Cutting Emissions From Coal Plants Could Save Thousands of Lives Annually, Study Finds

Curbs on coal-burning power plants proposed by the Obama Administration could save thousands of lives each year, according to a new non-partisan, peer-reviewed study. Depending on how they’re implemented, new emissions standards could prevent around 3,500 premature deaths annually, primarily from respiratory disease.

“The bottom line is, the more the standards promote cleaner fuels and energy efficiency, the greater the added health benefits,” lead author Charles Driscoll, a Syracuse University professor of environmental systems engineering, was quoted as saying by the Washington Post May 4.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new plan would cut soot and harmful pollutants that affect the atmosphere and cause respiratory disease.

To come up with their figures, researchers from Syracuse and Harvard Universities, as well as four other institutions, used census information and maps of the 2,400 or so coal plants that are currently in operation across the nation. They determined that a plan emphasizing both clean energy and efficiency could prevent between 780 and 6,100 deaths per year.

Since some plants are likely to emphasize clean energy more (which would come along with more health benefits) and others will likely emphasize efficiency, the researchers essentially split the difference to reach an estimate of 3,500.

Coal-fired power plants have become a contentious topic in recent years. There’s no doubt that the U.S. needs to find power solutions; national electricity use was more than 13 times as great in 2013 as it was in 1950. Supporters of coal say that it is a reliable way to provide that much-needed power, and that attacking the industry will cause people to lose their jobs. Critics, however, say that green energy solutions need to be implemented immediately for financial, environmental and — now — health reasons.

The full study has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change under the title “U.S. power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits.”

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