The federal government’s new effort to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants could wind up saving 3,500 lives every year, according to a new study.
Whenever coal and certain other fossil fuels are burned, they produce air pollutants — like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other fine particles — which in turn help exacerbate a host of health problems like respiratory ailments, heart attacks, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. According to an assessment by the American Lung Association, almost half the country lives with some level of unsafe air thanks to this sort of pollution, and other health groups have raised the same concerns. Any moves to cut carbon dioxide emissions will inevitably cut down on those other emissions as well.
Back in June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its plan to reduce those emissions from the United States’ fleet of power plants 25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. So a joint research effort by Harvard, Syracuse, and Boston University set out to quantify the health benefits of those reductions. Released Tuesday, the study concluded that, by 2020, the regulations would prevent 3,500 premature deaths each year, along with 1,000 fewer annual hospital visits for heart and lung problems, and 220 fewer heart attacks every year.
“Hundreds of thousands of people suffer serious health problems from air pollution in the U.S. every year, and these health problems mostly occur in areas where pollution is meeting current EPA standards,” Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and the study’s lead author, told Harvard’s new service.
Specifically, the study used computer models to tease out the results of a scenario very similar to EPA’s plan — in which states are given tailored emission-reduction targets and a host of flexible options by which to meet them, and in which energy efficiency efforts are pursued. First, the researchers simulated emissions from the nation’s power plants and how much they would be cut by that regulatory scenario. That produced a grid-based set of information on air quality across the country, with was then fed into another computer model to estimate the health effects. This was compared to a business-as-usual baseline provided by the Energy Information Administration, in which other planned environmental policies are still implemented, but not the EPA’s power plant rule.
The result of the simulations was a 35.5 percent decrease in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2020, a 27 percent decrease in sulfur dioxide levels, and 22 percent decrease in nitrogen oxides. The reductions (measured as decreases in “ozone,” the pollution those chemicals form when they react with heat and oxygen in the atmosphere) were concentrated in the eastern half of the United States, often along the Rust Belt and other states where the coal industry and coal-fired power plants can be found — and where concerns about the economic effects of EPA’s new regulations is most acute. Reductions in fine particulate matter followed a very similar pattern.
CREDIT: Harvard University, Boston University, Syracuse University
“In a nutshell, our research shows that power plant carbon standards that are both stringent and flexible have the highest clean air and health benefits and could save thousands of lives in communities across the United States every year,” said study co-author Charles Driscoll, of Syracuse University.
Nor do those benefits end with health effects. Avoided deaths and disease and hospital visits leave more money to spent on productive pursuits elsewhere in the economy, and leave workers healthier to produce more wealth. That in turn boosts the economy. As a result, a smorgasbord of analyses have found that the economic benefits of environmental regulations regularly and massive outweigh the compliance costs businesses have to take on to meet the requirements. When EPA modeled the power plant regulations itself, it found the avoided premature deaths would be somewhere between 2,700 and 6,600 a year, and that the economic benefits would overtake the costs by tens of billions annually by 2030.
Power plants are the country’s single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions and sulfur dioxide emissions, and the second-largest source of nitrogen oxides. Gasoline and diesel emissions are the biggest source of the latter, and contribute some of the former as well. A separate set of federal regulations are aiming to cut down on that pollution.
EPA is currently taking public comments on the power plant regulations until December of this year, and will release the final version of the rule in June of 2015.
“The results from the different scenarios show that policy choices matter and we can’t take health benefits for granted,” added Jonathan Levy of the Boston University School of Public Health, another one of the study’s co-authors. “Whether communities experience these health gains from cleaner air will depend on the details of the final power plant standards.”