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Analysis of new U.S. coal plant rules shows deadly dangers of air pollution

MD Staff

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An analysis of a new draft rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. power generation sector clearly demonstrates the dangers of air pollution, with up to 1,400 extra deaths per year expected from proposed changes to how coal-fired power plants can operate.

The analysis, released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), looks at the impacts of replacing the Clean Power Plan – a 2015 rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 32 per cent by 2030 – with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule.

Under the Clean Power Plan, the federal government handed states targets on reducing emissions and encouraged the closure of coal-fired power plants. The new rule allows states themselves to set targets and encourages existing coal-fired power plants to increase their efficiency as the “best system of emission reduction”.

This will allow coal-fired power plants to run longer if they can increase their efficiency, with no onus on them to address pollutants emitted to the air other than carbon dioxide. The end result, according to the EPA’s own analysis, will be a negative impact on human health if the rule is implemented as currently written.

“As compared to the standards of performance that it replaces … implementing the proposed rule is expected to … increase the level of emissions of certain pollutants in the atmosphere that adversely affect human health,” the EPA wrote in its analysis.

The EPA provides four scenarios for the future of the power generation sector under the new rule. It predicts worse human health outcomes for all four.

The scenario considered most likely is a 2 per cent increase in heat rate – essentially the efficiency of a plant at converting coal to power. It is under this scenario that up to 1,400 more people could die prematurely each year by 2030. In addition, the EPA predicts up to 48,000 lost work days, the same number of school absence days, and tens of thousands of cases of “exacerbated asthma” and other respiratory illnesses each year.

“Air pollution is known as ‘the invisible killer’ and the EPA’s analysis adds further weight to this deserved reputation,” said Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. “Every year, indoor and outdoor air pollution causes health implications and premature death for millions of people across the globe.”

A global epidemic

Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are largely down to emissions of small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), which come from coal-fired power plants, vehicle fumes and other sources.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says exposure to these causes up to 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide per year through cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers. Over 80 per cent of all cities exceed WHO limits for clean air.

The EPA’s analysis came a few days before a new study, which showed that outdoor PM2.5 air pollution lowers life expectancy worldwide.

“The fact that fine particle air pollution is a major global killer is already well known,” said lead author Joshua Apte, who is an assistant professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “What we found is that air pollution has a very large effect on survival – on average about a year globally.”

Particulate matter isn’t the only pollutant from coal. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coal plants are responsible for 42 per cent of U.S. emissions of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems.

They also emit sulfur dioxide (SO2), which turns into small, acidic particulates that can penetrate human lungs and is linked with asthma, bronchitis, smog and acid rain. US coal power plants emitted more than 3.1 million tonnes of SO2 in 2014.

Nitrogen oxides are another key air pollutant, again exacerbating asthma and making people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and influenza.

The EPA’s research says emissions of these substances will all grow under the new plan, in turn causing the expected health impacts.

“There is no such thing as a safe level of pollution,” Dr. Andrea Baccarelli, chairman of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at Columbia University, told CNN. “It’s clear that relaxing the standards could cost lives.”

Backing coal bucks global trend on air pollution

There is no doubt that the U.S. coal industry is in decline, driven largely by market forces – including the falling prices of natural gas, wind and solar power.

Power plant owners have closed or announced plans to close 270 coal plants since 2010. Data from the Energy Information Administration says that CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants has almost halved since 2010. The administration says coal-fired capacity fell from 310 GW in 2011 to 260 GW by the end of 2017. Another 65 GW is expected to retire by 2030.

While most people expect this trend to continue, the concern is that allowing coal-fired power plants to continue operating – even if at a greater efficiency that cuts greenhouse gas emissions – will increase air pollution at a time when a global movement to address it is growing.

BreatheLife – a global network headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is running cleaner air initiatives that cover 38 cities, regions and countries, and reach over 79 million citizens.

The movement is encouraging policies and investments to support cleaner and energy efficient transport, homes and power generation industry. This is what many would like to see implemented in the U.S.

“Eliminating air pollution and the dirty energy that causes it can be one of the greatest boons to the health of Americans,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, Director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, a coalition of 21 medical societies representing more than half a million doctors.

“If we put in place strong policies to truly support affordable clean energy, we will see improved health immediately from cleaner air, a safer environment and avoided health harms from climate change.”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

The European Green Deal: Our new growth strategy

Ursula von der Leyen

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Do we, humans, want to continue living well and safely on this planet? Humanity faces an existential threat – the whole world is beginning to see. Forests burn from America to Australia. Deserts are advancing across Africa and Asia. Rising sea levels threaten our European cities as well as Pacific islands. Mankind has seen such phenomena before, but never at this speed.

