May 17, 2022
A new study adds to the case for urgent decarbonization of the U.S. energy system, finding that slashing air pollution emissions from energy-related sources would bring near-term public health gains including preventing over 50,000 premature deaths and save $608 billion in associated benefits annually.
"The sooner the U.S. acts to reduce emissions, the more preventable death and disease from energy-related air pollution can be avoided."
"Our work provides a sense of the scale of the air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the U.S. energy system," said Nick Mailloux, lead author of the study and a graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment in University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
"Shifting to clean energy sources," Mailloux said, "can provide enormous benefit for public health in the near term while mitigating climate change in the longer term."
Published Monday in the journal GeoHealth, the analysis by Mailloux and fellow UW-Madison researchers focuses on emissions of fine particulate matter, referred to as PM2.5, and of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the electric power, transportation, building, and industrial sectors.
Those sectors account for 90% of U.S. CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the paper notes. The bulk of the emissions from the sectors comes from fossil fuel use, though the study points to "a substantial portion" of particulate pollution stemming from wood and bark burning and "a small portion" resulting from non-combustion sources.
"Many of the same activities and processes that emit planet-warming GHGs also release health-harming air pollutant emissions; the current air quality-related health burden associated with fossil fuels is substantial," the analysis states.
The study also notes that "the current pace of decarbonization in the U.S. is still incompatible with a world in which global warming is limited to 1.5degC or 2degC above pre-industrial levels," and that "deep and rapid cuts in GHG emissions are needed in all energy-related sectors--including electric power, transportation, buildings, and industry--if states and the country as a whole are to achieve reductions consistent with avoiding the worst impacts of climate change."
The researchers measured the potential benefits of the removal of the air pollution, ranging from all-cause mortality to non-fatal heart attacks and respiratory-related hospital admissions, using the Environmental Protection Agency's CO-Benefits Risk Assessment tool.
They also looked at the impacts of both U.S.-wide and regional action on the reductions; they found that nationwide actions delivered the biggest benefits, though "all regions can prevent hundreds or thousands of deaths by eliminating energy-related emissions sources within the region, which shows the local benefits of local action to mitigate air quality issues."
According to the analysis, the pollution reductions would save 53,200 premature deaths and provide $608 billion in annual benefits. The avoided deaths account for 98% of the monetary benefits. But apart from avoidance of human lives lost, the particulate matter reductions offer further benefits including up to 25,600 avoided non-fatal heart attacks, as well as preventing 5,000 asthma-related emergency room visits and avoiding 3.68 million days of work lost.
The findings, the authors conclude, "offer a clear rationale for mitigating climate change on public health grounds, showing that the sooner the U.S. acts to reduce emissions, the more preventable death and disease from energy-related air pollution can be avoided."
Senior author Jonathan Patz, a UW-Madison professor in the Nelson Institute and Department of Population Health Sciences, framed the study as particularly "timely" in light of the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which showed humanity "firmly on track toward an unlivable world."
"My hope," said Patz, "is that our research findings might spur decision-makers grappling with the necessary move away from fossil fuels, to shift their thinking from burdens to benefits."
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