Air quality improvements associated with policies such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan go a long way toward mitigating climate change—but do you know that they also directly lower human healthcare costs? About 17,000 people die every year as a result of generating electric power. Many more suffer premature death and illnesses such as heart attacks, respiratory problems, and cardiovascular illnesses.
Fossil fuel use makes up about 31% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and mostly produces carbon dioxide. As well as cutting CO2 emissions, the Clean Power Plan simultaneously decreases sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and soot emissions (tiny particles that can harm the heart and lungs). Once these emissions have been reduced, the large reductions in our huge health deficit will be widespread and occur nearly immediately, a recent study from Harvard has concluded.
Over the past couple of years, the EPA has published rules to reduce carbon emissions from coal and other inefficient power generators. The Clean Power Plan is too costly for business and home electricity, say its fiercest critics, who are dominated by fossil fuel interests and their political dependents.
However, in the first study of its kind to calculate costs and benefits by subregion, the Harvard report shows that by implementing a highly flexible and only moderately stringent policy like the CPP, the United States would save some $38 billion a year. The health co-benefits can offset the costs of cleaning up America’s energy landscape. It also provides another important reason to implement policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The study examines:
- The costs and health co-benefits, in monetary terms, for such a policy
- The spatial distribution of the co-benefits and costs
- The implications of a range of cost assumptions in the implementation year of 2020
ThinkProgress quotes lead author Jonathan Buonocore, research associate and program leader at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s public health school:
“Health benefits would outweigh the estimated costs of the carbon standard in our study for 13 out of 14 power sector regions within five years of implementation, even though we only looked at a subset of the total benefits.”
Because states in the Pacific Northwest — the only region outlying the general conclusion — rely more heavily on hydroelectric plants, they have fairly low emissions compared to the rest of the country. ThinkProgress calls the Clean Power Plan a “cornerstone of President Obama’s climate change initiative.” It requires the electricity sector to reduce its carbon emissions by 32% from 2005 levels in the next 15 years through cleaner fuels, energy efficiency, emissions trading, and other measures. Researchers did not calculate direct health benefits such as fewer heat-related illnesses, reductions in extreme weather, and stable levels of vector-borne disease.
The plan allows states to decide how to comply with federally set standards and guidelines. Regions that include states like West Virginia and Ohio rely more on fossil-fueled electricity, which generates more carbon pollution than cleantech or nuclear solutions. Ironically, these and other coal-dependent areas oppose the Clean Power Plan but would receive most of the benefits from its implementation. Opposition from their attorneys general moved the Supreme Court to put the environmental rule on hold in February. Note that well over half (60%) of the people living in these dissenting states actually support the rule.
The Clean Power Plan will be taken up in September by the en banc (full) D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court’s decision will come after the November election, however. If the losing side appeals it to the Supreme Court, the results may be influenced by Justice Scalia’s replacement. Said Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) in April:
“The Clean Air Act gives the EPA authority to regulate pollution. That is what the agency is doing with the Clean Power Plan rule—reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants.”