Reducing power plant emissions isn’t only about global warming

Most of the attention from the EPA's announcement that it will introduce new limits on emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants has been focused on the resulting decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. But the benefits extend beyond that, reducing the amount of other air pollutants as well.

A partnership between researchers from Syracuse University and Harvard University assessed a proposal from the Natural Resources Defense Council that largely mirrors the new EPA proposal. "A true accounting of the impact of the carbon pollution standards should include the health, environmental, and economic benefits of cleaner air," Kathy Fallon Lambert, director of the Science Policy Exchange at Harvard told the Post by email. The maps below, she said, offer a first look at the effects that a regulation like that proposed today would have on those external factors. The pollutants the team assessed include:

  • Particulate matter. Burning coal releases tiny particles into the air which, when inhaled, can trigger serious health problems. The Syracuse/Harvard team looked at fine particles, those smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. One study found that the inhalation of such particles led to 2.1 million deaths a year globally.
  • Contributors to ozone. Ozone, a key contributor to smog, is worsened by emissions from burning fossil fuels. Ozone can make asthma and other respiratory problems worse. The same study as above estimated 470,000 deaths from ozone pollution.

The analysis below isn't exactly what the EPA proposes. "We used slightly higher decreases in CO2 emissions from power plants," Lambert explains, "but we also slightly underestimate climate-related air quality changes; so we think it is a close approximation of what the EPA standards could achieve." Here's the Syracuse/Harvard estimate of those ancillary effects:

Particulate matter


If you're curious about why some regions see larger reductions than others, here's a map the Post created, using data from the EPA, that shows the largest greenhouse-gas-emitting power plants in the United States. (Those emitting over 5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2012.)

That's the link the Syracuse/Harvard team is pointing out. Reducing emissions from these plants reduces more than just carbon dioxide.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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Philip Bump · June 2