AirCare Shows the Limitations of Old Environmentalism

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An edited version appeared in The Province, May 16, 2003
Last month, I dutifully took my car in for AirCare, paying $24.00 in direct cost, losing a precious hour of my weekend time, and burning the gasoline needed to idle my car for an hour. At first, I didn’t really mind, since like most Canadians, I cherish our magnificent environment, which is, to me, the crown jewel of Canada. Having grown up with asthma, I’m wedded to finding ways to reduce the air pollution burden of our cities.

But as I sat there, waiting, my car putting emissions into the air, I realized that AirCare neatly typifies the difference between old-school environmentalism, with its focus on process over results, and a new environmentalism, growing around the world, that focuses on results, rather than process.

What’s wrong with AirCare? For one thing, like many old-school environmentalist approaches, it takes a shotgun approach to a problem best handled surgically: though only a small percentage (estimates range from 10% to 20%) of the vehicles on the road are responsible for the majority (up to 80%) of vehicular pollutant emissions, programs like AirCare focus on testing everyone, charging and inconveniencing the majority of motorists who are doing nothing wrong

Worse still, AirCare simply doesn’t work very well. As a report by The Fraser Institute showed, not only does AirCare fail to detect gross emitters, even when it manages to identify more marginal emitters for repair, some vehicles come out polluting more after repairs than they did when they went for the test. AirCare is also of limited effectiveness because it does not test cars under real-world conditions, and studies show that among the worst polluters are cars that “flip” from clean running to dirty running without any noticeable change in vehicle performance

Still another aspect of AirCare that reflects an old-school environmental attitude is the failure to deal with personal incentives. As analysts have observed, a single scheduled test is not hard to pass, even if one has to cheat to do it. As one wag put it, scheduled inspection and maintenance programs are like a scheduled drunk-driving test. Few people are going to show up drunk, but only having one test per year gives them no incentive to stay sober for long.

Finally, AirCare emission reductions aren’t a pure savings: in order to go get tested, people have to drive and put more pollution in the air to do so. The Fraser Institute study of AirCare in Vancouver shows that over seven years of AirCare, Vancouver drivers will log an extra 70 million kilometers, and burn an extra 7 million litres of gasoline just going to be tested. All that driving will release an additional 685 tonnes of air pollutants, and worsen already-high levels of traffic congestion.

All this would be less important if there were not a superior alternative, reflecting a new environmentalist focus on results, flexibility, and incentives. That alternative is called remote emission sensing, and it works like this. As you drive on the roads, scanners positioned along the roadside scan a beam of light in back of your tailpipe, right through the exhaust plume, to detect what the pollutant concentrations are in your car’s exhaust. If your car is clean, that’s the end of it for you: no fuss, no bother. If your car is a high-emitter, on the other hand, the scanner triggers a camera, that snaps a digitized picture of your license plate, and in a few weeks, you get a notice telling you to get your car fixed. Such systems have been tested in both Canada and the United States, and they work. In an Albertan test of a system called ROVER (Roadside Optical Vehicle Emissions Reporter), over 42,000 vehicles were tested in four municipalities, successfully identifying the 7% of vehicles that, in Alberta, were producing 54% of poisonous carbon monoxide emissions – the same vehicles likely to be producing high levels of hydrocarbons, a primary precursor of ozone smogAnd here’s the kicker: the ROVER can find those high emitters for only about 71 cents, that’s right, cents each. Testing a car with AirCare costs $24.00, or 33 times more, and at little inconvenience to the morotorist. At that cost, these remote sensors can scan vehicles multiple times in a year, catching more polluters, and creating the incentive to keep the car fixed.

We all want cleaner air, but AirCare, symbolic of the limitations of old-school environmentalism, should be put out to pasture. Remote sensing programs like Rover focus on the results, make proper use of incentives, are cheaper, and don’t inconvenience non-polluters.

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