Apr 10 2017

American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and Mitigation

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Maybe the focus of US environmental policy on compliance, abatement and mitigation has been a mistake. 

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by Daniel Press American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and MitigationEdward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 224 pp

In American Environmental Policy Daniel Press, professor of environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, contests the “widespread acclaim” for US environmental regulation, challenging policymakers and policy analysts to “re-think our objectives for environmental regulation.” Focusing on policy tools and outcomes, Press asks a set of basic, but fundamental, questions: has American environmental policy performed as well as policy in comparable countries? Were the most appropriate policy instruments used and were they implemented correctly? Has environmental regulation transformed patterns of production and consumption?

Press substantiates his argument with previous literature, personal experience as a member of California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board (chapter 4) and descriptive data on US Toxic Release Inventory (chapter 2), emissions factors (chapter 2), SOx emissions (chapter 3), critical load exceedances (chapter 3), paper recovery rates, and related paper shipping and transport statistics (chapter 5). Each chapter illustrates the complexity of implementing environmental policies and opportunities for policy reform. Key areas of improvement include policies that focus more on environmental and public health outcomes, collecting high-quality information and providing incentives for continual improvement.

Press’s critique identifies the failures of the “compliance-abatement-mitigation” approach to environmental policy that dominates US regulatory design. Press claims that this approach does not radically challenge accepted modes of land-use, energy production, manufacturing, construction or transportation, but rather emphasizes pollutant containment and reductions primarily from serious offenders. Thus, US environmental policy tends to “focus on compliance and technology rather than performance” and does not account for growth in the number of polluting sources for end-of-pipe regulations, fails to link policy outputs to outcomes, and provides insufficient incentives to transform manufacturing and industrial processes. Examining successes and failures across the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, Press abstracts lessons learned from successful examples such as the Acid Rain Program’s real-time emissions monitoring, local experimentation with low impact development and effective marketing for recovered paper manufacturing.

Press recognizes that politics play an important role in environmental policymaking (chapter 6), but aside from citing successful examples of local and state “extended producer responsibility” rules he does not discuss how to overcome resistance to change the status quo, what he terms “political or ideological obstruction.” References to political polarization suggest that future work on regulatory design and policy tools must be linked to studies of environmental politics in order to propose “effective, parsimonious, precautionary and participatory environmental regulations.” Following Press’s discussion of regulatory failure and reform in US environmental policy, readers are positioned to further study the role of technology and information in environmental regulatory design.



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