Technology that captures carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and stores them underground is being touted as a necessary solution in the short run to lower carbon pollution from industrial facilities. Carbon capture is viewed by large corporations, the federal government, and the head of the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, as a fundamental technology to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
While they may be right, it’s important not to forget the upfront health costs. Fossil fuels are about much more than just their end-of-pipe carbon dioxide emissions. At every step of the supply chain, fossil fuels expose people to pollution that harms their health and well-being, resulting in illness and death that cannot be abated by capturing carbon emissions at the stack and putting them back in the ground.
Yes, we all want to save the planet, but let’s not forget to protect the people too. There are many health reasons — beyond climate change — that should motivate us to stop our reliance on fossil fuels, not just capture their emissions, as quickly as possible. Think about what air pollution does to the lungs of a worker extracting coal deep in a mine or the risks of operating a dangerous oil rig. Think about the kids in day care playing outside in the shadow of a power plant; the hazardous pollutants leaking out of stoves into our kitchens; and the methane seeping from old, poorly maintained and unmonitored pipelines crisscrossing the country. In Massachusetts alone, that’s estimated to be 14,000 new gas leaks every year.
Air pollution from producing oil and gas costs roughly $77 billion in health impacts every year in the United States alone. According to research conducted by Harvard University and others, the burning of fossil fuels “was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide in 2018.” Air pollution increases the risks of Alzheimer’s disease; many cancers; heart, kidney, and lung disease; premature births; pregnancy complications; and much more. And the health costs are much higher for communities living on the edge of industrial facilities that are using fossil fuels to generate power and produce huge volumes of plastics and other materials the world relies on. Many major sources of pollution are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color because of racist land and housing policies.
Keeping the lungs of our kids and grandkids healthy so they can grow up in a world that is cleaner and more equitable is worth fighting for. That’s why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act are so important. They have opened up opportunities to deliver greenhouse gas reductions in ways that save families money, create good jobs, and keep our loved ones safer and healthier as we wean ourselves off oil and gas and onto lifesaving clean energy.
Fossil fuels are yesterday’s game. At every level, we need to push for creative solutions that end our reliance on fossil fuels sooner rather than later. While capturing and burying emissions at the end of the supply chain may be possible and even advisable in the short run, it is not sufficient to protect us from the upfront and downwind hazards and exposures to pollutants that pose imminent harm to our health and safety. And it is not the answer to our climate crisis in the long run.
We are encouraged that Sultan Al Jaber, the head of December’s international climate negotiations and the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, has acknowledged that health will play a leading role at COP28. The health benefits each country achieves must be a measure of success — but the path there is likely to be steep. A new study by The Global Climate and Health Alliance showed that “low- and middle-income countries lead the way when it comes to inclusion of health goals in their climate commitments, while more wealthy, industrialized nations — responsible for the majority of historical global greenhouse gas emissions — lack long term vision.”
How quickly the United States can make the shift to clean energy and significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels across our economy using public health as a fundamental factor to consider — especially in communities left behind — will determine whether we can stand with authority as a beacon of light for the rest of the world to follow.
Gina McCarthy is the former White House National Climate Advisor and a US EPA administrator. Dr. Kari Nadeau is chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.