The Obama administration’s new Clean Power Plan is a historic step forward in the fight to slow climate change. Less well-known is that it’s also a dramatic public health advance.
Limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the leading source of this climate change accelerant in the United States, has the added benefit of reducing harmful air pollutants. That’s a critical but often overlooked reason that these controversial emissions standards merit support as a national debate erupts after their release on Monday.
What’s released into the air from electricity generation, particularly from dated coal-fired plants, can have a harmful impact on air quality. Fine particulates, ozone and other pollutants that are released or created significantly contribute to smog and soot. Poor air quality can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate other respiratory diseases. Air pollution can worsen cardiovascular disease and has been linked to premature death.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warn that climate change, which carbon emissions are hastening, may have myriad adverse health impacts. Among them: the spread of infectious diseases currently limited to tropical areas.
It’s common sense that what’s good for the planet is good for human health. The new regulations are expected to cut carbon emissions nationally by 32 percent by 2030 (from 2005 levels). Nevertheless, the Clean Power Plan proved controversial even before the finalized regulations’ debut this week.
The regulations, which set emissions reductions targets for states, have been in the works by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for some time. An earlier draft of the plan drew criticism that the regulations were part of Obama’s “war on coal,” even though that industry faces greater challenges from cleaner, competitively priced natural gas and renewable energy. Others have dug out shopworn fears of a federal power grab or raised unsubstantiated concerns about soaring energy costs that will force businesses to shutter.
But support for the new regulations from many large firms — among them, Minnesota’s General Mills — undercuts this concern. The finalized Clean Power Plan also doesn’t dictate how states must meet carbon reduction goals. Instead, it allows states to figure out how best to do that and provides additional time if necessary to ensure that grid reliability and other concerns are addressed. Minnesota also appears to have been given allowances for work already done to reduce carbon emissions.
While it’s too soon to have detailed cost information about the impact on energy prices, federal analysis suggests that prices for energy users will rise in years ahead but ultimately will result in utility-bill savings at the end of the next decade.
In any other scenario, pollution released by big industry that can make people seriously ill, especially children, would generate righteous outrage, with conscientious parents leading the charge. By cutting carbon, the Clean Power Plan is protecting the health of current and future generations. That ought to bring people together, not divide them.