A recent study finds that we’ll see a lot of health benefits from going green. Another finds that coal is just too expensive.
Going green is good for the health of the planet. It turns out, it’s good for our health, too.
When the United Kingdom passed a law in 2019 committing to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the health of the planet was the foremost concern. The move served as a loud proclamation that the nation was committed to the international Paris Agreement on climate change and to planetary health. The legislation will bring changes for many residents in coming decades.
Dr. James Milner, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worked with a team to model the health effects of those changes and published the results in The Lancet. (1) It turns out, UK residents are about to get much healthier.
The UK’s plans for net zero go beyond switching out fossil fuels for renewable energy sources. By the time all the changes are made, the effort will affect many parts of daily life for residents, including where they get their energy, how they cook and heat their homes, what they eat and how they get around. According to the model, it’ will also help them live longer.
Many of the adjustments coincide with health recommendations. For example, increased insulation and ventilation in homes, along with electrification of heating and cooking appliances, is expected to significantly reduce indoor air pollution —, a move that has been shown to help the population avoid asthma and other respiratory diseases.
As part of the shift toward sustainability, the country is expected to reduce livestock production and encourage a plant-based diet, a move that health professionals have recommended for years.
The UK will also emphasize public transportation, cycling and walking as ways to reduce energy consumption. That policy also leads to more physical activity, a lifestyle choice that has been shown to be healthier than reliance on cars.
What types of autos are on the road make a difference, as well. The UK will ban the sale of new fossil-fuel based vehicles by 2030. A Keck School of Medicine study found that as use of zero-emission vehicles went up, local air pollution and asthma-related trips to the emergency room went down. (2)
The study predicts over 2 million life-years gained across the population in England and Wales by mid-century using a conservative model. However, a more aggressive program might yield as many as 11 million life years.
The most impactful changes included indoor air quality and dietary changes. The study warned of a few possible negative impacts from the change which could be avoided if the changes were implemented with care. Of note was pairing proper ventilation with increased insulation, along with ensuring traffic laws and infrastructure were put in place to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.
Dr. Milner wrote in Carbon Brief that, “Although our modeling was specific to England and Wales, broadly similar findings would be expected in other high-income countries that enact equivalent climate policies.” (3)
The model shows how, regardless of legislation and national agendas, personal choices around home efficiency, diet and transportation can play a big part in making us healthier even as we do what we can as individuals to address climate issues.
Coal has officially become too expensive
The surest way to drop coal from the energy supply is to find cheaper options. When utilities can make more money by going green, they’ will go green. Energy Innovation, a research institute that has been tracking the cost of operating power plants across the U.S. for the past decade, has found that that time is now.
As of 2022, their research shows that 99% of all coal-fired plants in America are more expensive to run going forward than the cost of replacement with renewable energy projects. (1)
The news is no’t unexpected. Coal has been on the decline for a long time. The last new coal plant in the U.S. was put into service in 2012. Since then, 197 coal plants have been shut down.
As the plants age and new air quality standards are put in place, they become more expensive to run. At the same time, the cost of solar and other renewables has steadily decreased.
And then the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) happened. Signed in August 2022, that federal law is designed to spur growth in the renewable energy industry. Its incentives tipped the scales toward solar and wind energy in a big way, making coal a much more expensive choice for most utilities.
Energy infrastructure projects such as power plants and transmission lines take a long time to build, so coal won’ill not be going away completely anytime soon. But the IRA is designed to help with the shift.
One of the most underrated parts of the legislation is its longevity. Before the IRA, renewable incentives lasted only two or three years. Building a utility-scale renewable energy plant is a complicated project and often takes much longer. By the time land acquisition, permitting, sourcing, and other requirements are met, the incentives that would make a deal profitable were often expired. With the IRA in place for a decade, developers and utilities can move their projects forward knowing that they can count on the tax breaks.
But even as renewable energy generation becomes the better economic choice, coal plants will continue to be part of the energy mix for years to come. As energy demand fluctuates throughout the day, utilities bring the most expensive and dirtiest power plants online to meet peak demand, then cut back their output as energy need subsides. Replacing that peak capacity is the most expensive part of the energy transition because the limited usage means that the cost per kilowatt is very high. But we can expect to see less and less coal burned every year.
- All US coal plants except 1 are less economical than wind, solar – researchers, S&P Global intelligence
The Weekly Sunsong
When the Cowboy Junkies released their seminal album, The Trinity Sessions, they invented a certain kind of mellow groove that musicians have been trying to capture ever since. We love that record, but for a Sunsong, we get to hear their follow up recording, “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning”