Boosting Energy Efficiency Can Combat Climate Change and Protect Our Health

Cutting carbon emissions from U.S. power plants will help combat climate change, but it can also substantially reduce illnesses and deaths from other types of air pollution. Scientists from Syracuse, Harvard, and Boston universities compared the health impacts of three alternative policies related to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed carbon standards for existing power plants, and they found that increasing energy efficiency would be one of the most effective ways to cut power plant emissions and protect our health.

The study, published on May 4, finds that a stringent but flexible policy that includes energy efficiency measures produces the largest health benefits of the three alternatives (also called scenarios) examined. Energy-saving measures reduce both emissions and costs of energy production, a win-win solution which drives down operating and pollution clean-up costs for utilities, while consumers pay smaller bills and breathe cleaner air. For example, energy utilities can modernize their systems and equipment with more advanced technology. Consumers also can purchase energy-saving LED light bulbs over traditional incandescent ones. The scenarios varied in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and in compliance and emissions trading options. Each option was compared to emissions under all existing air quality policies and planned programs.  

In addition to carbon dioxide, power plants produce other air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and fine particulate matter. Besides increasing the risk of premature death, heart attacks, and asthma attacks, these pollutants harm our health in other ways, impair visibility, and damage ecosystems. Nitrogen oxides also contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which particularly impacts children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung disease.

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants can reduce emissions of other pollutants, providing immediate improvements to air quality and public health.

The study compared the carbon dioxide reduction approaches based on the amount of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter produced and found that the policy option designed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) produced the greatest health benefits. The drop in these two air pollutants under the proposed policy resulted in 3,500 fewer early deaths, 1,000 fewer heart and lung-related hospitalizations, and 220 fewer heart attacks each year by 2020. As highlighted on the map below, states that would benefit the most include Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, and Indiana.

Source: The Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

This approach would also result in a 35 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, an improvement over EPA’s proposed standards, which are expected to achieve a 30 percent reduction by 2030.

Of the three policy options examined, the NRDC plan most closely resembles EPA’s proposed standards under the agency's so-called "moderate stringency, high flexibility, and energy efficiency” to compliance. Compared to the business-as-usual scenario, this approach would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 24 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions by 27 percent, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 22 percent by 2020. This is largely due to the fact that of the three alternatives, it relied least on fossil fuels and the most on investments in energy efficiency.

In addition, the policy provided the greatest flexibility for maximizing the use of renewable energy sources, averaging and trading plant CO2 emissions across states, and carbon capture and storage from new coal plants as possible methods of complying with national carbon emissions reduction standards.

A national emissions reduction policy should curb carbon dioxide and maximize health benefits for all of us.

Shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, investing in energy efficiency, and allowing a wide range of compliance options can achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, important air quality improvements, and public health benefits. EPA is expected to issue the finalized carbon dioxide standards this summer, and it can help the most Americans by adopting a national emissions control policy that also maximizes the benefits of reducing other types of air pollution. The public health benefits of reducing ozone air pollution, especially for children, the elderly, and those with lung and heart disease who are most vulnerable to its health impacts, are highlighted in CEG’s just released report, Gasping for Support: Implementation of Tougher Air Quality Standards Will Require New Funds for State Agencies.

For Additional Reading:

Katie Weatherford, The Fine Print, EPA Proposes Limits on Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Existing Power Plants

Ronald White, The Fine Print, We Can Prevent Health Problems from Air Pollution by Strengthening Standards and Stopping Budget Cuts

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excellent article chad Edward hatten