Vehicle Emissions Are Up Sharply, And It’s Fueling Climate Change

Oct 15, 2019

Pollution from auto emissions has gone up 55 percent in the Tampa Bay area since 1990, according to a nationwide analysis the New York Times published last week.

The numbers are nearly the same or worse for other parts of the state during that time period: a 53 percent increase in the Jacksonville area; 58 percent in the Dade-Broward region; 61 percent in the Sarasota-Bradenton area; 98 percent in the Orlando region; and a whopping 126 percent in Naples.

In some areas the increase is partly due to population growth, but in others the per capita amount of pollution has increased as well. In the Tampa Bay area, the amount of vehicle-related pollution produced per person has gone up by 4 percent since 1990.

The newspaper noted that these figures — based on data collected by Boston University — are important because “transportation is the largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the United States today and the bulk of those emissions come from driving in our cities and suburbs.” About 60 percent of the vehicle emissions come from the nation’s 250 million passenger vehicles, with 23 percent from commercial truck traffic.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties used to be among the six Florida counties that required drivers to bring their vehicles in for an annual emissions inspection every year. In addition to a cursory safety check, inspectors were looking for cars that were belching smoke like a Rust Belt factory. The other counties were Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Duval.

Florida was required to launch the emissions inspection program in 1991, after those six regions flunked federal smog standards. Every year inspectors spotted thousands of vehicles that couldn’t pass muster. In 1999, for instance, the inspectors ordered 25,941 drivers to repair their vehicles or scrap their beaters.

But motorists disliked sitting in long lines and breathing the noxious fumes while waiting their turn to fork over money for the inspection. In 2000, the Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush teamed up to eliminate the inspections entirely. They declared it to be both expensive — costing a total of $52 million a year — and unneeded, given that the Environmental Protection Agency under Florida native Carol Browner said the state’s air had gotten cleaner.

“The vehicle inspection program is not an efficient tool for reducing pollution and is an unnecessary burden to motorists,” Bush said then. "Preliminary approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that emission testing is not necessary to maintain air quality standards in all the Florida counties they have reviewed.”

Efforts by the American Lung Association and civic and environmental groups failed to sway the politicians who were happy to support a deregulation move that saved people both money and aggravation.

But 19 years later, “it’s hard to argue that our air wouldn’t be cleaner here in Florida today if we still had emissions testing,” said Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, who in 2000 was leading one of the civic groups trying to save the program.

Bush, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, defended ending the program.

The emissions testing “was not so consumer friendly, it cost too much,” Bush wrote. “We saved millions each year for Florida. I am proud of getting that done and there is no evidence that it had any influence on increased emissions since they were growing before the action taken. But I do know that used car owners were delighted that they didn’t have to go through the agony of inspections.”

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For Tampa Bay, auto emissions are more than just an air pollution problem. According to Maya Burke of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, what comes out of drivers’ tailpipes ends up settling into the water and polluting that too.

“It’s one of our primary sources” of nitrogen pollution, Burke said. The quasi-governmental organization’s most recent report on the bay shows vehicle emissions account for 17 percent of all the nitrogen in the bay.

Originally wastewater flowing into the bay and power plant smoke accounted for a greater percentage of the pollution problem, she said. But over the years local governments have cut back on the wastewater dumping and added scrubbers to power plant smokestacks. Meanwhile, the auto emissions continued apace, and gradually became a larger percentage of the problem, she explained.

“We try to tell people that air quality equals water quality,” Burke said. “All that pollution in the air comes back in the form of nitrogen that lands in the bay.”

Nitrogen pollution fuels algae blooms such as Red Tide when it drifts near shore, and can also cause sea grass die-offs.

Florida is considered one of the states that is most vulnerable to climate change because it’s a peninsula surrounded by water and the land is flatter than Kansas, meaning sea level rise will go farther inland faster.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.