Want to Save Thousands of American Lives Each Year? Cut Power Plant Pollution

A new study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change today, calculates that the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan will save thousands of lives every year.

The study, by researchers at Harvard, Syracuse, and Boston Universities and Resources for the Future, finds that a strategy to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan targets that emphasizes energy efficiency and renewable power could save 3,500 lives each year.

That's the scientists' estimate of life-saving that will flow from cutting carbon pollution much as the EPA has proposed. Cutting carbon pollution also cuts emissions of other pollutants that cause soot and smog - toxic quantities of fine particles and ozone - that directly harm the health of our kids, our seniors, and friends and neighbors throughout the population.

We can likely save even more than 3,500 lives if the EPA strengthens the final Clean Power Plan rule, expected out this summer. NRDC's analysis shows that we can economically cut power plants' carbon pollution by 50 percent more than the EPA proposed, and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. "There's definitely room for additional benefits," says lead researcher Dr. Charles Driscoll, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University. "You can push further."

The lives saved will come from cutting the hundreds of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen that pour out of our nation's power-plant smokestacks along with carbon dioxide. These pollutants form dangerous soot and smog as they float downwind and cook in the atmosphere. These pollutants increase our risk of heart attacks, asthma attacks, respiratory diseases like emphysema, and even lung cancer.

When the green eyeshade types assign dollar numbers to these health benefits, you get "a very good benefit-cost ratio," says Syracuse's Dr. Driscoll.

Ironically, 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.)

The Harvard-Syracuse-Boston numbers are above and beyond the lives saved by other Clean Air Act standards (such as the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, the Clean Air Interstate Rule) and state renewable energy and energy efficiency policies. (The MATS rule alone will save 7,600 lives a year and prevent 4,700 non-fatal heart attacks.) These lives saved by the Clean Power Plan will be additional to those.

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.