In the first peer-reviewed study of its kind, researchers have found that emissions-curbing policies such as the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan would "provide immediate local and regional health co-benefits" and could prevent up to 3,500 premature deaths per year.
The EPA's Clean Power Plan aims to cut emissions of carbon dioxide largely through stricter limits on the coal-fired power plants, one of the country’s largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution. The standards, according to the White House and others, represent a significant opportunity to help minimize the growing consequences of climate change.
But the new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that more energy efficiency reduces the emission not only of carbon, but also of other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which create soot and smog and in turn have the biggest effect on health.
By modeling three different emissions scenarios, the researchers from Harvard and Syracuse universities, as well as several other institutions, calculated that the changes in the EPA rule could prevent 3,500 premature deaths a year and more than 1,000 heart attacks and hospitalizations from air-pollution-related illness.
According to the New York Times, "The scenario with the biggest health benefit was the one that most closely resembled the changes that the proposed in a rule in June. Under that plan, reductions in carbon emissions for the plants would be set by states, and would include improvements to energy efficiency of, for example, air-conditioners, refrigerators and power grids."
The EPA rules, which some environmentalists criticized as "too little, too late," are due to be finalized in mid-summer.
As the Washington Post reports, enacting the proposal will be a challenge:
The finding comes as the Obama administration deliberates over the final shape of the proposed rules, which have drawn a fierce backlash from the Republican-controlled Congress. GOP lawmakers are gearing up to battle the measures on Capitol Hill and in the courts, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has written letters to the governors of all 50 states urging them not to support the regulations. McConnell has called the proposals harmful to the coal industry and the economy.
But the standards would be a boon for public health, according to the researchers.
"The bottom line is, the more the standards promote cleaner fuels and energy efficiency, the greater the added health benefits," lead author Charles Driscoll, a professor of environmental systems engineering at Syracuse, told the Post.
"Ironically," wrote David Doniger, director of the Natural Defense Resources Council's climate and clean air program, "the most life-saving will take place in the very states where many elected officials and political candidates most adamantly oppose the Clean Power Plan: Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, West Virginia. It's the very states where coal use is highest, that public health benefits most. (Mitch McConnell, please take note.)"
Even more health benefits come from curbing power plants' carbon dioxide and mitigating climate change. Climate change is already causing heat-related deaths and deaths from other extreme weather events. Hurricane Sandy, for instance, caused at least 117 deaths, 45 percent from drowning.
The opportunity to save thousands of lives doesn't come to us every day. With all that's at stake, I hope the EPA thinks big as it decides this summer on the final Clean Power Plan targets.
Or perhaps, as one Daily Kos blogger declared, the Nature study "should be nailed to the door of every naysayer in Congress."