Support for
has been provided by these organizations and individuals:

John Hennessy III,

Health Benefits of Carbon Standards for Power Plants

Posted by Content Coordinator on Friday, October 3rd, 2014


Executive Summary – Part 2: Health Co-Benefits of Carbon Standards 


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the nation’s first-ever carbon pollution standards for existing power plants on June 2, 2014. The EPA-proposed Clean Power Plan would achieve a 30% reduction in carbon emissions from U.S. power plants below 2005 levels by 2030 (USEPA 2014a). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important greenhouse gas and a major driver of human-induced global climate change. Fossil-fuel-fired power plants are the single largest source of anthropogenic CO2 emissions in the U.S. They emitted 2.2 billion tons of CO2 in 2012 (AOE 2014) and currently account for 39 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions (USEPA 2014b). 

Standards to address global climate change by reducing CO2 emissions from power plants can spur significant improvements to public health and the environment by also curbing other emissions from this source such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM) and mercury (Hg). SO2 and NOx emissions contribute to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) sometimes referred to as “soot”. NOx emissions are also a major precursor to ground-level ozone (O3), sometimes referred to as “smog”. For human health, these pollutants increase the risk of premature death, heart attacks, severity of asthma, and other health effects. For ecosystems, these pollutants contribute to acid rain, the over-fertilization of surface waters and many types of ecosystems, ozone damage to trees and crops, and the accumulation of toxic mercury in fish. 

The Co-Benefits of Carbon Standards Study 

Scientists from Syracuse, Harvard, and Boston Universities launched a three-part1 co-benefits study in 2013 to quantify the: (1) air quality, (2) public health, and (3) environmental co-benefits of three different carbon policy scenarios based on projected changes in power plant emissions of SO2, NOx, and PM. The term “co-benefits” refers to the added improvements that occur from implementing a policy, beyond those associated with the primary target. In this case, the primary target is the reduction of CO2 emissions and the co-benefits are the improvements associated with ancillary decreases in the other emissions. Since this study is strictly an analysis of co-benefits, it does not quantify the direct health benefits of mitigating climate change, such as anticipated decreases in future heat-related illness. 

The three policy scenarios for power plant carbon standards assessed in this study are described on the following page and on pages 7 and 8. The three scenarios represent differing CO2 emissions reduction stringencies, flexibility in compliance options, and investments in demand-side energy efficiency. These scenarios were designed prior to the release of the Clean Power Plan, and capture a broad range of alternatives that can inform the final rule. The analysis isolates the co-benefits that are solely attributable to the carbon standards by comparing power plant emissions under the policy scenarios to the emissions that would have occurred under a business-as-usual reference case in the year 2020. The reference case includes the implementation of existing air pollution control policies. 

Scenario 1: Power Plant Improvements (low stringency, low flexibility/no user efficiency) 

This scenario focuses on heat rate upgrades and other improvements in the operating efficiency of existing power plants. It represents what is commonly referred to as an “inside the fence line” approach favored by some industry groups and states. It does not include new end-user energy efficiency. 

Scenario 2: Electricity Sector Improvements (moderate stringency, high flexibility/high user efficiency) 

This scenario includes state-based CO2 emission targets, flexible compliance options, and significant program investments in new end-user energy efficiency. This scenario is most similar to the EPA-proposed Clean Power Plan. 

Scenario 3: Cost of Carbon Improvements (high stringency, moderate flexibility/no user efficiency) This scenario compels power plants to implement all upgrades and CO2 pollution controls up to a cost of $43 per ton of CO2 reduced. This scenario allows some shift to renewables but does not include new investments in end-user energy efficiency. 

Summary of Results 

In Part 1 of the study, changes in air quality in the U.S. were evaluated in response to expected changes in power plant emissions for each policy scenario in the year 2020 (Driscoll et al. 2014). The top-performing option for air quality was Scenario 2: Electricity Sector Improvements. It results in an estimated 24% decrease in U.S. power plant carbon emissions from the 2020 reference case (Driscoll et al. 2014). This is equivalent to a 35% decrease from 2005 levels, the baseline year used by EPA in the Clean Power Plan. For the other pollutants, Scenario 2 results in an estimated decrease in power plant emissions from the 2020 reference case of 27% for SO2, 22% for NOx, and 27% for Hg. The decrease in emissions in Scenario 2 results in widespread air quality improvements of up to 1.35 micro-grams per cubic meter (μg/m3) for annual average PM2.5 and up to 3.6 parts per billion (ppb) for the 8-hour maximum summertime ozone by 2020. 

In Part 2 of the study, we analyzed the health co-benefits of the air quality changes under each of the three scenarios. The results are summarized here and presented in detail in the sections that follow. 

