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The EPA’s plan to combat climate change and what it means for America’s health

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy signing new regulations on carbon pollution.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy signing new regulations on carbon pollution.

Given all the health problems that climate change is already causing (and the even worse problems it’s expected to cause), it’s pretty important that the world’s second largest polluter of CO2 does something to significantly cut its emissions. Originally the Obama administration was pushing for a system of cap-and-trade, but when that bill died in Congress, the White House moved on to Plan B: regulating carbon through the EPA.

So far the EPA has already put forth strict new fuel-economy standards on cars and light trucks and regulations that would limit carbon pollution from new power plants. The final piece of the agenda, which the White House announced earlier this month, is both the trickiest and most important: reducing emissions from existing power plants. Here’s how the EPA plans to do it, and what it means for our health.  

How the EPA’s plan works

The website Vox has a great post explaining in more detail how the EPA’s power plant rule will work, but here’s the quick summary: Each state containing a fossil fuel power plant (DC and Vermont are the only two that don’t) will have its own emissions goal, set by the EPA using a complex formula based on (1) how much CO2 the state emits right now and (2) how much it could reasonably cut.

EPA carbon targets by state

Each state will have to submit a plan by June 2015, and they have a lot of flexibility in how they choose to meet these targets. According to Vox:

They could shut down their coal plants and build new natural gas plants. They could build nuclear plants. They can get partial credit for prolonging the life of their nuclear plants. Homes and businesses could use energy more efficiently. They could implement a carbon tax. They could join existing cap-and-trade systems or start new ones.

On the other hand, if states refuse to comply, the EPA will step in and write the plan for the state. Altogether, the EPA estimates that these plans will lead to a reduction in U.S. power plants’ carbon emissions of 30% below 2005 levels.

Health benefits of the EPA plan

Last week we mentioned some of the ways climate change is currently affecting our health: more deadly heat waves, more food and water-borne diseases, more wild fires, and more smog pollution, which causes asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Unfortunately, the new limits on COemissions from power plants will do little to address these warming-related health issues on its own. The United States is just one country and, well, it’s not called “global warming” for nothing. The hope is that if the U.S. cuts its emissions, other major polluters will follow, and it will make it easier to negotiate a new global treaty on carbon emissions. There’s already been one promising sign: on the same day the EPA announced its plan, China– by far the world’s biggest total carbon polluter (the U.S. beats it per capita)– announced that it would cap its total emissions for the first time by the end of the decade.

However, the rule is expected to have some other big health benefits. As states cut back on their use of fossil fuels, there will also be a roughly 25% reduction in the emissions of nasty chemicals like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide that tag along with COwhen these fuels are burned. According to the White House:

From the soot and smog reductions alone, for every dollar invested through the Clean Power Plan, American families will see up to $7 in health benefits. In the first year that these standards go into effect, up to 100,000 asthma attacks and up to 2,100 heart attacks will be prevented. These standards will also help more kids to be healthy enough to show up to school – with up to 72,000 fewer absences in the first year. The benefits increase each year from there.

In 2025, up to 130,000 asthma attacks and up to 2,800 heart attacks will be prevented. In 2030, the health benefits rise to preventing 150,000 asthma attacks and up to 3,300 heath attacks, as well as avoiding:

  • 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths;
  • more than 1,800 visits to the hospital for cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses;
  • 3,700 cases of bronchitis in children;
  • 310,000 lost work days; and
  • 180,000 school absences.

Now we should point out that this doesn’t take into account other EPA rules that have been implemented since 2005. For example, the clean air transport rule recently upheld by the Supreme Court also limits emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, and it’s expected to prevent 240,000 asthma cases. Many steps that states take to comply with that rule will also help them meet their CO2 targets under the new rule, but in those cases the health benefits of each rule are being double counted.

Similarly, using 2005 as a benchmark might make the new rule’s 30% CO2 reduction look steeper than it actually is. Our carbon emissions are already about 12% below what they were in 2005, thanks to the lingering effects of the financial crisis and the natural gas boom. Many environmental groups will be pushing for an even stricter target during the public comment period before the EPA finalizes the rule.

The rest of Obama’s climate agenda

Reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants was by far the most ambitious part of President Obama’s climate plan, but as the Center for American Progress reports, there’s a lot more to it. The plan will:

  1. Double renewable electricity on public lands, “which will provide enough electricity to power 4.4 million homes.”
  2. Install 100 megawatts of renewable energy in federally assisted housing. This is a unique opportunity to learn best practices in small renewable power sources such as rooftop solar—while also making sure that the benefits are available to all Americans.
  3. Reduce the use of super pollutants both at home and abroad, including hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, soot, and methane. HFCs, used primarily in air-conditioners, yield much more warming than an equivalent amount of CO2 and are the fastest-growing type of greenhouse gas. A global agreement on phasing down HFCs can avoid 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of this century. Accelerating global measures to reduce soot and methane through the U.S.-led Climate and Clean Air Coalition could prevent another 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050 and up to 4 million annual premature deaths.
  4. Make the United States run on less energy. The president’s plan increases fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles built after 2018 and adopts efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.
  5. Require the federal government to “consume 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020,” nearly three times the current goal of 7.5 percent. This would put the purchasing power of the federal government—the largest energy user in the country—behind the transition to a cleaner future.
  6. Provide financing for innovative low-carbon technologies at home and abroad and use public resources to ramp-up private investment in both global mitigation and adaptation efforts. The Department of Energy will use $8 billion in loan guarantees to jump-start industries that will help reduce carbon pollution, including energy efficiency, carbon capture and sequestration, and smart grids. Moreover, the United States already contributed $7.5 billion to global efforts to improve resilience and reduce emissions abroad between 2009 and 2012.

[Those are just a few of the provisions– you can read President Obama’s entire Climate Action Plan here.]

UPDATE: The White House just released a one year progress report on the President’s Climate Action Plan. There’s a quick summary here and you can read the entire thing here.

Will it be enough?

It’s hard to say. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who predicted the EPA’s carbon regulations before pretty much anyone, points out that there are all kinds of things that could still sink Obama’s plan– the Supreme Court could nullify it, a Republican President could reverse it, China and India might not agree to an international treaty. Still, as Chait writes:

“A president cannot save the planet. But it can no longer be fairly denied that Obama has thrown himself entirely behind the cause.”

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • John Nagle June 19, 2014, 3:58 pm

    Glad to see this connection and that WhatIf is branching out a bit.

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