UNC Professor Estimates Pollution Accounts for Millions of Deaths Annually

The debate over what to do or, as some argue, what not to do when it comes to regulating and reducing emissions has been a heated topic in North Carolina and around the world.

In the Tar Heel state, lawmakers are forcing Duke Energy to stop pollution leaking from all 14 coal ash dumps by 2029, after the state’s years of reliance on burning coal and an ash spill in Eden that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in coal ash.

Meanwhile, as coal production continues to grow in China, a red alert was issued in Beijing, last week, with oppressive air pollution endangering the population, according to associate professor in the department of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC Jason West.

“[Pollution levels were] 20 times the World Health Organization’s suggested levels of maximum exposure to air pollution,” West says.

West says his lab at UNC works to approximate the number of lives that are lost worldwide each year due to air pollution.

“We come up with a number of about two or three million deaths per year that come about prematurely because of exposure to outdoor air pollution,” he says, “and another half a million deaths per year that are associated with exposure to outdoor ozone.”

West says, to put that in perspective, that accounts for about six percent of the deaths around the world each year.

West says regulations being put in place by the United States government have kept air pollution at lower levels than are seen by the Chinese.

“Air pollution in the United States was probably at its worse in the 1980s or so,” West says, “And largely thanks to regulations that control emissions from power plants and from motor vehicles and other things, air pollution has generally gotten better in the United States.”

West says the lower pollution rates directly translate to public health benefits for citizens.

Over the weekend in Paris, representatives from 195 countries agreed to sweeping promises to lower greenhouse gas emissions to help in the fight against climate change. West says this agreement has much more promise than other conversations that have been held in recent years.

“When the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, one of our important rationales was that the Kyoto Protocol didn’t involve China and India,” West says. “But this agreement does in Paris. And there’s a big role that China, in particular, plays as part of this agreement.

“And that’s promising.”

West says the major downside to the agreement is there are no ramifications for a country that falls out of compliance, meaning individual countries will have to take responsibility for reaching the benchmarks that have been laid out.

West adds while there are obvious environmental benefits to this kind of agreement, there are also major economic benefits.

“We found that those benefits outweigh the cost of the greenhouse gas reduction in the first place,” West says. “And in particular in China, where there’s a large population exposed.

“The benefits to the Chinese from taking the actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we estimated, would be at least 10 times greater than the cost of reducing emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants.”


Science Behind Hotly-Debated Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been part of a controversy-filled discussion among lawmakers over the last few years. And the new Republican-led Congress is looking to move on passing approval of the pipeline among their first orders of business.

Jeff Danner writes the “Common Science” blog at chapelboro.com and says the XL in the name of the pipeline is important.

“There already is a Keystone pipeline, and there has been for years,” he says. “The Keystone XL Pipeline is, essentially, two additions to that preexisting network.”

Danner says an oil-sand mixture would be coming down the pipeline from Canada, with the ultimate goal of rendering out gasoline or diesel as a final product.

He says there are several environmental issues that have been causing concern during the planning process for the pipeline.

“One is on the global-warming front,” Danner says. “We keep resetting a new normal. We used to wish we could keep carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 400 [parts per million]. Now, the environmental community and the international diplomatic community are trying to settle around a limit of 450.”

Danner adds remaining below the new limits would include leaving at least half of the known deposits of fossil fuels around the world in the ground. Exploiting the oil sands in Alberta would be a huge step toward exceeding the new goals, according to Danner.

The other major environmental concern has been the actual route of the XL pipeline.

“The new pipeline would go over the Ogallala Aquifer,” he says, “which is responsible for the fact that we are able to do things like grow wheat and raise cattle in places like Arizona, Kansas, and Oklahoma.”

Danner says concern is coming from environmentalists over contaminating that aquifer. But he adds the aquifer has not been damaged by some of the more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline that currently run across the United States.

“Hundreds of thousands of miles of that pipeline are already on top of the Ogallala Aquifer,” he says. “That aquifer is deep underground and the land there in not porous, unlike Alberta. It’s so nonporous that it’s hard for the water to get there.”

Danner says these pipelines eliminate the need for trucks or trains to haul the raw material needed to produce fuel, which would come at an even higher financial and environmental cost.

According to Danner, another issue concerning the pipeline is the value. He says once all things are considered, there is concern over whether the expected output of the pipeline is worth the infrastructure necessary for it to operate.

“It’s exceedingly more difficult and more energy intensive than if you had petroleum,” he says. “You have to pull it out of the ground, heat it up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit to get the sand and oil to come out of it. You’ve got to remove the nitrogen. You remove the metals.

“Even when you’re done, you’ve still got this semi-solid mass that you have to process further.”

Danner adds to solve the long-term environmental concerns associated with this project, the solution would be for the pipeline to not go forward – which is why the fight over the pipeline has been so intense.

“If you could stall it, it does buy you some more time if you have hopes that we’ll convince the world to leave the oil sands in the ground,” he says.

The newly-minted GOP-led Congress will likely pass the bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline. But the White House announced, on Tuesday, that President Obama would veto the bill, if it is passed through the legislature.

President Obama and Congressional leaders are slated to meet, next Tuesday, for the first time since the 114th Congress convened and discuss their priorities for the upcoming term – one of which is sure to be the Keystone XL Pipeline.


Landmark Climate Change Report Adopted

STOCKHOLM – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the strongest words yet in its latest assessment on the state of the climate system.

The panel now says it’s “extremely likely” that human activity has been the dominant cause of global warming since 1950.

The last assessment in 2007 used the words, “very likely.” The full report comes out Monday.