Goklany: The Real Story of Air Pollution

by David Bier on December 13, 2011

in Blog

Yesterday’s excerpt from Energy & Climate Wars showed why increasing energy consumption in poor nations is essential for any quality of life improvements. In today’s post from Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution, Indur Goklany argues that the United States’ economic gains improved not only their wealth, but also their environment, and primarily without government intervention.

Clearing the Air was published in 1999

The real engines for progress on the urban smoke problem in the United States as well as in England were economics and technological change—forces that began in the late 19thcentury and have continued, for one reason or another, to the present day. New, cleaner energy sources such as natural gas, oil, and electricity became increasingly available as substitutes for coal and wood in homes, businesses, and industries. Urbanization, while responsible for many environmental woes, accelerated the process of substitution because higher population densities reduced access to wood and increased cost-effectiveness and economics of distribution systems for natural gas and electricity.

New technologies entered the marketplace that increased the efficiency of all types of combustion equipment, reducing the amount of soot produced and fuel burned for a given amount of usable energy. Those technologies included more efficient and cleaner furnaces and boilers for homes, businesses, industries, and power plants. In some places, underground and street railroads powered by steam were electrified; in others, electrification replaced horse-powered street cars, reducing another, but no less real, form of pollution. The automobile, which would later be viewed as an environmental villain, was still a relatively little-used luxury; in 1910 there were two automobile registrations for every 100 households. In fact, the use of motor vehicles in urban areas served as environmental purpose by reducing the horse population and associated wastes, as did the electrification of street railways.

The realization that smoke signified unburnt fuel led industry, railroads, and even households to make efforts to reduce it. It was thought to be not only good economics but also good citizenship. That notion was clearly incorporated in the Ohio statute, which allowed municipal authorities to “compel the consumption of smoke.” In time, even the Great War would be pressed into service against this foe; as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Smoke Regulation exhorted, “it must never be forgotten that loss of black smoke means loss of heat and that every unit of heat thrown away is so much aid given to the enemy.” On the other hand, the Bureau of Mines, part of the U.S. Department of Interior, suspended  its smoke abatement “campaign” during the war years. At the other extreme in Milwaukee, the war was used as justification to go, literally, full steam ahead; as a result, “smoky” days increased from 47 in 1916 to 212 in 1918.

Thus, despite unsatisfactory and generally poorly enforced laws, progress was being made. Across the Atlantic, the “black fogs” of London had been largely eliminated by 1912. The amount of sunshine in winter had almost doubled over the previous 20 years, due mainly to the electrification of underground railways; the use of more gas appliances for heating and cooking (which increased from about 50,000 in 1891 to 1.5 million in 1911); the efforts of the London Coal Smoke Abatement Society, which helped educate the public and improve operating practices to reduce smoke generation; industry’s realization that smoke was due to inefficient combustion; and, possibly, a little bit of meteorological luck. The Assistant Curator of the Kew Gardens even ascribed the improved health of a valuable “old Cedar of Lebanon” in the gardens to the improvement to the atmosphere. It is useful to note that despite the increased use of gas, the worst problems “almost certainly were from domestic fires, for the darkest fogs have been on Sundays and Christmas Day,” and between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and just before dinnertime.

In the United States, a 1917 report from Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Smoke Regulation noted that the days of dense smoke from January to June declined from 29 to 6 days between 1912 and 1917, and days of light smoke declined from 64 to 44 days even as consumption of coal increased threefold. It attributed these improvements to increased combustion efficiency (largely achieved through modulation of fuel and air supply and the replacement of hand firing with mechanical stokers) and to switches to low-volatile coal. In one case, the amount of power produced almost doubled; the operators not only saved fuel, they also “released more than 20 men from non-productive labor to productive labor.” In another case, the annual fuel saving amounted to 50 percent of the cost of the mechanical stoker…

The technological trends accelerated in subsequent decades. Increasing affluence made it possible for individual households and businesses to voluntary purchase cleaner, new, more efficient technologies because they valued lower fuel bills and cleanliness and convenience for their homes and businesses. Moreover, once the new technologies were installed, gratification was immediate; people had no doubt that the premises were cleaner and their money had been well spent…. (Recall that much of London’s worst smoke problems, for instance, were due to domestic cooking and heating.)…

Adoption of alternating current and improvements in the technology of transformers and transmission lines also made it possible to deliver electricity long distances without substantial energy losses, allowing power plants to move initially to the outskirts of a city and, later, to the very mouth of the mine. Those locational changes improved urban air quality, even though they do not show up in the national estimates of fossil fuel use or emissions.

(excerpted from pages 15-18)

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