This article was first published on the UN Environment website.
An analysis of a new draft rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. power generation sector clearly demonstrates the dangers of air pollution, with up to 1,400 extra deaths per year expected from proposed changes to how coal-fired power plants can operate.
The analysis, released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), looks at the impacts of replacing the Clean Power Plan – a 2015 rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 32 per cent by 2030 – with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule.
Under the Clean Power Plan, the federal government handed states targets on reducing emissions and encouraged the closure of coal-fired power plants. The new rule allows states themselves to set targets and encourages existing coal-fired power plants to increase their efficiency as the “best system of emission reduction”.
This will allow coal-fired power plants to run longer if they can increase their efficiency, with no onus on them to address pollutants emitted to the air other than carbon dioxide. The end result, according to the EPA’s own analysis, will be a negative impact on human health if the rule is implemented as currently written.
“As compared to the standards of performance that it replaces … implementing the proposed rule is expected to … increase the level of emissions of certain pollutants in the atmosphere that adversely affect human health,” the EPA wrote in its analysis.
The EPA provides four scenarios for the future of the power generation sector under the new rule. It predicts worse human health outcomes for all four.
The scenario considered most likely is a 2 per cent increase in heat rate – essentially the efficiency of a plant at converting coal to power. It is under this scenario that up to 1,400 more people could die prematurely each year by 2030. In addition, the EPA predicts up to 48,000 lost work days, the same number of school absence days, and tens of thousands of cases of “exacerbated asthma” and other respiratory illnesses each year.
“Air pollution is known as ‘the invisible killer’ and the EPA’s analysis adds further weight to this deserved reputation,” said Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. “Every year, indoor and outdoor air pollution causes health implications and premature death for millions of people across the globe.”
A global epidemic
Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are largely down to emissions of small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), which come from coal-fired power plants, vehicle fumes and other sources.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says exposure to these causes up to 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide per year through cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers. Over 80 per cent of all cities exceed WHO limits for clean air.
The EPA’s analysis came a few days before a new study, which showed that outdoor PM2.5 air pollution lowers life expectancy worldwide.
“The fact that fine particle air pollution is a major global killer is already well known,” said lead author Joshua Apte, who is an assistant professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “What we found is that air pollution has a very large effect on survival – on average about a year globally.”
Particulate matter isn’t the only pollutant from coal. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coal plants are responsible for 42 per cent of U.S. emissions of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems.
They also emit sulfur dioxide (SO2), which turns into small, acidic particulates that can penetrate human lungs and is linked with asthma, bronchitis, smog and acid rain. US coal power plants emitted more than 3.1 million tonnes of SO2 in 2014.
Nitrogen oxides are another key air pollutant, again exacerbating asthma and making people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and influenza.
The EPA’s research says emissions of these substances will all grow under the new plan, in turn causing the expected health impacts.
“There is no such thing as a safe level of pollution,” Dr. Andrea Baccarelli, chairman of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at Columbia University, told CNN. “It’s clear that relaxing the standards could cost lives.”
Backing coal bucks global trend on air pollution
There is no doubt that the U.S. coal industry is in decline, driven largely by market forces – including the falling prices of natural gas, wind and solar power.
Power plant owners have closed or announced plans to close 270 coal plants since 2010. Data from the Energy Information Administration says that CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants has almost halved since 2010. The administration says coal-fired capacity fell from 310 GW in 2011 to 260 GW by the end of 2017. Another 65 GW is expected to retire by 2030.
While most people expect this trend to continue, the concern is that allowing coal-fired power plants to continue operating – even if at a greater efficiency that cuts greenhouse gas emissions – will increase air pollution at a time when a global movement to address it is growing.
BreatheLife – a global network headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is running cleaner air initiatives that cover 38 cities, regions and countries, and reach over 79 million citizens.
The movement is encouraging policies and investments to support cleaner and energy efficient transport, homes and power generation industry. This is what many would like to see implemented in the U.S.
“Eliminating air pollution and the dirty energy that causes it can be one of the greatest boons to the health of Americans,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, Director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, a coalition of 21 medical societies representing more than half a million doctors.
“If we put in place strong policies to truly support affordable clean energy, we will see improved health immediately from cleaner air, a safer environment and avoided health harms from climate change.”