The shutdown of coal-fired power plants in the United States has saved an estimated 26,610 lives between 2005-2016, according to a study.
The University of California San Diego report found that the decommissioning of the plants in the continental United States, reduced nearby pollution and significantly lowered its negative impact on human health and crops.
The study, published in the Nature Sustainability research journal, looked at the transition in the States towards natural gas and how the move has reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The States is the third largest coal consumer in the world, after China and India.
Local pollution levels at hundreds of areas around the country have also changed, largely the levels of ‘smog’ (where the burning of coal creates particulate matter and ozones in the lower atmosphere, which is hazardous to humans, plant life and the climate).
Jennifer Burney, associate professor of environmental science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, is author of the report.
She found that on top of the lives that were saved, around 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat were also protected.
An estimation of the damage caused by coal plants left in operation over that same time period, suggests they contributed to 329,417 premature deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of crops - roughly equivalent to half of year’s typical production in the U.S.
She said: “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.
“We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the U.S. 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.
“The analysis provides a framework for communities to more thoroughly and accurately assess the costs and benefits of local investments in energy infrastructure.”
Ms Burney combined data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on electric power generation with satellite and surface measurements from the EPA as well as NASA to gauge changes in local pollution before and after coal-fired unit shut-downs.
However, she pointed out that natural gas units are associated with increased pollution levels; although different than the pollutant mix from coal-fired units, and more research is required to fully understand their impacts.
She added: “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.
“This study provides a more robust accounting for the full suite of emissions associated with electric power production. If we understand the real costs of things like coal better, and who is bearing those costs, it could potentially lead to more effective mitigation and formation of new coalitions of beneficiaries across sectors.”