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Ways to Reduce Carbon Emissions and Save West Virginia Lives

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A study just released explores projected health co-benefits of reducing carbon emissions. It indicates that each year, the lives of 50 West Virginians could be saved but, only if certain policies are adopted.

In the wake of the Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever proposed carbon pollution standards for existing power plants, scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston University, and Syracuse University have been working on a three-part study that explores potential impacts of tightening CO2 emission standards.

The second report, released this week, looks specifically at human health co-benefits. According to the research conducted, the largest benefits would be experienced by populations living in the Ohio River Valley.

Air Quality in West Virginia:

In a 2014 report released by the American Lung Association indicates that, while air pollution in West Virginia’s metropolitan areas has generally improved, there’s more ozone, or smog, in every country where it was measured. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection corroborates that, indicating that especially in northern counties like Marshall and Brooke, sulfur dioxide continues to be a problem because of proximity to power plants and other large industrial sources. Health risks associated with air pollution include not only respiratory problems, but also cardiovascular, neurological, and developmental, among others.

Policy Recommendations from the Harvard-Boston-Syracuse Study:

The latest report from the three-part study states that if high efficiency policies like those specified by the EPA go into effect, about 3,500 people will avoid premature deaths each year throughout the lower 48 states.

“While reducing CO2 emissions can produce co-benefits by reducing emissions of other things as well,” said Joel Schwartz of Harvard's School of Public Health in a recent press conference. “It’s not automatic and certain policy options will produce a lot more co-benefits to the same number of tons of CO2 than other ones.”

When the announcement came over a year ago that there would be a program to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, Syracuse University professor of civil and environmental engineering Charles Driscoll started compiling several different policy options that the EPA would likely pursue.

Three scenarios were explored.

Scenario 1: Power Plant Improvements (low stringency, low flexibility/no user efficiency)

This scenario focuses on heat rate upgrades and other improvements in the operating efficiency of existing power plants. It represents what is commonly referred to as an “inside the fence line” approach favored by some industry groups and states. It does not include new end-user energy efficiency.

  • Decreases power plant CO2 emissions by ~2%
  • Lives saved per million tons of CO2 reduced:  -.2
  • Little to no health co-benefit (slight increase in premature deaths and heart attacks due to emissions rebound in SO2)

Scenario 2: Electricity Sector Improvements (moderate stringency, high flexibility/high user efficiency)

This scenario includes state-based CO2 emission targets, flexible compliance options, and significant program investments in new end-user energy efficiency.  This scenario is most similar to the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan.

  • Decreases power plant CO2 emissions by ~24%
  • Lives saved per million tons of CO2 reduced: 6.6

Scenario 3: Cost of Carbon Improvements (high stringency, moderate flexibility/no user efficiency)

This scenario compels power plants to implement all upgrades and CO2 pollution controls up to a cost of $43 per ton of CO2 reduced. This scenario allows some shift to renewables but does not include new investments in end-user energy efficiency.

  • Decreases CO2 emissions by ~39%
  • Lives saved per million tons of CO2 reduced: 3.6
  • High health co-benefits but not as large as Scenario 2 (due to more fossil generation and no end-user efficiency)

So according to expert scientists in Massachusetts and New York, any policy that will reduce carbon emissions is a step in the right direction, environmentally, but if the EPA compromises significantly on its proposed plan, human health could continue to decline.
The comment period for the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan has been extended to December 1, 2014. At about the same time, the third part of this Harvard/Syracuse study investigating possible regulation standards will be released. It will explore possible benefits to ecosystems throughout the country.


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