By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor
On August 3, 2015, the Obama administration announced the finalized US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Clean Power Plan.” The plan has been developed under the Clean Air Act and aims to slash carbon emissions from US power plants, which account for one-third of all carbon emissions in the country, by giving each state an individual goal for cutting these emissions. The EPA estimates that the new national standards will significantly decrease carbon pollution produced by the electric sector by 2030; carbon emissions will be 32% lower than the 2005 levels. For a step-by-step guide on how the Clean Power Plan works, head here.
Although just a fraction of what is needed to halt global warming, the standards—which are the first ever on carbon emissions by power plants in the United States—are expected to lead to significant, multiple benefits.
The Clean Power Plan has been touted by supporters not only as an historic step in the fight against climate change and as a driver of investment and innovation but also as a major public health initiative. Indeed, while the plan faces strong opposition from the fossil fuel industry, as well as utility companies and individual states, and will surely be challenged in Congress and the courts, few debate the value of its health benefits.
As the worldwide narrative about climate change shifts from a distant polar bear to tangible effects on people’s health, the attention devoted to the need for solutions is steadily increasing in the global “collective imaginary.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Obama administration focuses on easy-to-picture health issues such as asthma, which affects more than 25 million people in the United States. Air pollution, predominantly smog and soot from cars, factories, and power plants is a major cause of asthma attacks and may also contribute to the development of asthma in previously healthy people, with children particularly susceptible to developing the disorder. The Clean Power Plan aims to decrease levels of carbon dioxide—a major contributor to global warming. So how does it improve human health, especially asthma-related issues? In addition to carbon dioxide, power plants release pollutants that are precursors to smog and soot, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. The EPA predicts that the projected reduction in carbon emissions will prevent up to 90,000 asthma attacks in American children annually. Not surprisingly, the American Lung Association applauds the Clean Power Plan for its health benefits.
Christopher Borick, Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said: “Even when Americans accept the reality of climate change, they continue to generally give it low saliency in terms of issues on the agenda.” He added: “When you think about public health matters like asthma or any breathing issues that many Americans face, it’s real and it’s immediate. The threats from climate change are major and potentially devastating, but to many individuals, remain abstract. The more you can get individuals to think about carbon and fossil fuel matters through the lens of public health, the more likely you are to get them on board in policy efforts to reduce emissions.”
Air pollution is linked not only to asthma but also to a variety of other health disorders, for example, stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer. According to the World Health Organization, outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas caused an estimated 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.
In another move to address air quality improvements, the Obama administration last week cut the amount of ozone allowed in the air from the current 75 parts per billion (ppb) down to 70 ppb, the least restrictive level that the EPA had been considering. A major component of smog, ground-level or “bad” ozone, is created by chemical reactions between certain pollutants in presence of sunlight. Such pollutants are emitted by industrial facilities, electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents. Breathing bad ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma. In 2014, on the basis of scientific evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations urged to EPA to decrease levels to 60 ppb, which makes the 5 ppb decrease in restriction especially disappointing.
Environmental and health advocates point out that the health benefits provided by the 70 ppb standard are limited. John Walke, senior attorney and director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said few days ago in a press release: “The revised standard will provide real health benefits compared to today’s unsafe level of 75 ppb. But by setting a health standard that does not adequately protect Americans against harmful levels of smog pollution, President Obama has missed a major opportunity. EPA’s independent scientific advisors unanimously recommend a limit ‘lower than 70 ppb within a range down to 60 ppb.’ Setting the safest recommended standard would have saved almost 6,500 lives and avoided nearly 1.5 million more asthma attacks per year than the smog pollution level the administration has chosen.”
On October 1, the American Lung Association issued a statement saying that “Given the health threats from ozone, greater health protections are clearly needed. The level chosen of 70 ppb simply does not reflect what the science shows is necessary to truly protect public health.” The Association also points out that because the health standard forms the basis for daily air pollution alerts nationwide, sensitive populations could be at risk on moderate code yellow days. Indeed, many parents of children with asthma rely on these alerts to help them decide whether or not it’s safe for their child to spend time outside.
Cleaning the air that we daily breathe is a continuous fight. John Walke said: “We will keep fighting for ozone limits that adequately protect Americans’ health.” Similarly, the American Lung Association stated: “We will continue to push toward a stronger standard that both follows the science and fully protects health with a margin of safety for the most vulnerable among us: children, anyone with asthma, seniors, people with low incomes and people who work or play outside.”
While the fight goes on, we should not forget the environmental and health-related successes brought about by the Clean Air Act, which has considerably enhanced the quality of the air we breathe, thus improving our health and the length of our lives. In a recent New York Times piece, Michael Greenstone provides new estimates of the gains in life expectancy due to the improvement in air quality since 1970 and, more poignantly, shows us in a series of photographs how far we have come. Take a look at them here.