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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.