President Trump has moved to ban states from setting stricter air pollution standards than those created by the federal government. The decision will delay the shift to electric cars and increase pollution in America's largest cities. Almost inevitably, more deaths and illness will follow.
Under the Clean Air Act, the US federal government sets emission standards for vehicles to control pollution in the form of limits on several sorts of pollution and petrol consumption. These pollutants are responsible for millions of deaths a year worldwide and account for 6 percent of all US deaths. The recent finding that pollutants can reach the fetal side of the placenta is only the latest in a string of studies that suggest air pollution harms even those who aren't killed.
The combination of Los Angeles' size, geography, and poor public transport system once gave the city some of the worst air pollution in the world. California responded by setting restrictions in 1960 on the amount of fuel cars could consume (which have been tightened with time), followed by legislating minimum sales of zero-emission cars. Over time, the accompanying fall in greenhouse gas emissions has been seen as an increasingly important benefit.
The Act allows states to set tighter standards than the national ones provided permission is granted by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), something that was approved during the Obama era. It is this approval that Trump is now revoking, or trying to revoke, since the move will go to court. California Governor Gavin Newsom has already made clear he will not take the decision lying down.
“California won’t ever wait for permission from Washington to protect the health and safety of children and families,” Newsom said in a statement. “We will fight this latest attempt and defend our clean car standards.” He has also claimed support from the governors of almost half the states.
Federal-state conflicts usually involve situations where a state wishes to do something that may be in its own best interests but will harm others. If California wanted to direct pollution over to Oregon or Nevada, there would be national interest in sorting the situation out. It's much less clear why anyone would want to force states to pollute more. Opponents of California's rules argue they raise car prices and slow economic growth. To the extent this is true, however, the effects are felt by Californians. State-specific rules don't stop the residents of other states buying cheap but dirty cars.
Instead, California's rules have increased choices elsewhere. Having designed cars to meet California's tough standards, the big car makers offer them in other places. People willing to pay more upfront, either to help the environment or for lower running costs, get an option they wouldn't have otherwise. Everyone else can keep on buying gas-guzzlers
Now, Californians may be forced to breathe dirtier air and people in other states may end up with a more restricted range of vehicles. That's if the plan is successful. Besides the legal battle, California has another trick up its sleeve, having already cut a deal with four major car makers, who have agreed to stick to the tighter pollution limits irrespective of what Trump wants in return for an extra year to meet them.