By Degrees: How Air Pollution and Climate Change Connect | New Hampshire Public Radio

By Degrees: How Air Pollution and Climate Change Connect

Jul 14, 2020

Charles Driscoll doing field research with students.
Credit Courtesy of Charles Driscoll

By Degrees is a new reporting project by NHPR shedding new light on climate change in New Hampshire. That project launches this week.

Air pollution is known to cause health problems like premature deaths, hospitalizations, heart attacks, and childhood asthma. It's also closely connected to climate change.

Syracuse University Professor Charles Driscoll joined NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about what air quality in New Hampshire can tell us about the extent of the problem.

So walk us through the basics, if you could. What are the main sources of air pollution in New Hampshire?

There are different air pollutants that come from primarily fossil fuel combustion. So that could be through electric utilities, could be industrial processes, could be transportation. And there are a number of air pollutants, but the ones that are most prominent are very fine particulate matter released directly from these processes. But it also can be produced in the atmosphere from chemical reactions. And the second is ozone and ozone is a byproduct of other air pollutants. So that is produced in the atmosphere.

And how does air pollution contribute to climate change?

Well, it's interesting because it's a circular argument. So air pollution can contribute to climate change and climate change can contribute to air pollution. Ozone can act like a greenhouse gas. And in fact, the main components of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, those could be considered to be air pollutants as the temperature gets warmer. Those conditions make air pollution more severe and more difficult to combat.

So what would be the effect on climate change trends if human beings were able to drastically cut air pollution?

It would have tremendous benefits, a lot of these air pollutants are associated with fossil fuels. And so when we burn those materials, we release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. But we also release air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and those impact air quality have severe impacts on air quality, in particular in the eastern U.S. The health benefits associated with reducing carbon emissions would be much greater than the climate benefits because New Hampshire has much looser standards for carbon emissions than the rest of New England.

Does New Hampshire produce more greenhouse gases than its neighbors?

Well, not really. The state of New Hampshire doesn't have a goal or a standard for greenhouse gas emissions. But, you know, given the population, given the size of the state, it's not a particularly large state compared to other states like Massachusetts or New York in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Obama administration had a rule on carbon emissions from power plants called the Clean Power Plan. Last year, President Trump replaced the Clean Power Plan with his own rule, which you and other scientists have joined in opposing in court. What was the Clean Power Plan and why did you want to challenge President Trump's replacement for it?

The Clean Power Plan was a system wide approach to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in electric utilities, and so that would be incentivizing natural gas over coal, but also incentivized improving energy efficiency. And it was aggressive at the time, but compared to what people are talking about today, its outcomes would be considered to be relatively modest. The Trump administration, as you indicated, overturned that, repeal that and put in place the ACE rule. And that was a very limited approach. So what it all it did was it worked to make power plants more efficient. The trouble with that is in principle, it's a good idea. But if you make a power plant more efficient, it will run for a longer time period. And as a result, the total number of emissions will increase over that time because its operational period is increased. And so we were seeing in certain states increases not only in carbon dioxide, but also the air pollutants that cause health impacts such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that we've been talking about.

Many states in the Northeast have joined lawsuits over power plant emissions from the Midwest, arguing that power plants out there send their emissions to this region. New Hampshire is not joining those lawsuits. But how important, in your view, are those emissions from other parts of the country to air pollution here in New Hampshire?

Yeah, it's extremely important because, as you say, the states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, those are states with a lot of fossil fuel use in terms of electric utilities.

And the prevailing winds are from west to east. If we reduce the emissions of those power plants, of particularly these pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, New Hampshire would definitely be the beneficiary of that, both in terms of health effects, in terms of air pollutants, that people are concerned for respiratory issues, but also ecosystem effects. So acid rain, mercury -- those air pollutants are affecting ecosystems in New Hampshire.