A recently released study suggests stronger power plant standards to cut carbon emissions could save lives and offer significant health benefits. The study, a joint effort by Harvard University, Boston University and Syracuse University, evaluated the impacts of various policy options to reduce power plant emissions on public health. The timing is important considering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released carbon pollution standards, named the Clean Power Plan, for the first time in June. The suggested standards included a range of policy options, and the three universities’ researchers evaluated the three likely policy frameworks that would represent strategies for high, moderate and low targets for future carbon emissions reduction targets.
The study evaluated these three different carbon emissions policy scenarios for power plants to gauge which one would have the largest positive impact on public health. The first scenario, with the lowest targets and therefore the most energy-company friendly, would have only generated modest carbon emission reduction and created an uptick in public health risks. Another, the most rigorous plan on the compliance side, with high emission reduction targets but allowing no local flexibility and lacking any energy efficiency measures, reduced carbon but offered limited improvements in public health. A more moderate approach, which allowed for local flexibility in meeting the EPA’s proposed rules, actually showed the most potential for reversing mortalities and hospitalizations attributed to climate change.
To those who study carbon emissions’ effects on public health, the results of this study should not be much of a surprise. The researchers estimated about 3,500 lives could be saved annually, or nine a day. The reasons included lower particulate matter, which could prevent heart attacks; and lower ground-level ozone, which in turn would reduce respiratory hospital admissions. Throughout the lower 48 states, the benefits would also include 1,000 fewer hospitalizations and 220 fewer heart attacks. While the improvements would be felt all over the country, the study suggested the states with most improvements would be in the northeast, Great Lakes and in the southeast.
So why would the strictest overall policy framework have only a marginal impact on public health? According to the study’s authors, while such a scenario would slash carbon emissions the most, it would actually offer lower decreases in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions than a more moderate approach—and it is those pollutants that are often at the root of carbon emission-related health problems. Considering regional differences in climate, environment and energy requirements across the year, more flexibility to account for local needs should strike most of us as being common sense.
For a country that still relies on fossil fuels to electrify communities, the results should send a signal to policy makers and energy companies alike. Retrofitting power plants is not enough to stall carbon emissions and their effects on public health; nor is a blanket restrictive policy addressed at reducing emissions enough to make a difference. More investments in energy efficiency, as well as sensitivity to the needs various communities face, have got to be a part of a future energy infrastructure as we prepare for a future where we must provide energy for a growing population—while sorting out how we are going to minimize the impacts on our climate and environment.
Image credit: Library of Congress