Study: Move Away From Coal Will Have Regional Health Benefits

Moving to an 80 percent carbon-free power sector by 2030 and closing most coal-fired plants would result in significant health benefits in the U.S., and particularly in Western Pennsylvania, a recent report found.


The study by the Clean Energy Futures Project examined the costs and benefits of implementing an 80 percent clean energy standard, an interim target toward the Biden’s administration’s goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2035, and one that would allow the U.S. to meet its emission reduction goals under the Paris Accord. The Clean Energy Futures Project is a multi-institutional research initiative from the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Syracuse University; Resources for the Futures; and Georgia Institute of Technology.


The study found that “the present value of the estimated climate health benefits through 2050 ($637 billion) outweigh the estimated costs ($342 billion).” The reduction of fossil fuel use would “prevent an estimated 317,500 premature deaths between now and 2050 and generate estimated present value health benefits of $1.13 trillion due to cleaner air.”


Researchers looked at a number of different proposals to reduce the use of fossil fuels and encourage the expansion of renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar. They took into account changes in energy generation sources, electricity sector emissions, air quality and health benefits, and costs and monetized benefits from making such changes.


The study projects a rapid reduction in coal generation, nearly reaching zero in 2050. Natural gas generation is lower than if nothing is done, but remains a generation source through 2050, with increasing use of carbon capture and storage technology. Large increases in solar and wind energy are predicted to offset fossil fuel reduction, while the use of nuclear and hydropower remain low.


“Extensive research has shown that air quality improves the incidence of air quality-related health impacts including asthma attacks, heart attacks, respiratory illnesses, pre-term births, low birth weight, and premature deaths declines,” due to reductions in ozone and fine particulate matter that are produced from burning coal, the study states.


It determined that Pennsylvania would be third among states in the number of premature deaths avoided, after only Ohio and Texas. Allegheny County ranks third in a list of top-10 counties for premature deaths avoided. An accompanying map shows that counties adjacent to Allegheny in Southwestern Pennsylvania would also see improvements.


To accomplish this goal, the study suggests that the federal government will need to establish a system of incentives and penalties to encourage change to carbon-free energy generation and lower the cost of this transition, but still finds that the benefits outweigh the costs.


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