The recent shutdown of hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the US has saved tens of thousands of lives, according to a new University of California, San Diego study.
An estimated 26,610 lives have been saved as a result of the recent shift in the US from coal to natural gas and other energy sources, as reported in the journal Nature Sustainability. On top of that, the researchers estimate it’s also increased yields of corn, soybeans, and wheat by 570 million bushels.
Coal is the “dirtiest” of all fossil fuels, responsible for producing more pollution and carbon emissions than any other energy source. So, the recent shift away from coal in the US has not just reduced greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also helped to reduce air pollution that’s choked nearby communities for decades.
Inhaling the cocktail of microscopic soot, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides that are released by coal combustion is closely linked to a number of health concerns that can cause premature death, most notably heart disease and respiratory problems. It can also have a damaging effect on plant life and reduces crop yields.
Researchers from UC San Diego reached their findings by gathering statistics on county-level mortality rates and crop yields and combining them with satellite and surface measurements of air pollution, along with data on local power generation. By crunching these numbers, they found the shutdown of coal-fired units saved an estimated 26,610 lives and produced 570 million more bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat in the immediate vicinities between 2005 and 2016.
However, as a slight caveat, the research does note a large margin of error in their statistics, noting 5 to 95 percent confidence intervals for the number of lives saved.
"The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes – like an electric power unit being shut down – to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts," Jennifer Burney, associate professor of environmental science at UC San Diego, said in a statement.
"We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the US has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences.”
A study published in March 2019 found that air pollution is responsible for nearly 9 million premature deaths each year – that’s more deaths than smoking. While the effects of air pollution are widely known and well-established, politics and industry have made sluggish progress towards addressing its primary source: the use of fossil fuels.
As this study shows, the benefits of ditching fossil fuels – especially coal – are profound and can be felt within just a few years.
"Policymakers often think about greenhouse gas emissions as a separate problem from air pollution, but the same processes that cause climate change also produce these aerosols, ozone, and other compounds that cause important damages," Burney added. "This study provides a more robust accounting for the full suite of emissions associated with electric power production."