1. Power plant carbon standards can improve air quality and provide substantial health co-benefits. The carbon standard that is moderately stringent has the greatest health co-benefits of the three analyzed (Scenario 2). The high compliance flexibility and high end-user energy efficiency in Scenario 2 results in the greatest number of premature deaths avoided overall and per ton of CO2 reduced. This scenario is most similar to the EPA-proposed Clean Power Plan in its design and resulting COemissions. It yields the following estimated health co-benefits in the U.S. in 2020 compared to the business-as-usual reference case: 

  • 3,500 premature deaths avoided each year (that is equivalent to 9 premature deaths avoided every day). 
  • 1,000 hospital admissions avoided from heart and lung disease each year. 
  • 220 heart attacks prevented each year. 

It would also lead to additional health benefits not quantified here, including reduced asthma symptoms and other health benefits for children, the elderly, and vulnerable adults. 

2. The geographic distribution of health co-benefits in the top-performing scenario (Scenario 2) is widespread with all lower 48 states receiving some benefit. The 12 states with the greatest estimated number of premature deaths avoided are those where there are a large number of exposed people and air quality improves the most. They are (in order): PA, OH, TX, IL, MI, NY, NC, GA, MO, VA, TN, and IN. The 12 states with the greatest estimated percent increase in premature deaths avoided are (in order): PA, OH, WV, MO, MI, KY, MD, DC, IL, DE, IN, and AR. 

3. The carbon standard with the lowest stringency has the lowest health co-benefits (Scenario 1). 

Its low flexibility and focus on improving power plant heat rates and operating efficiency results in little to no benefit with a slight increase in estimated premature deaths and heart attacks per year in the U.S. from the 2020 reference case. 

4. The carbon standard with the highest stringency (Scenario 3) has high health co-benefits but they are lower than Scenario 2. It results in fewer estimated premature deaths avoided per year in the U.S. from the 2020 reference case and nearly half as many avoided per ton of CO2 reduced as Scenario 2. 

5. Overall, the study shows that the health co-benefits of power plant carbon standards can be large but the magnitude depends on critical policy choices. The carbon standard scenario that combines moderately stringent carbon targets with highly flexible compliance options and more end-user energy efficiency (Scenario 2) has the greatest estimated health co-benefits. 

The results of this study indicate that carbon standards for existing power plants that are aimed at addressing the long-term issue of global climate change can bring substantial near-term state and local health co-benefits. They also demonstrate that the specific policy design choices for power plant carbon standards have a critical influence on the magnitude and distribution of the health co-benefits that occur. The improvements in air quality that accompany a carbon standard can result in nearly immediate benefits to human health. Extended implementation timelines would delay the accrual of these benefits. For the U.S. and other nations with significant greenhouse gas emissions and air quality challenges, local health co-benefits could be an important additional motivator for taking action on climate change. 

 Figure 1: The Co-Benefits of Carbon Standards Study

Download full version (PDF): Health Co-benefits of Carbon Standards for Existing Power Plants

About the Harvard Center for Global Health & Environment
The  Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health was founded in 1996 to research and communicate the connections between human health and our environment, and to accelerate the changes needed to ensure a healthy, sustainable, and prosperous future. 

About Syracuse University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CIE) is one of four departments in the College of Engineering and Computer Science that offers a broad range of programs leading to the B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. The strength of the Department is in our faculty/staff and students. Among the CIE faculty is a University Professor (appointed by the University for his excellence in research and scholarship), three Meredith Professors (appointed by the University for their excellence in teaching and mentoring), a National Science Foundation CAREER award recipient, and a Fulbright scholar. In addition, three CIE faculty members have received the College’s Crouse Hinds Awards for teaching excellence.

About the Boston University School of Public Policy
Since 1976, Boston University’s School of Public Health (SPH) has been growing, innovating, discovering, and launching the careers of some of the most accomplished and influential women and men in the field. Today we stand among a select group of public health graduate schools. U.S. News & World Report ranks SPH 11th in the nation.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Follow InfraUSA on Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr


Show us your infra! Show us your infra!

Video, stills and tales. Share images of the Infra in your community that demands attention. Post your ideas about national Infra issues. Go ahead. Show Us Your Infra!  Upload and instantly share your message.

Polls Polls

Is the administration moving fast enough on Infra issues? Are Americans prepared to pay more taxes for repairs? Should job creation be the guiding determination? Vote now!


What do the experts think? This is where the nation's public policy organizations, trade associations and think tanks weigh in with analysis on Infra issues. Tell them what you think.  Ask questions.  Share a different view.


The Infra Blog offers cutting edge perspective on a broad spectrum of Infra topics. Frequent updates and provocative posts highlight hot button topics -- essential ingredients of a national Infra dialogue.