Harvard Study: Renewable Energy Results in Major Healthcare Savings

The displacement of fossil fueled electricity, especially coal-fired power plants, by renewable energy technologies is just as good for public health as it is for the climate, Harvard researchers say.

Renewable Energy and Human Health - A wind farm in Illinois. Credit: Amit Gupta/flickr
Renewable Energy and Human Health – A wind farm in Illinois. Credit: Amit Gupta/flickr

Building wind and solar farms helps to reduce the human impact on climate change by displacing noxious emissions from coal-fired power plants. A new study says there’s another important benefit to renewables development: cost savings from cleaner air that saves lives.

Researchers from Harvard University, in a bid to show the monetary value of clean energy projects in terms of improved public health, have found that energy efficiency measures and low-carbon energy sources can save a region between $5.7 million and $210 million annually, based on the accepted dollar value of human life. — Climate Central

In a new report published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health write that regional health benefits…

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World Health Organization Air Pollution Report | One in Eight deaths from Air Pollution

by John Brian Shannon.

Seven million premature air pollution related deaths — World Health Organization Air Pollution Report

A March 25 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) says that 7 million premature deaths were caused by air pollution in 2012. That’s one of every eight deaths worldwide. “This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.” — WHO report

Air pollution is contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases, which can be fatal. — World Health Organization

The report clearly delineates between indoor and outdoor air pollution. A large percentage of deaths occur as wood, coal, or kerosene are used as fuel for indoor stoves in the developing world. These rudimentary cooking and heating stoves emit relatively large quantities of soot, particulates and toxic gases. Not to mention comparatively large quantities of CO2 — and while carbon dioxide itself is not a toxic gas it can displace oxygen in enclosed areas within a house for example, causing death by asphyxiation.

Women and Children at highest risk

Women and children tend to suffer most and levels are often significantly higher than outdoor pollution measurements. Indoor air pollution is responsible for 2 million deaths per year, according to the report.

Air pollution is a major environment-related health threat to children and a risk factor for both acute and chronic respiratory disease. While second-hand tobacco smoke and certain outdoor pollutants are known risk factors for respiratory infections, indoor air pollution from solid fuels is one of the major contributors to the global burden of disease. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly. Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.” — Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health

A solution to the millions of deaths in recent decades caused by indoor pollution is the replacement of inefficient wood-burning, coal-burning and kerosene stoves, with electric stoves. For that, 1.3 billion people living in remote regions unserviced by electrical grids in Africa, Asia, and parts of South America will need either standalone energy power plants in the form of Solar Home Systems (SHS) or microgrids to generate and deliver clean electricity for electric stoves and heaters.

World Health Organization Air Pollution report. Chart shows the causes and effects of airborne pollution. Image courtesy of WHO
World Health Organization Air Pollution report. Chart shows the causes and effects of airborne pollution. Image courtesy of WHO

Outdoor air pollution levels continue to increase

The growing outdoor air pollution problem is also a contributor to the millions of premature deaths from outdoor airborne emissions. Urban outdoor air pollution alone is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths annually.

Outdoor air pollution is large and increasing a consequence of the inefficient combustion of fuels for transport, power generation and other human activities like home heating and cooking. Combustion processes produce a complex mixture of pollutants that comprises of both primary emissions, such as diesel soot particles and lead, and the products of atmospheric transformation, such as ozone and sulfate particles. — WHO

Transportation Sector must reduce emissions, now

To reduce the millions of premature deaths caused by outdoor emissions, doubling the automobile fleet miles per gallon, per country, would halve the amount of outdoor emissions emitted by the land transportation segment. Switching from diesel to algae biodiesel (which can emit up to 80% fewer toxic pollutants) can dramatically improve the air quality in cities. And both gasoline vehicles and diesel vehicles can be manufactured or converted to run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). New, CNG-burning Honda cars are available for sale in the U.S. and Japan, while many truck fleets in the U.S. and Europe are switching to CNG or CNG+diesel power in an effort to lower costs, extend engine life, and reduce emissions.

The global shipping segment also emits large amounts of CO2, toxic gases and particulates. Emissions from ships may be especially harmful to human health due to the high levels of toxic gases, soot, and particulate matter which are a byproduct of burning so-called ‘bunker fuel’. Biofuel development is underway to help mitigate the damage caused by the world’s shipping lines to the atmosphere. Commercial aviation adds a similar total amount of CO2 to the atmosphere, but soot and particulates are less concerning with aviation fuels as much cleaner fuels are used for aviation. Increasingly, commercial airlines and the U.S. military are switching to biofuel+conventional petroleum blended fuels. Boeing reported that it’s jets produced 80% lower emissions when blended biofuels were used in test flights.

Electric Vehicles emit zero emissions

Cars like the Nissan LEAF and the Tesla Model S are stunning the world with their sales and performance — and their zero emissions for the life of the car. In North America and Europe, Tesla provides free charging for the life of the car via a growing network of charging stations which are often solar powered. Which means zero ‘fuel’ cost for the life of the car, if the owner chooses to recharge at one of the free Tesla ‘SuperCharger’ charging locations. Both the LEAF and the Tesla Model S boast a >95% recyclability rate.

The Nissan LEAF has sold over 100,000 units since it’s introduction, while the Model S is limited to only 30,000 per year (for now) due to a lack of manufacturing capacity. The latest Tesla vehicle, the Tesla Model X has a growing ‘waiting list’ of 12,000 people, and each one of them have paid a minimum deposit of $5,000. as far back as 2013 and are prepared to wait until 2015 if necessary, for their new Tesla electric vehicle.

It will get worse, before it gets better

For now, the annual death toll due to airborne emissions will continue to rise. By 2017, the yearly premature death toll will become a staggering number, much worse than 2012’s one-in-eight and will be a set of statistics difficult for many to comprehend.

Our health is in our hands

Many of us have the opportunity to become part of a better future by the choices we make now. Gas-guzzler, or economy car? Burning fossil fuels indoors, or switching to electric heaters and electric stoves? Burning plastic rubbish, or taking it and other recyclables to the recycling station? The choice is ours!

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A list of specific diseases caused by indoor and outdoor air emissions from the report:

Outdoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease:

  • 40% — ischaemic heart disease;
  • 40% — stroke;
  • 11% — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • 6% —- lung cancer; and
  • 3% —- acute lower respiratory infections in children.

Indoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease:

  • 34% — stroke;
  • 26% — ischaemic heart disease;
  • 22% — COPD;
  • 12% — acute lower respiratory infections in children; and
  • 6% —- lung cancer.

Related links provided by the World Health Organization