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Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health

By Roberta Attanasio

A little more than a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died — accounting for one in eight of total global deaths — as a result of exposure to air pollution. These estimates more than doubled the previous ones, and confirmed that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. The WHO concluded that reducing air pollution globally could save millions of lives.

Air Pollution
Photo credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier, CC BY-SA 2.0

But, what policy changes would be most effective at saving lives? The answer comes from a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change (May 4, 2015.) The study, (US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits), was based on data from the Census Bureau as well as detailed maps of the more than 2,400 fossil-fuel-fired power plants operating across the U.S. It outlines how changes in carbon dioxide emissions could lead to considerable health benefits for the U.S population.

According to the WHO, the diseases caused by air pollution include ischemic heart disease (40%), stroke (40%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (11%), lung cancer (6%), and acute lower respiratory infections in children (3%).

For the new study, the researchers analyzed three possible policy options for power plant carbon standards. The policy option leading to the biggest health benefits was the one that included changes proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 2, 2014, in the Clean Power Plan. Modeling analysis indicated that this option could prevent an expected 3,500 premature deaths in the U.S. every year, and avert more than a thousand heart attacks and hospitalizations annually from air pollution-related illness. Thus, according to the study, the formula presented in the draft Clean Power Plan is on the right track to provide large health benefits, and these health benefits depend entirely on critical policy choices that will be made by the EPA in the final Clean Power Plan expected in July. The Plan is the nation’s first attempt to establish standards for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. It is also viewed as an important signal of U.S. leadership in the run-up to international climate negotiations in Paris in December.

Jonathan Buonocore, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release: “If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented.”

Power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. However, they release not only carbon dioxide, but also other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — precursors to smog and soot that harm human health. The study considered the added health benefits, or co-benefits, of carbon standards from reductions in the emissions of these other air pollutants.

Air Pollution
Photo credit: Eric Schmuttenmaer, CC BY-SA 2.0

Charles Driscoll, lead author of the study, said in the press release: “The bottom line is, the more the standards promote cleaner fuels and energy efficiency, the greater the added health benefits. We found that the greatest clean air and health benefits occur when stringent targets for carbon dioxide emissions are combined with compliance measures that promote demand-side energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources across the power sector.” He added: “The immediate and widespread local health benefits of cleaner air from policies to address greenhouse gas emissions can provide a strong motivation for U.S. and global action on climate change.”

According to the EPA, “The Clean Power Plan will maintain an affordable, reliable energy system, while cutting pollution and protecting our health and environment now and for future generations. States, cities and businesses are already taking action. The Clean Power Plan puts states in the driver’s seat to a cleaner, more efficient power fleet of the future by giving them the flexibility to choose how to meet their goals. The proposal is flexible — reflecting the different needs of different states.”

Sabrina Tavernise and Coral Davenport wrote in the New York Times that if enacted as devised, the rules could eventually close hundreds of coal plants and freeze construction of new coal plants for the foreseeable future, while encouraging the construction of new electricity generation from natural gas, wind, solar and other low-carbon energy sources.


  • S.dayman

    It all comes down to money. Wisconsin Governor Walker wrote against the Clean Power Plan saying “The PSCW (Public Service Commission of Wisconsin) preliminarily estimates a cost of compliance with this proposal of $3.3 to $13.4 billion for our state alone.”

    Yet I feel this argument is foolish. Yes upgrading power plants will be costly but unless something is done, climate change will damage our planet beyond repair. We’re already seeing an increase in the number of storms and the intensity is increasing as well. Hurricane Sandy cost $50 billion, Hurricane Katrina was $105 billion. These 2 storms only cost the U.S. more than the cost of converting 12 states to clean power plants.

    • M. Coole

      I feel like even that since it is so expensive that people won’t want to take the leap to fight for a cleaner environment. Most people today are not concerned with global warming and other issues affecting our planet. People want to spend the money on bigger issues. Plus the country is in so much debt that boosting the economy and trying to decrease inflation are the main priorities that people focus on.

