Could reducing carbon dioxide emissions be good for our health as well as the planet’s health?
US researchers have studied the effects that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from electric utilities could have on the air quality and health of the population. They simulated three possible scenarios for the implementation of a carbon standard for power plants such as might occur from the Clean Power Plan, and found that a flexible but stringent approach that provides incentives for energy efficiency could lead to substantial benefits to the health of the citizens.
It is well-known that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has become much higher in recent years due to human activities. The combustion of fossil fuels to produce energy, for instance, is one of the activities responsible for such an increase; the transport sector is also a major contributor to CO2 emissions.
Scientists believe that the higher concentration of carbon dioxide is one of the causes of global warming and of the increase in the acidity of the oceans.
Reducing the Emissions
Because of these potential negative effects on the environment, many countries introduced measures and legislation to reduce CO2 emissions.
Some of these measures are aimed at reducing the emissions from vehicles (i.e. cars, planes), making their engines more efficient; many other directives, however, concern the emissions from power plants.
In June 2014, the US the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the Clean Power Plan, proposed some CO2 emission standards for existing power plants. Consequently, there have been already debates on which would be the best measures to reach these standards.
Study of Other Parallel Effects
Beyond reducing CO2 emissions, the implementation of the Clean Power Plan could also have other positive effects. A more efficient energy production can, in fact, lead to lower emissions of other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx, x = 1-2) and particulate matter (PM). This could be beneficial for both the environment and human health.
Scientists from Syracuse University in the United States studied in detail the possible beneficial parallel effects that the Clean Power Plan could have on human health; they worked in cooperation with Harvard University, the association Resources for the Future, and the company Sonoma Technology.
The researchers published their results in Nature Climate Change on the 4th of May 2015.
CO2 Emissions: Possible Scenarios
Decoded Science spoke to Professor Charles Driscoll, the leading scientist in the study.
“In our study we considered three possible scenarios, based on different policies to implement the proposed CO2 emission targets for coal power plants.
“In scenario 1, we considered a heat rate improvement for individual coal-fired plants; in other words, we simulated more efficient plants which, hence, emit less CO2 per energy unit. Scenario 2, was a more flexible approach; the policy included incentives for demand side energy efficiency, for instance actions which reduce the demand of the electricity. In the third scenario, we considered a system that mimics the carbon tax.
“The first and third scenarios were drafted by the Bipartisan Policy Centre, while the second one was developed by the National Resource Defense Council. We chose these three different scenarios, since we wanted to study the effect which very different policies may have.”
Effect on Pollutant Emissions
Professor Driscoll and his coworkers analyzed the effects each scenario could have on the quality of the air. They estimated the emissions of carbon dioxide, but also of SO2, NOx and mercury (Hg), a very toxic element. Scenario 1 was the least favorable, since it gave the highest emissions for all these pollutants; scenario 2 was the most effective for NOx and Hg emissions, while scenario 3 worked better for CO2 and SO2.
Emission Reduction: Effect on Health
Further to this, Professor Driscoll and coworkers also studied the potential effects on the health of the population. To do this, they estimated parameters such as the number of premature deaths avoided, respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations avoided, and heart attacks avoided.
“Our results showed us that better air quality indeed has an effect on the health of the citizens. In particular, scenario 2 was the best one, leading to substantial decreases in mortality risk and heart and respiratory diseases. Scenario 3 also gave good results, but not as good as for scenario 2. Scenario 1 was the worst, as in some cases there was an increase in the number of estimated deaths.” Professor Driscoll said.
According to Professor Driscoll:
“These results are very interesting, as they showed us that the most flexible but stringent approach (scenario 2) is that which could give us more benefits, in terms of the environment and also public health. It was the first time that anybody has performed a study of this kind; hopefully similar analyses will be done in the future. This should help in shaping and drafting legislation to implement the Clean Power Plan.”
A Way Ahead for Pollution Reduction
The study described here confirms that a reduction in CO2 emissions from coal plants, if done properly, could be beneficial not just to the environment, but also to the health of the population. It is therefore necessary to choose and develop proper policies, which could lead to the best results in every field.
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