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In our opinion: Cleaning Utah's air needs a mindset of action

Gov. Gary Herbert ceremonially signs clean air legislation at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 22, 2019.
Gov. Gary Herbert ceremonially signs clean air legislation at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 22, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

The governors of Utah and Nevada took the opportunity of Earth Day to publicize new initiatives that recognize the growing importance of a strong commitment by state government to improve environmental quality on a local level — and globally.

Gov. Gary Herbert touted a package of clean air bills and an unprecedented $28 million investment in clean air initiatives, while Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation pushing for rapid growth in the use of renewable energy. While the Nevada law reflects a larger push toward policies aimed at addressing global climate change, the Utah measures speak more toward the direct impact of dirty air, especially during winter inversion periods.

In both cases, the efforts demonstrate the important role local government plays in helping direct market changes in the areas of energy use and pollution control.

Such actions are one of the keys to keeping bad air at bay, according to Deseret News reporter Erica Evans, who last October traveled to Oslo, Norway, to discover how local government intervention is necessary to guard the the health of its residents. Oslo, she reports, takes a “greedy” approach, favoring swift action over drawn-out committee discussions.

Although the greedy method has its shortcomings, harboring a mindset of action among Utah’s business and political leaders will make positive advances.

The nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reports that the use of renewable energy sources in the U.S. grew 67 percent between 2000 and 2016. The non-partisan organization attributes that rise to two principal factors — advances in technology making solar, wind and biofuel energy production more affordable, and government policies including tax incentives aimed at increasing the market share of renewable sources.

The development and use of renewable energy has climbed steadily in the past two decades. Currently, about 15 percent of electricity generation in the U.S. is from renewable sources, with that percentage expected to at least double in the next 10 years.

While it’s important that policies include specific goals, they must be realistic. Hard line environmental advocates seem to think it’s possible to turn off all of the lights powered by fossil fuels and turn them back on the next morning with only renewable sources.

Utah’s push toward cleaner air represents a practical attack on specific problems. Urban areas here rank high in short-term pollution levels because of the dozen or so days every winter in which particulates are trapped at low levels by high-pressure systems. Automobile emissions are by far the biggest contributor of particulate pollution, and one component of the state’s anti-pollution push increases the number of electric-vehicle charging stations. Such practical measures serve to augment existing market trends.

Just as renewable energy sources claim more of a share of power generation, regulatory efforts on state and federal levels have led to large decreases in overall pollution. As an example, emissions from industrial sources in Utah have dropped 47 percent since 1995, reports the Deseret News' Amy Joi O'Donoghue. Such trends need to continue. Laws that are aspirational, as in the case of Nevada, and pragmatic, as in Utah’s efforts, are important in their own ways in guaranteeing that beneficial progress carries on.