Majority of Utahns in favor of changing behavior to cut air pollution — but actions might speak louder 

Three-quarters of Utah residents want to see air emissions decrease 40 percent by the year 2050 — even when they were told they would have to curtail their driving by 25 percent, enact new building codes, remodel their home and buy a new car to achieve that goal.

According to Envision Utah survey results released Wednesday, the majority of respondents chose one of two proposed versions of Utah’s future that saw air pollution decrease by 40 percent. Another 19 percent voted to decrease emissions by just 30 percent, and only 7 percent voted to reduce emissions by 20 percent — a scenario that would require little additional action from the average Utahn but would not bring the state into compliance with federal health standards.

That strong support for clean air and the willingness to change is good news, said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. But it’s also surprising.

Utahns have become increasingly vocal in their calls for clean air, Bird said. But he has observed that when curtailing air emissions begins to affect individuals, Utahns rarely come to the table.

“This is maybe contrary to the pushback that we receive when we try to find a solution to our air quality problems,” Bird said. “The problem is any time we find a solution, it impacts somebody — somebody has to make a change, somebody has to make a choice.

“When you go through the regulatory process, that’s when the impact is realized, and those people oppose it or provide feedback that the impact is not fair in their eyes … whenever you put a regulation in place, that’s when you see more pushback.”

That has led the Air Quality Board to move toward incentives programs that use a carrot, rather than a stick, to convince residents to make choices that will improve air quality, Bird said.

For example, he said, a recent incentive program that allowed residents to trade their gas-powered lawn mowers for electric models was highly successful. As the state grows and its emissions increase with its population, incentives may be the way to go, Bird said.

At the same time, he said, there’s still a battle to be fought when it comes to education. An Envision Utah survey conducted in 2013 found that most Utahns underestimate the emissions contributions made by their homes. According to that survey, Utahns estimated that vehicles are responsible for 44 percent of Utah’s air emissions, industry for 39 percent, and homes and buildings for the remaining 17 percent. But the state’s scientific estimates put cars at 57 percent, industry at 11 percent and homes and other buildings at 32 percent.

The fastest-growing sources of air pollution in Utah aren’t industrial smokestacks, Bird said, but increased urban density and all the things associated with it — restaurants, homes, cleaning products, even nail polish.

Matt Pacenza, executive director of the advocacy group HEAL Utah, disputed the state’s low estimate of industry contributions, but he said residents’ misunderstanding of their own impact is a longstanding problem.

“The truth is our boilers and hot water heaters are basically invisible to us,” he said, “and the emissions they put out our chimneys literally are.”

But overall, Pacenza said, the 2015 survey results seem encouraging.

“I think what’s interesting is that people have been very supportive of policies that, let’s say, increase the cost of gas slightly,” he said. “Or that increase the cost of a car slightly, or increase the cost of a new home slightly, and those are the kinds of policies that we’re talking about. I think we can get to the 40 percent if we do stuff like that.”

Pacenza said he just hopes such programs’ public support translates for lawmakers. In the past, he said, bills that call for stricter building codes for new homes have been blocked by lobbyists.

“Some of the ways that we get to improving building policies require a willingness to take on powerful interests, including Realtors and homebuilders,” he said, “and so far, we haven’t seen that.”

Source: Majority of Utahns in favor of changing behavior to cut air pollution — but actions might speak louder | The Salt Lake Tribune

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