Coal-related environmental regulations tend to underestimate longer-run health impacts – study

Coal-fired power plant. (Reference image by 652234, Pixabay.)

Policymakers need to consider both current and future payoffs when designing coal-related environmental regulations, a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Montreal has found.

According to the group, the benefits of using coal include the energy source’s role in fueling industry and thus employment, while the costs include air pollution and its impact on human health. Taking these into account, the scientists surveyed three interrelated strands: coal-driven air pollution and health, coal and city growth, and tradeoffs associated with urban coal.

Studies on air pollution and health suggest negative effects of coal-driven pollution on health, documenting that the fossil fuel has been a disadvantage in historical contexts. Studies on coal and city growth highlight that coal could have positive or negative effects on the growth of city populations, depending on the setting and the time period. And studies on tradeoffs associated with coal in urban settings point to the changing nature of production benefits and pollution drawbacks.

“Our analysis suggests that policymakers may underweight longer-run health impacts when choosing to regulate air pollution, putting more weight on the benefits of polluting activities, which in the short run might outweigh the pollution costs,” Joshua Lewis, co-author of the paper from the University of Montreal, said in a media statement. “As a result, it may take time for policymakers to experience the negative effects and choose to enact environmental regulation.”

Lewis and his co-authors noted that research on the effect of air pollution on spatial location within cities, its evolution across decades, and the associated inequality and environmental justice issues is sparse.

“Our work points to possible avenues for future research, including expanding the range of geographic locations, time periods, outcomes, and types of pollution studied,” Edson Severnini, co-author from Carnegie Mellon, said.

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