By Neil Donahue
The Green New Deal replaces the threadbare trope of “jobs versus environment” with a sustainable strategy for jobs and the environment. Right now, before COVID-19, self isolation, and a negative trading price on barrels of oil, we suffer in Allegheny County from a distorted and unbalanced marketplace that does place profits and health in opposition. Air pollution in Pittsburgh is an old story that remains current and urgent,along with climate pollution consequences. We can help lead the world out of the Carboniferous Pennsylvanian period into a post-carbon future with far lower pollution, a stable climate, and resiliency against boom-and-bust market shocks.
Our air is literally killing us, though it is important to note that Pittsburgh is not unique and other parts of the developing world have it far worse. Fine particles (smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, PM2.5) are uniquely lethal; they are small enough to evade the defenses of our upper airways and to deposit in the air sacs deep in our lungs (the sacs that are ravaged by COVID-19). There they deliver concentrated doses of toxics; the lung responds with inflammation; and our risk of heart attack, stroke, and cancer rises. The current U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), set under the Clean Air Act, is an annual average of 12 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air. Most of Pittsburgh is just in compliance with that standard; however, the best current health-effects research shows that the risk of dying from that level of exposure rises by about 1.5%. About 14,000 people die in our county every year, so this means more than 200 people die in our county from that pollution. Other estimates are higher, but even this level is a calamity. Far from protecting public health, as the EPA is required to do when it establishes a NAAQS, the current standard tolerates about 100,000 deaths per year across the U.S., and a far greater amount of affliction and lowered productivity.
At the time of publication, over 150 people have perished this year in our county from COVID-19. Typically, 80 or so are murdered, and 80 or so die in car crashes. Death by breathing comes close to all of those combined.We have done a lot since Earth Day 1970 and Pittsburgh as “Hell with the lid off,” largely because of the Clean Air Act. Cars are almost unrecognizably cleaner than they were before catalytic converters and relatively efficient engines were required – innovations inspired and forced by the Clean Air Act, and met impressively ( with step-by-step protestation) by the auto industry. Acid rain emissions from un-scrubbed coal-fired power plants have also dropped dramatically, first because of mandated scrubbers and more recently as coal has begun to lose its market grip. Without those successes, many more of us – 500 or more annually – would also be dying by breathing each year.
The cost of air pollution is obvious and immediate; it kills us here and now. When environmental economists put a price on those deaths, it comes to about $2 billion per year, here in Allegheny County. Climate pollution (especially carbon dioxide emission from fossil-fuel combustion) also costs us dearly; but it is far harder to calculate that cost, here and now. The costs are spread around the world, and they persist into the distant future. It takes about 100,000 years for the atmosphere-ocean system to recover from the effects of emitting CO2 now. That is forever in any human context. The “easy” (fairly local and fairly immediate) costs of climate change come to about $50 per metric ton of CO2 emissions – the total costs are far higher, perhaps $400 per ton or more. To put that in context, burning a barrel of oil produces about ¼ ton of CO2, so the climate damages of that barrel of oil are about $100. Put another way, $1 per ton is $0.01 per gallon at the pump, so $400 per ton is $4 per gal. The swings in crude oil and gasoline prices seem mild in comparison.
Regardless of those climate costs, when we stop the CO2 emissions by decarbonizing our energy system, as we must, we will slash the emissions and formation of PM2.5 by about a factor of 4. (Some of the PM2.5 will remain because it comes not from fossil-fuel combustion, but from other sources such as emissions from cooking food and from trees.) Regardless of those climate costs, the cost of breathing will also plummet, and we will save perhaps 150 lives every year, here and now. How do we do that? We live close to our work. We bike. We ride electric trains and buses, we drive electric cars, and we generate that electricity first and foremost with wind and solar power. Many of these we can do now, other parts will require infrastructure investments and innovation (for example long-range power transmission to outdistance the weather variability of wind and sunshine). By recognizing the huge pollution and climate costs of business as usual, we will provide huge incentives for the innovations we need to fully realize the Green New Deal.
Neil M. Donahue is the Thomas Lord University Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. He directs the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research and is a fellow of the American Association for Aerosol Research and the American Geophysical Union, as well as one of the world’s most highly cited Geoscientists. He is a Pittsburgh native.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.