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National Analysis Suggests Cutting Carbon Dioxide Would Improve Air Quality In Missouri

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities, and cars contributes to asthma and other health problems in the St. Louis area.
Syracuse University News Services

Cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants would also reduce other types of air pollution, both here in Missouri and nationally.

That's according to a recent analysis by researchers at Harvard and Syracuse Universities.

Along with carbon dioxide, coal-fired power plants emit other pollutants, like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Those in turn can contribute to forming particle pollution, ozone, and smog.

So limiting carbon emissions should improve air quality ― especially in a state like Missouri, which gets about 80 percent of its energy from coal.

But Syracuse University environmental engineer Charles Driscoll, who co-authored the analysis, cautioned that it's still too early to know how the carbon limits proposed last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will play out at the state level.

“A lot depends on how the state of Missouri would implement this rule,” Driscoll said. “There's a lot of flexibility, and a lot of options.”

Driscoll said if Missouri opts to reduce its reliance on coal by shifting to low-carbon sources of energy, or by using its energy resources more efficiently, the state could see substantial improvements in air quality.

On the other hand, Missouri might be able to find ways to continue burning coal ― if, for example, the state were able to buy "carbon credits" from other states that brought their carbon emissions down below federally-mandated targets.

Credit Syracuse University and Harvard University
This map shows regional changes in summertime ozone concentrations under "scenario 2" of the Syracuse/Harvard analysis. That scenario assumed a 36% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

But Janice Nolen says the EPA's carbon limits are urgently needed to slow climate change.

Nolen is the Assistant Vice President for National Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association, which produces an annual “State of the Air” report. In 2014, it ranked St. Louis 13th out of 217 metro areas in the country for ozone pollution.

Nolen said climate change is directly contributing to ground-level ozone by increasing summertime temperatures across most of the U.S.

“One of the things that contributes to ozone is heat,” Nolen said. “And if you’ve got warmer days, you’re going to have more ozone pollution.”

Nolen said cutting air pollution from coal-fired power plants would have a direct benefit for human health, reducing rates of asthma, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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