Arthur van Benthem on new cars, old cars, and air pollution today

According to research from Wharton’s Arthur van Benthem, air pollution from new vehicles has fallen 99% since the first emissions standards were introduced in 1968, and a small group of older cars are responsible for a large share of total pollution. The associate professor of business economics and public policy focuses his research on vehicle air pollution and emissions standards, and environmental and energy economics.

Arthur van Benthem
Arthur van Benthem, associate professor of business economics and public policy. (Image: Wharton Stories)

According to van Benthem, air pollution in the U.S. has improved in the last 50 years, with the emissions from carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and ozone dropping 80% since 1970. However, “even with this spectacular improvement,” he explains, “quite a few big cities are out of compliance with federal air pollution standards. In contrast, CO2 emissions have fallen by far less over the same period; we have done much better at tackling health issues from local air pollution than combating climate change.”

While federal emissions standards have made enormous improvements in air quality, with air pollution from new vehicles falling by 99% since regulation began in 1968, “we also find that cars get much dirtier as they age, so a small group of old vehicles is responsible for an enormous share of total pollution,” says van Benthem. Older cars are a proven major source of air pollution, but many people who have old cars often can’t afford to replace them with new cars. This is a larger issue that ties in economics and community health. “To efficiently reduce pollution, we would need to keep increasing the annual registration fees of used cars as they get older (and dirtier). In the short run, this will hurt those who own the oldest cars—typically (but not always) lower-income families. But the environmental and health benefits from lower pollution could also be higher in lower-income neighborhoods,” van Benthem says.

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