Science tells us that we can still stop this epidemic, but we are running out of time. The new European Commission is wasting no time. Today, less than two weeks into our mandate, we present our roadmap for a European Green Deal.

Our goal is to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, slowing down global warming and mitigating its effects. This is a task for our generation and the next, but change must begin right now – and we know we can do it.

The European Green Deal that we present today is Europe’s new growth strategy. It will cut emissions while also creating jobs and improving our quality of life.
It is the green thread that will run through all our policies – from transport to taxation, from food to farming, from industry to infrastructure. With our Green Deal we want to invest in clean energy and extend emission trading, but we will also boost the circular economy and preserve Europe’s biodiversity.

The European Green Deal is not just a necessity: it will be a driver of new economic opportunities. Many European firms are already going green. They are cutting their carbon footprint and discovering the clean technologies. They understand that there are planetary boundaries: European companies of all sizes understand that everyone has to take care of our common home. They also know that if they discover the sustainable solutions of tomorrow, this will give them first mover advantage.

What businesses and change-makers need from us is easy access to financing. To pull this off, we will deliver a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan.  It will support one trillion euros of investment over the next decade. We will work hand in hand with the European Investment Bank, Europe’s climate bank.

Next March, we will propose the first-ever European Climate Law to chart the way ahead and make it irreversible: investors, innovators and entrepreneurs need clear rules to plan their long-term investments.

While we will promote transformation in how we produce and consume, live and work, we must also protect and accompany those who risk being hit harder by such change. This transition must work for all or it will not work at all. I will propose to set up a Just Transition Fund – and I want it to mobilise, together with the leverage of the European Investment Bank and private money, one hundred billion euros in investment over the next seven years. We will make sure that we help those European regions who will have to take a bigger step, so that we leave no one behind.

Across Europe, people young and old are not only asking for climate action. They are already changing their lifestyle: think of the commuters who take the bike or public transport, parents who choose reusable diapers, companies that renounce single-use plastics and bring sustainable alternatives to the market. Many of us are part of this European and global movement for climate.

Nine European citizens out of ten ask for decisive climate action. Our children rely on us. Europeans want their Union to act at home and lead abroad. In these very days, the whole world has gathered in Madrid for the United Nations’ conference on climate, to discuss collective action against global warming.

The European Green Deal is Europe’s response to our people’s call. It is a deal by Europe, for Europe and a contribution for a better world. Every European can be part of the change.

This article by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was published on the occasion of presentation of the European Green Deal.

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Earth in Extremis While Trump Plays Ostrich

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

Storms are savaging East Africa where rainfall in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania is now over 300 mm (about a foot) higher than the 30-year mean tallied since 1981.  The subsequent flooding and landslides have affected 2.8 million people displacing many and reportedly killing 300 according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Thousands of miles away at the other end of the Indian ocean, there is extreme dry heat across Australia with an 80 percent chance of exceeding the median maximum temperature for the October-February summer period.  It has led to an early start to the bushfire season as about 140 are already raging in New South Wales.  Among the worst is a vast and so far uncontrollable fire about 40 miles outside Sydney, with evacuation warnings along its perimeter.

The cause of such extreme weather at the two ends of the Indian Ocean is described by weather scientists as the dipole effect — a sea surface temperature difference between the Arabian Sea western end and the south of Indonesia eastern end.  A positive dipole means warmer ocean temperatures in the west end and cooler in the east.  A negative dipole is the opposite; and a neutral dipole, means even temperatures and normal weather in the adjacent land areas. 

This year’s warmer Indian Ocean temperatures in the western section have led to more storms and cooler, much wetter weather in East Africa, while cool waters pooling off Indonesia mean dry weather, causing extreme heat in Australia.  At a 2C temperature difference, this positive dipole is one of the strongest Indian Ocean dipoles on record.  Such a rare event occurring once in about 17 years in the past is now expected once in 6 years.  Why?  The culprit is climate change.

It projects a future of more frequent, more extreme weather unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and begin to eliminate the record high CO2 levels already in the atmosphere.

