This Carbon Emissions Law Actually Has Helped Kids Breathe

Avoiding childhood health impacts has resulted in savings of between $191 and $350 million.

A powerplant with billowing smoke stacks. (Credit Image: © TNS via ZUMA Wire)TNS/Zuma

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

This piece was originally published in Grist and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

With Virginia and Pennsylvania clamoring to join, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, affectionately known as RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”), is becoming the coolest climate club on the East Coast. The program, which went into effect in 2009, places a cap on emissions from power plants across its 10 (soon to be 12) member states that tightens over time.

Carbon-wise, it’s proven to be a big success: By 2017, RGGI had already surpassed its 2020 goal of reducing emissions 45 percent below 2005 levels. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives on Wednesday shows the program has been a boon to public health, too.

While RGGI is designed to reduce CO2 emissions, it inevitably leads to reductions in other pollutants from power plants, like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. These gases react with other compounds in the atmosphere to form tiny, inhalable particles that are dangerous to human health.

For the new study, the researchers looked specifically at the health benefits for children and babies of reducing this “fine particulate matter,” as it’s called. They estimated that from 2009 to 2014, RGGI prevented more than 500 cases of childhood asthma, 112 preterm births, 98 cases of autism spectrum disorder, and 56 incidences of low birthweight. They also found that the amount of money saved by avoiding these and other childhood health impacts amounts to between $191 and $350 million. Even better, these benefits were not limited to participating states but were spread across neighboring states as well.

The new study builds on past research looking at the impact of RGGI primarily on adult health. A 2017 analysis by Abt Associates, a research firm, found that the reduction in particulate matter over the first five years RGGI was in effect prevented 300 to 830 premature deaths and saved between $3 and $8 billion in healthcare costs related to those deaths and a range of illnesses, including heart attacks, bronchitis, asthma, and drops in productivity such as lost work days due to poor air quality. But since 2017, new research on fine particulate matter has linked it to health burdens that were not investigated in the 2017 RGGI study. The new study aims to paint a more comprehensive picture of how RGGI has boosted public health, especially for children.

“As impressive as they are, these estimated benefits for children do not take into account their potential life-long consequences, so they are likely underestimates of the true benefits of this policy,” lead author Frederica Perera, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement. On top of that, the study does not take into account the health benefits of mitigating climate change, such as fewer heat-related illnesses. One area the authors identify for further research would be to see how these benefits are distributed across socioeconomic or racial groups, to evaluate whether RGGI is an effective policy response to environmental justice issues.

These benefits could easily be spread across the whole country if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened its standards on particulate matter pollution under the Clean Air Act. But right now, the Trump administration is in the process of finalizing new standards that are … exactly the same as the old standards. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is supposed to review the science to make sure the standards protect public health, but the scientific advisory council tasked with doing this was fired by EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. The council decided to meet and review the standards anyway, which were last updated in 2012. The council ultimately issued a letter last fall urging the EPA to enact stricter standards, which the agency ignored. The agency is currently going through 66,000 public comments submitted on the “new” rule, but it’s clearly on the list of items the Trump administration intends to push through by the end of the year.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate