxides people put into the air can have wide-ranging benefits—better human health and cleaner waters not least among them. And nitrogen-oxides air pollution in the U.S. comes mostly from cars like VW’s, although other factors, such as power plants and industrial boilers, also play a major role.

Below, some key insights:

  • In 2010, the Clean Air Act prevented 64,000 hospital visits for breathing and heart problems caused by air pollution, including nitrogen oxides. It also prevented 330,00 cases of minor illness—which didn't require a hospital visit—from nitrogen oxides alone.
  • Nitrogen oxides in the air are a major driver of harmful algae blooms in estuaries. The EPA didn't estimate the benefit of controlling nitrogen oxides emissions for every estuary in the U.S., but it did analyze data for three sample cases: Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and Tampa Bay. According to the EPA's estimations, the nitrogen-oxides rules in the Clean Air Act blocked 73 million pounds of nitrogen from entering those waterways in 2010, which saved about $900 million (in 1990 dollars) worth of damage.
  • Sulfur and nitrogen compounds in the air create acid rain and may also acidify freshwater lakes and ponds. The EPA estimated sulfur and nitrogen emissions laws stopped $50 million worth of acidification damage to the lake-filled Adirondacks region of New York State.
  • Meanwhile, the agency estimates that the cost to the auto industry of complying with its nitrogen oxides tailpipe standards was $1.7 billion (in 1990 dollars) in 2010.

Emissions laws can be nuisances to companies and individuals alike; ask any Californian how she feels about the state's strict car inspections. But the benefits they've brought to the health of American people and their environment are pretty great, so long as companies and drivers comply—and the emissions cuts are real.