Policy Savant Panel: Can the Utah Climate & Clean Air Compact make a difference for Utahns?

Utah is fortunate to be served by a number of capable think tanks and policy institutes. Periodically, UtahPolicy.com poses a question to leaders from these organizations regarding important and timely policy issues. For this week’s question we noted the large group of Utah leaders that promoted and signed the Utah Climate & Clean Air Compact, which encourages all citizens and organizations to follow “The Utah Roadmap: Positive Solutions on Climate and Air Quality.” The roadmap was commissioned by the Utah Legislature and developed by a wide range of experts convened by the Gardner Policy Institute. To the panel of policy savants, we asked:

“Can this broad-based community initiative really make a difference in improving Utah’s air quality and combatting global climate change, or is it mostly a feel-good, symbolic gesture?” Here are their answers:

Peter Reichard, President, Utah Foundation. We can admit that any effort Utah makes to address global climate change will be a drop in the world bucket, and Utah Foundation’s 2020 Utah Priorities Project shows that Utahns in general are not particularly concerned about climate change. But Utahns are worried about air quality. And if Utah makes major strides on the air quality front, it might thereby do more than its part in the climate change arena.

There’s no reason Utah can’t advance pragmatic approaches that not only improve air quality, but also boost the economy and enhance quality of life. In the 2019 report, “Building a Better Beehive: Land Use Decision Making, Fiscal Sustainability and Quality of Life in Utah,” Utah Foundation explored active transportation amenities and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes as a vital means of improving community spaces.

Along these lines, it also explored land use strategies that employ live-work-play development patterns, including transit-oriented developments. Better pedestrian amenities and better-integrated land uses can help to reduce the need for commuting and other driving trips, taking more cars out of traffic and thereby improving our air.

Our work around alternative fuel vehicles last year (Driving Toward a Cleaner Future: Alternative Fuel Vehicles in Utah) suggests that there are opportunities to address the worst offenders on the road: older, heavy-duty trucks. We are currently finishing a study that will address the potential for teleworking as an additional air quality strategy.

Other options worth a closer look include: cracking down on wood smoke on red-air days with stiff penalties for noncompliance; a cash-for-clunkers program focused on heavy-polluting cars; promoting transit ridership through investments to increase convenience; making the Inland Port an international model for air quality stewardship; and updating building codes with a focus on air quality.

Natalie Gochnour, Director, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah. The answer is “yes.” Broad-based community initiatives motivate real change more than any law or government program. Consider what happened with the Utah Compact on Immigration. In 2010, the Salt Lake Chamber, after observing the enforcement-only approach to immigration reform pursued by Arizona, sought something more balanced. Business and community leaders penned and signed “The Utah Compact,” which delineated five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion.

The Compact accomplished two important things. It unified Utah leaders behind a balanced and humane approach to immigration, including four bills passed in the 2011 general legislative session that combined strengthened enforcement with a state-level guest worker program. The state-level work permits for illegal residents was ultimately blocked by the federal government, but it sent an important message – if you pass a criminal background check and have automobile and health insurance, you are welcome to work in Utah.

Second, it stopped what Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, called “hateful” legislation (modeled after SB 1070 in Arizona) from passing in Utah. Noorani also credits the compact with influencing the national immigration debate in a surprising and meaningful way.

The New York Times editorial board, which is not known for its praise of Utah, said, “A clearer expression of good sense and sanity than Utah’s would be hard to find.”

The Utah Climate & Clean Air Compact, of which I am a signatory, helps unify our community and sends a strong message that Utah cares about human health and the health of our planet. The Compact alone will not get the job done, but when combined with solid research and civic leadership, Utah can, once again, be a leader among states in effecting meaningful and lasting change.

Ari Bruening, Chief Executive Officer, Envision Utah. The Utah Climate & Clean Air Compact is a prime example of one of the key ingredients for Utah’s success: we collaborate well together. People came together across political parties, sectors, and industries to agree on a set of principles. As with any such collaboration, the real power may not be in the specific strategies or principles that were adopted, but in the collective agreement that we should work together to address the twin challenges of air quality and climate change. This agreement will lead to further discussion and action.

The solutions to air quality and climate change significantly overlap. Air quality has been Utahns’ top dislike about living here for years, and the steps we take to reduce our particulate matter and other emissions will also, for the most part, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Any strategy that results in using less energy will have benefits for both. Air quality, however, is primarily (but not entirely) a localized issue, while climate change is an international issue. While Utah can do its part, the rest of the world will also have to participate if we want to see real progress.

Rick B. Larsen, President & CEO, Sutherland Institute. It is largely symbolic but nevertheless important. State air quality efforts must factor in responsible citizenship and personal decisions – more so than mandates borne of public policy efforts. Experience shows that state-level climate proposals do not have measurable impacts on global climate change. Recent western wildfires also demonstrate that we are not isolated from events beyond our local control. The same holds true globally – India and China have the ability to offset any efforts the United States can make.

However, as Rep. John Curtis stated in a recent Sutherland Congressional Series, whether or not you fully subscribe to climate change, why would we not make every effort to be good stewards of our planet?

An effective and common-sense Utah Roadmap can impact things such as air quality during winter inversions but only through increasing personal awareness and responsibility. If facemasks are any indication, an effective plan will likely have to be tailored to fit the lives of Utahns rather than asking Utahns to tailor their lives to fit the Roadmap. It is not reasonable to expect that government mandates will compel Utahns to jeopardize their livelihoods, alter their communities and upset their emotional well-being, simply to achieve a number.

In order to solve air quality problems without creating bigger problems, Utahns will have to be persuaded through true leadership, rather than coerced under force of law.