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Cooling the planet, clearing the air

Expanding climate change mitigation approaches to also target related pollutants would have enormous public health benefits in disadvantaged communities.

Expanding climate change mitigation approaches beyond greenhouse gases to also target related pollutants would have enormous public health benefits in the nation’s most disadvantaged communities, according to a report released today by E3 Network and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The report, Cooling the Planet, Clearing the Air: Climate Policy, Carbon Pricing, and Co-Benefits, found that the same industrial facilities that emit carbon tend to generate other harmful pollutants, such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, that actually pose a more immediate and direct threat to the health of nearby residents.  Since these facilities are typically located in or near low-income and minority communities, adding these harmful “co-pollutants” to a climate change mitigation strategy would have an almost immediate positive health impact on the health of millions of poor and minority Americans.

The research showed that the benefits would be comparable in economic value to the benefits of the carbon reduction by itself.

The peer-reviewed report is the first national level study to take such a careful look at the potential to further reduce harmful air pollution as part of any strategy to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reverse climate change.

“Current climate proposals are missing out on an opportunity to achieve considerable health and equity gains through a common-sense approach that addresses co-pollutants such as soot and nitrogen oxides. And since the burden of these co-pollutants falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color, this is one of those opportunities for equity and efficiency to come together,” said report co-author, Manuel Pastor. “Cooling the planet and clearing the air can and should go hand in hand.”

With recommendations that strategically target specific industries, such as petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing, as well as a small number of facilities that yield the highest emissions of air toxins, the report offers a fresh look at how carbon policies can be designed to be more equitable and efficient going forward.  “Climate change is real. So sooner or later, it will be back on the nation’s policy agenda,” said study co-author James Boyce. “The next time around, we think much more attention should be paid to the tremendous public health and air quality benefits we stand to gain by moving our economy away from fossil fuels.”

Kristen Sheeran, Director of the E3 Network, which commissioned the report commented, “This report highlights often overlooked issues of environmental justice. Take for example the recent explosion on August 6 at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. This refinery is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of California, and over 85% of the residents who live within a three-mile radius of the plant live below the federal poverty line. We recognize an enormous risk—as well as an enormous opportunity—for public health and to address pollution where it is needed most.”

Read E3 Network’s executive summary or full report