The Environmental Protection Agency’s new power plant standards could prevent thousands of premature deaths each year by reducing levels of harmful pollutants and improving air quality across the nation, according to new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Proposed in June 2014, the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” — which is not yet in effect — aims to slow global warming by reducing carbon emissions from power plants. The final plan, due to be released this summer, will establish state-specific targets for cutting back on the use of fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy sources, leading to a nationwide goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
In a new study, researchers at Harvard and Syracuse Universities analyzed three different approaches to cutting emissions and found that implementing a strategy to meet the EPA’s proposed targets would not only reduce pollution, but could also save an estimated 3,500 lives in the U.S. each year.
The largest potential health benefits would occur in states in the Ohio River Valley, which currently have some of the highest air pollution levels from coal-fired power plants in the nation, according to the study. Of the total number of deaths averted each year, more than 1,000 would come from just four states with high levels of of pollution from coal power plants: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and Illinois.
These health benefits would be the indirect result of moving away from coal-fired power plants for power generation. Power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, but they also release other pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — precursors to smog (ozone) and soot (fine particulate matter), which have been linked with a wide range health problems including asthma and other respiratory conditions, heart disease, stroke, and cancer, as well as an estimated 800,000 premature deaths annually.
The study looked at the added health benefits, or co-benefits, of carbon standards from reductions in these other air pollutants, comparing three different policy options for reducing emissions. While all three scenarios resulted in across-the-board reductions in premature death, the scenario most closely resembling the EPA’s Clean Power Plan had the largest co-benefit, saving just over 3,500 lives per year.
The new regulation would also reduce hospitalizations by 1,000 a year and heart attacks by 220 a year, the study found. “It would also lead to additional health benefits not quantified here, including reduced asthma symptoms and other health benefits for children, the elderly, and vulnerable adults,” the researchers reported.
“The findings demonstrate that EPA’s policy choices will determine the clean air and public health benefits for states and communities,” the researchers concluded. “The option in the study with the top health benefits is the one that is most similar to the draft standards released by EPA last June. So, the good news is that the formula in the draft Clean Power Plan is on the right track to provide large health benefits.”
As the authors note, their calculations didn’t include the health benefits of other Clean Air Act standards — such as the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Clean Air Interstate Rule — and state renewable energy and energy efficiency policies. The MATS rule alone is projected to save 7,600 lives a year and prevent 4,700 non-fatal heart attacks. The lives saved by the Clean Power Plan will be additional to those.
Furthermore, the researchers wrote, “since this study is strictly an analysis of co-benefits, it does not quantify the direct health benefits of mitigating climate change,” such as reducing heat-related deaths and deaths from other extreme weather events, and preventing further spread of infectious diseases.