The other reason to stop burning coal? Air pollution that kills thousands every year

Air pollution over Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

When President Donald Trump announced on 1 June that he had decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, he asserted that staying in the pact would prevent his nation from further developing its fossil fuel reserves. Critics understandably have called this a setback for global efforts to curb greenhouse gas pollution.

But there is another, equally important argument for transitioning to clean fuels. Tens of thousands of Americans die every year from old-fashioned air pollution, generated by electric power plants that burn fossil fuels. Estimates vary, but between 7,500 and 52,000 people in the United States meet early deaths because of small particles resulting from power plant emissions. That’s huge: it is roughly comparable to the 40,000 people that died in car crashes in 2016.

In a recent research study with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, I analysed how human health and the environment would be affected if all coal-fired power plants in the United States switched to natural gas – an extension of a trend that is already underway. We found that such a shift would have tremendous positive effects on human health in America. We estimate that low natural gas prices and state policies that move utilities away from coal are savings tens of thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars each year.

Fossil fuel pollution is deadly

We’ve known that air pollution is linked to human health since Lester Lave and Eugene Seskin published their pioneering quantitative work in Science in 1970. They studied “the long-term effects of growing up in, and living in, a polluted atmosphere,” using economists’ favorite statistical technique – regression analysis – to look at a few locales where data were available.

In England they found that “cleaning the air to the level of cleanliness enjoyed by the area with the best air [in the UK] would mean a 40 percent drop in the bronchitis death rate among males.” Male and female results were about the same. Since few women worked in industry in those days, this finding indicated that the effect was independent of occupational exposure.

Activists occupy the Crawford coal plant in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on April 20, 2011. The plant shut down in 2012; the city is seeking to convert the site to other uses. Image: Rainforest Action Network/Flickr/creative commons.

In Buffalo, New York, they found that cleaning the air to the level of the cleanest area would lower the average bronchitis death rate by 50 percent. Stomach cancer was much higher in areas with more air pollution. Air pollution affects the heart too: they concluded that a substantial abatement of air pollution would lead to a 10 to 15 percent reduction in deaths and illnesses from cardiovascular disease.

The year 1993 saw the publication of an enormous study that followed over 8,000 adults for 15 years in six U.S. cities. The cities – Topeka; St. Louis; Watertown, Massachusetts; Steubenville, Ohio; Harriman, Tennessee; and Portage, Wisconsin – had differing levels of air pollution.

The researchers measured pollution in detail. After adjusting for factors like smoking, they found that the death rate was 26 percent higher in the most polluted cities than in the cleanest ones. They wrote, “Air pollution was positively associated with death from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease …. Mortality was most strongly associated with air pollution with fine particulates, including sulfates.” Fine particulate pollution is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets, many times smaller than a human hair.

Still clearing the air

Haven’t we reduced pollution so thoroughly in the United States since then that we no longer have a problem? Well, no. There are some toxins, such as alcohol, that your body can deal with at a low level and that will kill you only at high doses. But current air pollution levels are not that low.

Another huge study, published in 2013, focused on small particulates in the air of 545 U.S. counties and yearly county-specific life expectancy for the period 2000-07. It found that cleaning up the air is still very beneficial. Life expectancy has increased in the United States in recent decades, due to things like a decrease in smoking and general attention to diet and exercise. But this research found that 18 percent of the recent increase in urban life expectancy was due to decreased air pollution.

Reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from US electric power plants, due largely to laws requiring pollution control technologies at coal-fired power plants, and more recently, a shift from coal to natural gas generation. Image: USEIA.

Much of this fine particle pollution comes from electric power plants, either directly or as pollutants such as sulfur dioxide that chemically evolve downwind of the plant. So we asked in our research: what would happen if current low natural gas prices or pollution control policies caused all U.S. coal-burning power plants to be replaced by natural gas generators?

Somewhat surprisingly to us, such a shift would not lead to major progress on climate change. Although natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, some natural gas leaks into the air at drilling sites, processing plants and pipelines. Natural gas consists mainly of methane, a greenhouse gas that has much more powerful heat-trapping properties than carbon dioxide. If current estimates are correct that the leakage rate is around 3 percent, then we calculated that switching all coal plants to average-efficiency natural gas plants would have little effect on the power sector’s contribution to climate change.

But that switch would greatly reduce pollution that is harming our country right now. Switching from coal to natural gas would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent, and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 60 percent. These compounds are major causes of fine particulate pollution. Reductions on this level would lower the total cost of national annual human health damages by $20bn, to $50bn annually. We found that the Southeast and the Ohio Valley, where most of the coal is burned, would capture the lion’s share of these benefits.

2016 annual health and environmental damages due to emissions of criteria pollutants from coal plants, by North American Electric Reliability Corporation generating regions, using the APEEP model. Replacing coal plants with average gas plants reduces damages most significantly in the Midwest and Southeast. Redrafted from our research by Gerad Freeman. Image: author provided.

More coal use will not create more jobs

President Trump has called the Paris climate accord “very unfair” for the United States, especially the coal industry, and pledged to restore coal miners’ jobs. But bringing back coal isn’t the same thing as bringing back coal miners’ jobs.

Almost all coal use in the United States is for producing electricity. Coal mining jobs are declining partly because low natural gas prices have cut coal’s market share from 50 per cent in 2000 to 30 per cent in 2016.


The other key factor is automation. A great coal boom took place in the United States from 1978 to the 2008 recession. The number of tons of coal mined increased by 85 per cent, but the number of miners fell by half. Productivity (tons mined per miner) increased by 350 per cent, due partially to a shift from underground to surface mines, but largely from the introduction of highly mechanised systems like long wall mining that require far fewer miners. The $340m in annual federal tax subsidies that US coal companies receive is not putting more miners to work.

Some great companies understand these human health issues, and are taking big risks to push technology that may allow coal to be used without pollution. Southern Company, AEP, NETpower and a few others are using American know-how to reduce coal’s emissions.

The ConversationBut without a national consensus that both conventional pollution and greenhouse gas pollution have to be reduced, their engineering will founder in the boardroom. If President Trump succeeds in bringing back coal while gutting environmental regulations, all he’ll bring back is more pollution and more early deaths.

Jay Apt is a professor in the Tepper School of Business, Engineering and Public Policy and co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.