Researchers used computer models to simulate the health effects of coal plant pollution in 2020 under a “business as usual” base case with no carbon limit at all, and then three hypothetical scenarios where different types of policies to reduce carbon were put into effect. They then compared the health effects of the three policies to the base case. Of the three policies, one that allowed moderate flexibility in carbon limits, plus incentives for energy efficiency, saved the most lives: 3,500 per year in the continental US compared to no carbon policy.
These lives saved would primarily be among our most vulnerable family members: our elders and people in fragile health. Southeastern states North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee were among the top dozen with the most lives saved. The policy in this scenario also avoids 1,000 hospital admissions and 220 heart attacks annually. Of the three studied, this scenario most closely resembled the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP), and was the only one that included a serious investment in energy efficiency.
By way of comparison, in the scenario where the carbon pollution policy was weaker, only requiring changes “inside the fence,” i.e. at the power plants, such as upgrades to get more power out of the same amount of coal, premature deaths slightly increased compared to the “business as usual” case. Such a policy is an alternative to the CPP favored by many utilities, one that SACE believes is insufficient.
In the third of the three scenarios, the hypothetical carbon limit was more stringent: utilities had to control all carbon emissions that could be accomplished below a certain cost. The researchers found that this option also had high health benefits, but not as high as the energy efficiency scenario. Significantly, this scenario yielded only about half as many health benefits per ton of carbon reduced.
The report only looked at certain health benefits of reducing co-pollutants that would be avoided when carbon from coal plants was reduced. It did not look at additional health benefits from reducing extreme weather events or other broader impacts of climate change, or at the impacts of reducing harmful mercury exposure from coal plants. Even so, it indicates that EPA is on the right track with the moderate carbon limits it proposed in June, 2014, which allow states to use energy efficiency as a “building block” in their carbon reduction plans.