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Reducing carbon emissions has practical benefits [Commentary]

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy earlier this month announced plans to lower the carbon emissions from our antiquated coal-fired power plants 30 percent by 2030. Much of the justification for this has been focused on the need to slow down global warming, sea level rise and other threats of climate change. But there are many other benefits to Marylanders from reducing our dependence on coal-fired power plants that we need to fully understand so that we can enthusiastically support these new measures and speed up their adoption.

These benefits fall into three health related categories: the health of our citizens, the health of our communities, and the health of the places where we work, live and play.

The coal industry has been allowed to dump its pollution into the air that we all breathe, and they get to do this for free. That is one reason coal is so cheap while our health costs keep rising. The widespread practice of dumping the combustion products of fossil fuels into the air contributes to the 200,000 premature deaths from pollution nationwide each year. This significant health impact is not just felt in coal burning areas but is widespread throughout the eastern U.S. as can be seen on the map published this year by the Clean Air Task Force (www.catf.us). Maryland has coal fired power plants and is downwind from many others throughout the Midwest. All of us in Maryland will be much healthier if we can reduce this source of air pollution.

When these emission-reduction plans are implemented, our communities will be better off financially as well. Health costs will be lower, and employees will be healthier. As a result they will be much more creative and productive. This positive economic impact will be felt by all of us who live downwind from the coal fired plants. As the pollution-reduction related costs are more fairly applied to coal combustion, all other sources of electricity will become more cost competitive. This will unleash many more local opportunities for creating jobs building other types of energy supplies right here in our own backyards (for example: solar, wind, biomass, etc.). This will be good for business in Maryland and the health of our local economies.

The other area where Marylanders will benefit significantly is the health of our natural resources and all the places we live, work and play. For years polluted acid rains from the burning of fossil fuels have fallen on our soils, in our woods and across the Chesapeake Bay's watershed. These chemicals have damaged our crops, contaminated our food supplies with mercury and helped to create the dead zones that underlie vast expanses of the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA plans will have the effect of reducing nitrogen and sulfur emissions from coal fired plants. As a result, all of our favorite places, from our backyards to our farms and woods and the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed, will become safer and healthier once again.

Let's not allow this debate to get sidetracked to just a discussion of climate change, as important as that is. We need to get everyone behind this plan. So let's focus on the real concerns of those who might not support it wholeheartedly: stranded assets (coal left in the ground) and the loss of jobs in the fossil fuel sector. These are real concerns. However, the health of our families, our communities and the places we live are also real concerns that affect a much wider number of people — in fact all of us. The good news for those currently employed in the fossil fuel industry is the time period over which these impacts will be implemented. It will take years, and the need for alternative energy sources will allow for a transition from coal industry jobs to a whole range of local, cleaner and safer jobs building wind, solar, biomass, tidal and other emerging sources of power.

Reducing our dependency on coal is not throwing away a valuable resource, it is merely stockpiling these still valuable resources as a strategic reserve until the time when we have developed the technologies to use them without damaging our fellow citizens, our economy and our country.

Ned Tillman is the author of The Chesapeake Watershed and the upcoming Saving the Places We Love. He can be contacted at ned@sustainable.us.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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