  • Hitoyou

    The Clean Power Plan would indeed be a nice piece of legislation for the United States, and could very well set a precedent for the rest of the World. However, developing countries and countries that have just recently hit their industrial revolution may not be so keen on spending money on cleaner power options. I feel as though corruption and incompetence will be major factors as to whether or not some of the biggest global offenders, such as Pakistan and China, get on board with trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in their countries.

  • M. Coole

    The Clean Power Plan is a brilliant piece of legislation, but I feel like politicians are more concerned with other policies at this time. I feel like it will be harder to regulate for areas that are more urban based. States that are more rural will have fewer carbon emissions, so I feel like politicians of larger urban states will not vote to pass this plan. For example, Texas’ Attorney Ken Paxton is against the Obama Administration’s plan for Clean Power. I think over time this program will be effective, but for the short term it will not be successful. The entire country needs to support this idea for a total environmental makeover to occur.

    • Hitoyou

      On it’s surface the plan sounds beneficial. However, as we have seen recently with some of the proposed net neutrality legislation and also the Affordable Care Act, politicians try to sneak other bits of non-related legislation in. I see this as people like Ken Paxton saying,”Sure, I will give ground on this issue, but I require this in return.” We could have the Clean Power Plan voted in to law but also have to renew a few not so beneficial aspects of the Patriot Act.

      • M. Brydson

        The environmental regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concerning clean air can be argued from two sides of the spectrum. For argument sake, let us call them activists, those who are concerned about the negative impacts of air pollution on the environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, and ozone depletion. Then, there are those in an industry that will have to revamp the methods of processing products for effective remediation. Such restructuring of infrastructure and equipment may cause fiscal strain for the particular industry.

        In November 2014, President Obama sought to push for an environmental legislative to issue a series of regulations on air pollution, soot smog, mercury and planet-warming carbon dioxide.
        According to the article, published in the New York Time, the was the first national policy issued for combatting Global Warming. The article further stated, “…The regulations could ultimately shut down existing coal-fired power plants, freeze construction of new coal plants and end demand for the nation’s most polluting fuel.” Mitch McConnell Republican Senator of Kentucky put forth legislation block President Obamas legislations that pertained to the Clean Air Act, this was because his home state is a major coal producer. In earlier years, the first George Bush updated the Clean Air Act and Senator McConnell was among 89 of the Senators who voted for the passage of the law. However, when President Obama was trying form legislations that sought to combat the effects of Global Warming , McConnell was not in support. Does Politicians “sneakiness” outweigh checks and Balances? Senator McConnell voted against President Obama’s legislatives regulations. McConnell stated, ”I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo,” and at the time (during Bush’s Presidency) he said, ”I chose cleaner air.”

        Economic performance (GDP) is not in question here when the EPA accessed peer-reviewed studies that show that the implementation of the clean air act has proven quite beneficial overall.
        A statement issued on by the EPA stated, “Today, as in the past, the Clean Air Act continues to cut pollution and protect the health of American families and workers. Fewer premature deaths and illnesses means Americans experience longer lives, better quality of life, lower medical expenses, fewer school absences, and better worker productivity. Peer-reviewed studies show that the Act has been a good economic investment for America. Since 1970, cleaner air and a growing economy have gone hand in hand. The Act has created market opportunities that have helped to inspire innovation in cleaner technologies – technologies in which the United States has become a global market leader.”

  • Ayanha Lubin

    Implementing the clean power plan is a great first step in reducing our role in air pollution and global warming. Although the overall plan to invest in cleaner energy sources is cost effective, the immediate economic impact is negative. According to the fiscal times, this plan would decrease the GDP by 51 billion dollars whilst increasing electricity costs by $289 billion. In addition, it will costs the state millions to make sure that the standards required by the plan is enforced by the power plants.This may seem very costly but when compared to the health benefits and positive impact on the earth, it seems like a very small price to pay.

  • Samantha Williams

    Human impact on the environment is on the rise due to the globalization and an increase in technology and production. As more emissions are released into the environment, the effect on human health needs to be monitored. There have been various studies on how air pollution in major cities like Beijing and Tapei negatively affect diseases like asthma and diabetes. There are even links between an increase in the risk of osteoporosis and air pollution. As time goes on environmental scientists and clinicians will need to collaborate on research endeavors to propose solutions that will benefit the Earth and the future populations.

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