Shutdown of coal-fired plants in the US has saved an estimated 26,610 lives

According to a University of California San Diego study published in Nature Sustainability, the shutdown of coal-fired plants in the US saved an estimated 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of crop between 2005 and 2016.

The shift in the US from coal to natural gas has cut overall carbon dioxide emissions and has changed local pollution levels across many areas of the country.

The study looked at the local impacts of coal-fired unit shutdowns.

Jennifer Burney, associate professor of environmental science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, used data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NASA to measure changes in local pollution before and after coal-fired unit shut-downs.

The shutdown of coal-fired plants reduced the amount of pollutants affecting nearby communities, reducing deaths from health problems such as heart disease and respiratory issues.

Burney found that between 2005 and 2016, the shutdown of coal-fired units saved an estimated 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat in their immediate vicinities.

“The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes—like an electric power unit being shut down — to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts,” Burney said.

“We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the U.S. has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences. The analysis provides a framework for communities to more thoroughly and accurately assess the costs and benefits of local investments in energy infrastructure.”

Burney concludes that “policymakers often think about greenhouse gas emissions as a separate problem from air pollution, but the same processes that cause climate change also produce these aerosols, ozone, and other compounds that cause important damages. This study provides a more robust accounting for the full suite of emissions associated with electric power production. If we understand the real costs of things like coal better, and who is bearing those costs, it could potentially lead to more effective mitigation and formation of new coalitions of beneficiaries across sectors.”

Journal Citation

Burney, J.A. “The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States”. Nat Sustain (2020) doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0453-5

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