- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The polar ice caps are melting, Montana’s Glacier National Park barely has any glaciers left, and in the Pacific Ocean, a trash heap the size of Texas is killing marine life.

With that in mind, can you really say “Happy Earth Day” with a straight face?

Yes - with a few caveats - say scientist-environmentalist types.

For example, remember the ozone debate of the 1980s? It was on everyone’s worried minds and lips. Would we all die from skin cancer? Would the sun scorch the Earth?

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These days, though, ozone and ozone-depleting pollutants don’t make headlines anymore. The pollutants - chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, for example - that were used to cool everything from refrigerators to air conditioners were banned and phased out after the 1987 Montreal Protocol - an international treaty aimed at protecting the ozone layer.

“It’s a true success story,” said Nathan Hultman, an assistant professor in international climate policy at the University of Maryland. “We went from full production to zero in just a decade and consumers didn’t even notice the change was happening.”

We didn’t notice because industry found substitutes for the ozone-depleting substances at a lower cost than expected, Mr. Hultman said.

“The ozone stabilized almost immediately,” he said.

Another big success during the past few decades was a sharp reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants nationwide.

By installing scrubbers, plants significantly cut sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause tree-killing acid rain and smog precursors that can trigger respiratory problems.

“It’s a big change,” said Chris Flavin, president of the World Watch Institute, adding that the changes were made in the wake of government regulations that started in the 1970s.

A 1990 amendment to 1970’s Clean Air Act, for example, included a cap-and-trade program that allowed companies to buy the right to pollute as long as the sector as a whole - in this case coal plants - didn’t go over a certain quota, or cap. This allowed companies that could afford to buy green technologies to do so while those that didn’t had to pay to pollute.

“Sulphur dioxide is definitely another success story,” Mr. Hultman said. “It went from being a prevalent problem to almost nothing.”

And, unlike ozone-depleting substances, which can linger in the atmosphere for many decades, sulfur dioxide disappears - or “dies” - within a few weeks, Mr. Hultman said.

A lesson learned from the sulfur dioxide success story is that involving the corporate sector is key. Not by a ban on emissions, but by allowing market forces to prevail in programs such as cap and trade.

These days, many companies are asking for environmental regulations, said Bill Stanley, director of conservation at the Nature Conservancy.

“They want to know what they can expect,” Mr. Stanley said.

In other words, companies want to know they are investing wisely, that their technology will not be obsolete in a decade because of more stringent environmental regulations.

Other successes over the past decades include local and regional land conservation in the United States as well as improvements in water quality.

“The Potomac is a great example. If you’d gone swimming there 30 years ago you’d get really sick. That’s no longer the case,” Mr. Flavin said.

Land conservation, too, has hit its stride, said Mark Anderson, a conservation director with the Nature Conservancy for the Northeast region.

“We have made huge progress on land conservation,” Mr. Anderson said.

For example, 23 percent - or more than 40 million acres - of the total landmass between northern Maine and southern Virginia is protected from development. But it’s not just the quantity that matters when it comes to land conservation, Mr. Anderson said. It’s also about the quality of the land.

For example, scientists now know the vital importance of wetlands for breeding birds, which means the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups can better identify and protect these areas.

“Just a decade ago we had a much less clear view on this,” Mr. Anderson said.

Preserving land, though, is not just about preserving birds in particular and biodiversity in flora and fauna in general. It’s about maintaining as much tree-covered land as possible, Mr. Stanley said, because doing so will help fight the paramount environmental issue of the 21st century - global climate change.

“Trees capture carbons,” Mr. Stanley said.

Each year, the world loses about 15 million hectares - roughly the size of New York state - of forest.

“At least 25 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions are due to this deforestation,” Mr. Stanley said, adding that putting an end to deforestation has to be part of the climate change debate.

Scientists and environmentalist policy specialists, though, hope we can learn from our past successes on issues ranging from protecting the ozone layer to significantly cutting sulfur dioxide emissions - successes that included government regulations, public perception-consumer behavior and corporate involvement.

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