The rest of the world is not immune from extreme weather events.  In a historic flood not too long ago this year, Venice’s iconic St. Mark’s square lay hip-deep in water threatening the frescoes in the church itself.  And in the US, coastal flooding on the east coast has been featured by the New York Times (As Sea Levels Rise, So Do Ghost Forests, October 8, 2019).  The ‘ghost forests’ refer to trees in coastal areas dying off due to frequent incursions of saltwater; it kills them from the roots up. 

An excellent estimate of coastal flooding on the East and Gulf coasts, Encroaching Tides, was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists a five years ago.  Sober reading, the report’s prognosis of coastal inundation and sea level rise over the next three decades is of concern to communities from Maine to Texas.  Adaptation to new norms, protective sea walls, economic consequences, the responsibilities of Municipalities, States and the Federal Government, and a retreat from heavily impacted areas are the conclusions.  Is anybody listening?

The US is also not immune from fires.  California’s Kincade fire lasting two weeks through November 6 this year burnt almost 78,000 acres.  The largest 2019 wildfire in the state, it was the largest ever for Sonoma county — evacuation orders and warnings covered almost everyone living in it.  For the first eleven months of 2019 there have been 46,706 wildfires compared to 47,853 for all of 2018.  Blame the downslope Santa Ana winds for fanning them. 

If such is the state of our earth in extremis, COP25 the UN Climate Change Conference, is endeavoring to mitigate the major cause:  climate change.  It concludes in Madrid, Spain this week (Dec 13) having been displaced from Chile due to riots by an unhappy populace.  And celebrity climate activist Greta Thunberg was obliged to hitch a yacht ride back across the Atlantic arriving just in time to demonstrate.  Everything helps.

COP25’s ambitious aim is to up the ante from the 2C temperature rise limit of the Paris agreement, adopted by COP24 last year in Poland, to only 1.5C.  A laudable aim perhaps, yet the worst polluters since the industrial revolution are comfortably ensconced, enjoying their wealth, without bearing a heavier burden — in the case of the US very little as Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris agreement.  Indeed a vexing state of affairs for the world when major players shirk their responsibilities. 

Authors’ Note:  This article first appeared on Commondreams.org

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Thanksgiving Also Means Giving Thanks for Our Planet

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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It is Thanksgiving holiday in the US.  The Europeans do not celebrate Thanksgiving and the European Parliament has held an election.  It has chosen former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission.  Hailing from a political family of conservatives — her father narrowly lost a party leadership election to Franz Josef Strauss — she is the first woman to hold the EU’s top executive job.

Conservative or not, there is unanimity in the EU about climate change, and how the EU has to lead the transition to a healthier planet by planning the necessary upgrading of its social market economy.

If the Europeans are increasingly aware of the environmental challenges ahead, the UN Environment Programme has just issued its flagship Emissions Gap Report.  As one might surmise, the ‘gap’ refers to the difference between what the world is doing to tackle climate change and what it needs to do to limit temperature increase to 1.5C.  Our present ambitions of structural change from a fossil fuel economy is forecast in the report to lead to a catastrophic 3.2C rise.

Present California fires and coastal flooding of the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas down to Florida are just the top of the iceberg as are the European floods in Spain, Italy and France — and the temperature rise so far is a single degree Celsius.

The window to act is closing rapidly.  As the UN report clarifies in stark terms, emissions will have to peak by 2020 to limit global warming to 1.5C without affecting economic growth.  It turns out that of the 43 developed and emerging economies, all with the sole exception of Turkey will have peaked their emissions by 2020.  Be 2030, 57 countries will have peaked.  That is the good news.

By far the greatest emitters are China, the US, and then India and the EU.  Together they account for 56 percent of greenhouse gasses emitted over the last decade.  These therefore bear a heavy responsibility.

The bad news is that while these and other emitters have pledged to follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement — except for the US because Trump withdrew from it — it is not enough.  According to the UN report, their efforts will still result in a 3.2C rise by century’s end to devastating effect.

It is logical then that efforts have to be intensified, and countries need to be more ambitious in their goals.  A focus on innovation and domestic policies to encourage non-fossil fuel power generation would be clearly to their advantage.  For example, energy produced from solar panels has soared from 50 Gigawatts in 2010 to 400 GW in 2015 with an expectation of 450+ GW by 2020.

The strong message of the report is for all sectors and their principals — national, state and local governments, mayors, corporations, their executives, civil society and civic leaders — to come together and act in concert if they are to avert a problem affecting our common home before it is too late.  It is one way of giving thanks for what we have.  The last five years have already been the warmest on record, the future can be expected to be worse if we do not act.

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