United States and Canada: Celebrating 25 Years of Cleaner Air

Air pollution is one of the world’s leading threats to human health, and it respects no boundaries. Over 25 years ago the United States and Canada realized we had a shared acid rain problem that required a shared problem-solving strategy. Together, we developed the United States-Canada Air Quality Agreement (AQA) in 1991, which has achieved substantial progress in improving the environment and human health in North America. 

Originally conceived to address acid rain, the United States-Canada Air Quality Agreement has brought about positive impacts far beyond its enormous success in improving water quality in lakes and streams in both our countries. This is because the pollutants that cause acid rain also contribute to elevated levels of smog and soot, which have well-documented adverse impacts on public health. The Agreement is implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of State, and Environment and Climate Change Canada in coordination with other agencies and ministries. Through our quarter century of close collaboration, initiatives in both countries have contributed to a 37 percent reduction in particulate matter concentrations in the United States. Particulate matter has been linked to illnesses such as chronic bronchitis and asthma, cardiovascular disease, and even premature death. Through efforts under the AQA, emissions of sulfur dioxide have been cut by more than three-quarters and emissions of nitrogen oxides have been cut by half, which has led to a reduction of harmful acid rain and smog. These efforts have protected American and Canadian families from respiratory illness and saved lives. 

Our nations’ cooperation did not stop with addressing the harmful impacts of acid rain it led to fruitful collaboration in other areas as well. For example, the AQA has been the platform for coordinating motor vehicle emission standards for both countries including light-duty vehicles, light-duty trucks, heavy-duty vehicles and engines, and motorcycles. It has also been used to align standards on small engines (e.g., chainsaws, lawn mowers); diesel engines (e.g., construction and farm equipment); and recreational vehicles and engines (e.g., snowmobiles, outboard engines, personal watercraft). Recently the collaborative work has been expanded to stationary sources as work has been started on sharing information on the control of air emissions from oil and gas operations.

The AQA continues to serve both countries well to address the air quality challenges of the 21st century. Looking back, there is much to celebrate, and looking forward there is much to keep us busy promoting clean air in both countries. Under a refreshed AQA we intend to expand the scientific cooperation that has been a foundation of the agreement and helped both countries identify emerging issues and better understand how emissions of different pollutants are transported and ultimately affect air quality. By updating the agreement, we will support this successful model and see continued public health improvements.

Earlier this month, the top air quality experts from the United States and Canada met in Ottawa for the annual meeting of the U.S.-Canada Air Quality Committee. to address air pollution threats old and new, as well as ways that both countries can continue to cooperate to improve the quality of the air we all breathe.

Nowhere else in the world do two neighboring countries work so broadly and so deeply to safeguard air quality as we do in the United States and Canada. Still, it is vital not to take for granted all that we have achieved--preserving clean air requires continued vigilance, effort and cooperation.

About the Author: Daniel Reifsnyder serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment in Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the Department of State. 

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