Politics is typically about the here and now. And so shaping policy to address climate change poses a particularly difficult challenge. The benefits appear to be dispersed globally and accrue decades into the future, while the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be felt immediately. Or so the story goes.
The problem with this narrative is that the premise is fundamentally flawed. The cost of reducing emissions may be substantial and, indeed, occur in the here and now. But combatting climate change produces real benefits—in the present—by reducing emissions from power plants that directly harm human health. These findings are detailed in US Power Plant Carbon Standards and Clean Air and Health Co‐benefits (of which I am a coauthor), published today in Nature Climate Change.* Our research indicates that a strong carbon standard can significantly reduce several pollutants—including soot and smog, which have important consequences for public health—saving 3,500 lives per year nationwide, starting in the year 2020 (see figure).
The study was conducted with partners at the Science Policy Exchange at Syracuse University, who modeled air quality changes, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston University’s School of Public Health.
The research team investigated the impacts of three different climate scenarios in comparison to a reference case on air quality in the United States. These scenarios reflect three possible means of implementing emissions standards for the power sector that might take shape under the Clean Air Act. One scenario describes regulations requiring emissions rate improvements at coal-fired power plants. A second depicts required improvements in emissions rates for the entire electricity sector. And a third portrays an emissions fee.
We used the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) detailed CMAQ model to project emissions for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides to calculate changes in air quality under each scenario in 2020 compared to business as usual. The resulting air quality estimates were used to predict health benefits—county by county for the entire continental United States—based on established relationships between air quality and health outcomes, such as premature mortality and cases of chronic and acute respiratory and cardiovascular episodes. Our results demonstrate the health benefits of reducing soot and smog, an expected additional advantage of a strong carbon standard for power plants—beyond the direct health benefits of mitigating climate change associated with avoided exposure to heat episodes, fires, severe weather events, and so on. A forthcoming companion paper will examine the ecological changes that would result from such policies to address greenhouse gases.
These benefits are possible if EPA adopts a carbon standard similar to what’s outlined in the agency’s Clean Power Plan, proposed in June 2014. The plan would require improved efficiency and emissions rate reductions across the entire electricity industry. However, if the final proposal is scaled back to include improvements only in the operation of existing coal plants, important reductions in soot and smog will not occur, and the United States will not experience air quality and health benefits. In fact, soot and smog could increase in some regions under a weak carbon standard.
Ours is the first peer-reviewed study to examine the air quality benefits that can be expected under the Clean Power Plan. It is the latest and, I believe, the most definitive in establishing that the very emissions reductions envisioned for carbon to address climate change will also facilitate the reduction of a host of noxious pollutants currently emitted into the air we breathe. This observation has special relevance outside the United States, where air quality in many urban areas in the developing world is a substantial threat to health and economic productivity. Additionally, awareness of this relationship between greenhouse gases and conventional air pollution facilitates progress on international climate negotiations. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to our study, is a win-win investment.
*Subscription required. More information about the study, including the full press kit, can be found here: US Power Plant Carbon Standards and Clean Air and Health Co‐benefits, by Charles T. Driscoll (Syracuse University), Jonathan Buonocore (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Heath), Jonathan I. Levy (Boston University School of Public Heath), Kathleen F. Lambert (Harvard University), Dallas Burtraw (Resources for the Future), Stephen B. Reid (Sonoma Technology Inc.), Habibollah Fakhraei (Syracuse University), and Joel Schwartz (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).