Air pollution is killing us now.

Murky Waters

The University of California in San Francisco published a finding last month that the reason why people were having fewer heart attacks during the Covid pandemic in 2020 was because millions of workers were staying at home and inhaling less air pollution.

Across the country researchers found that regions with larger drops in pollution also had more heart attacks.

Although air pollution is not at the level it was in the 1960’s evidence has piled up that shows efforts to reduce air pollution isn’t nearly good enough. In an assessment made by the World Health Organization concluded last year that air pollution is “the single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being”

Red Planet 1

The low quality of air that we breathe should be seen as a crisis. It also presents an opportunity. The existential threat of climate change has come to dominate debates about environmental regulation. Proposals to curb emissions, once presented as public health measures, are now billed as efforts to limit global warming.

The solution to both threats is the same. We need to stop burning fossil fuels, preferably yesterday. But there is cause to wonder whether a greater focus on the immediate dangers posed by air pollution, rather than the more distant specter of global warming, might help to muster the necessary support for changes that are going to be expensive and disruptive.

Red Planet 2

There are practical reasons why it may be easier to curb emissions in the name of public health than in the name of climate change. The laws authorizing environmental regulation, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, were written as public health measures.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to require clean air for the sake of clean air is on much firmer ground. And science is providing the justification for stricter standards. Researchers at the University of Chicago estimated last year that air pollution cuts 2.2 years off the average human life. The effects are worse where pollution is thickest. Even people living in rural areas where the air feels fresh are often inhaling levels of pollution sufficient to cause significant health problems.

Citing this accumulation of research the World Health Organization issued new guidelines last year that advised countries to seek to reduce airborne concentration of fine particles from combustion to an annual average level at or below 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

Blue Planet 1

The current standard in the United States is 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The E.P.A’s clean air Scientific Advisory Committee has recommended a new standard between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

A lower standard would be better but any reduction would deliver significant health benefits and accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels necessary to limit global warming.

Hal Harvey, the C.E.O of Energy Innovation, a clean energy consultancy argues that by increasing clean power standards for electric utilities. That is, require every U.S power utility to reduce its carbon emissions by shifting to renewables at a rate of 7 to 10 percent a year.

The C.E.O of American Electric Power, once utterly coal dependent, has now pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, using mostly natural gas as a backup. 31 States have already set steadily rising clean energy standards for their public utilities. Let’s go for all 50-now.

Australia has eliminated the regulatory red tape around installing rooftop solar systems and gives every household a tax rebate to do so. Australia is now growing its renewable markets faster than China, Europe, Japan and America.

Blue Planet 2

If you want to lower gasoline prices, the most effective environmental way would be to lower the highway speed limit to 60 miles per hour and ask every company to let its employees work from home. Those two things would cut demand for gasoline and bring down the price.

“The clean alternatives are now cheaper than the dirty ones”, Harvey noted. “It now cost more to ruin the earth than to save it. It also, now costs less to liberate ourselves from petro-dictators than to remain enslaved by them”.

The Information for this blog comes from the New York Times Opinion Section:

By Binyamin Appelbaum.

By Thomas L. Friedman.