Researchers find substantial benefits in health impacts of EPA’s power plant rule

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, December 1, 2014

Derided by Republican members of Congress as an onerous regulation and uplifted by environmentalists as a strong step to stem carbon pollution, U.S. EPA’s proposal over power-sector emissions will be among the most contentious topics during the 114th Congress.

Yet a vital subtext within the Clean Power Plan proposal is often omitted during policy debates: the public health benefits and long-term economic savings the administration predicts will come from regulating greenhouse gases.

While mitigating global climate change is an international issue, regulating pollution, which clouds communities neighborhood by neighborhood, is a local one.

In an effort to quantify the economic benefits that would come from lowering particulate emissions and subsequently improving public health, a recent study published in the journal Climatic Change compared a variety of regulations for the transportation, building operation and power plant sectors.

By implementing greenhouse-gas-slashing strategies, the researchers found, the United States could save $6 billion to $14 billion annually by 2020, depending on how policymakers achieve the reductions, or $40 to $93 per metric ton of reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

EPA estimates its plan would save $55 billion to $93 billion in 2030 as health problems driven by toxic airborne particulates fall.

“This paper provides an alternative approach to comparing different ways to reduce greenhouse gases,” John Balbus, the report’s lead author and a senior adviser at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said in a statement. “Decisions about how to address climate change need to be informed by many factors.”

The impacts from climate policies on human health are “rarely taken into account,” the authors wrote in their abstract. “Rigorous assessment of these health impacts is essential for guiding policy decisions as efforts to reduce GHG emissions increase in scope and intensity.”

Building on the concept of climate stabilization “wedges,” first introduced in an influential research paper in 2004 by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, two Princeton University professors, the researchers assessed 10 different “wedge” strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A wedge, Pacala and Socolow write, “represents an activity that starts today at zero and increases linearly until it accounts for 1 gigaton of carbon per year of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years.” Portrayed as acute triangles whose sides expand over time — the rising top line represents carbon releases under a “business-as-usual” situation and the lower, flat side represents a stabilization in carbon emission levels — the professors’ wedges broke greenhouse gas mitigation into bite-sized policy pieces.

Should health be beside the point?

In certain ways, the paper was a revelation. Pacala and Socolow wrote at the time that the two standard approaches to addressing climate change were pragmatic — existing or developing technologies are sufficient to level off carbon emissions, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change held — or based on a sharp skepticism that humanity neither knew enough about nor possessed the tools to combat the warming climate.

The Princeton pair asserted that global leaders could force carbon emissions to level off by using available tools and “scaling up what we already know how to do.”

The research team for the 2014 report analyzed 10 wedge activities — increasing fuel efficiency for light- and heavy-duty vehicles; increasing electric end-use efficiency for buildings; or substituting for natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar power, for example — and projected billions of dollars in possible health-care-related savings alone.

If these policies were implemented, the country could save $6 billion to $14 billion in health co-benefits, and $10 billion to $24 billion under “optimistic, rapid implementation” scenarios in which policymakers deployed aggressive measures nationwide.

Of the 10 policy wedges, the greatest savings, the authors forecast, could be achieved by aggressively substituting natural gas for coal power and for boosting “electric end-use building efficiency,” which could, respectively, result in $14 billion and $10.3 billion worth of public health savings in 2020 without rapid implementation.

Even by increasing light-duty vehicles, the wedge with one of the lowest economic upsides, the U.S. economy would gain $5.9 billion to $10 billion in 2020, according to the team’s models.

“The idea that there are other benefits beside saving the climate is important to look at,” said Jeff Greenblatt, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of the study’s authors. “And health turns out to be a pretty big one.”

Assessing climate policies beyond their carbon reduction targets is critical, he said, adding that wedges’ impact on water quality, plant and animal health, biodiversity, land use, and other ecological features should be considered.

But, Greenblatt said, not all the wedges he and his peers examined in the study would produce a net financial gain.

Downsizing a ‘heroic challenge’

“This study is highly innovative,” said Kristie Ebi, a co-author and professor of public health at the University of Washington. “This is the first attempt to take the idea of wedges and say that there are health benefits associated with each wedge.”

Health benefits under these so-called wedge scenarios would largely come from a drop in fossil fuel consumption. That change would result in less air pollution from particulate matter, which can enter and aggravate the bloodstream and lungs. These invisible-to-the-naked-eye irritants are especially dangerous when smaller than 2.5 micrometers and have been linked to premature death among patients with a history of heart attacks and severe asthma.

Pollution and air quality standards are “extremely local” and disproportionately affect racial minorities and low-income neighborhoods, said Greenblatt, who contributed to the seminal wedge paper.

Dev Millstein, another author and air quality expert at LBNL, said wedges are based on the principle to fight climate change using “a series of technological adaptations to reduce carbon emissions,” rather than a “silver bullet” approach.

After their birth, wedges spread from Princeton to EPA and environmental advocacy groups, according to Greenblatt, but may have spawned complacency.

“Some people have actually criticized the wedges paper for making the problem too easy,” he said.

In 2011, Socolow responded to his critics: “Each wedge is an immense activity,” he wrote in a brief essay. “In talks about this work, I like to say that we decomposed a heroic challenge into a limited set of monumental tasks.”

In a key pillar to EPA’s controversial proposal, the agency asserted the United States does not limit carbon levels, even though power plants can only legally use certain amounts of toxins like mercury and arsenic.

“We have taken a first stab at estimating the average health benefits for the U.S.,” said Greenblatt, adding that the size of the benefits was surprising. “This paper opens a discussion or a line of inquiry. It’s certainly not the last word.”