Clean air, economic impact and higher quality of life rise from practical, achievable limits

MADISON — The first-ever standards for carbon pollution at U.S. power plants represent a historic moment in Wisconsin and throughout the nation for the good of public health, the environment and the economy. The standards, unveiled today in draft form, call for a 30 percent emissions reduction by 2030 below 2005 levels.

“EPA’s plans for carbon emission reduction are practical, reasonable and will be very achievable,” said Keith Reopelle, senior policy director with Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental group. “Our efforts here will pay off exponentially as cleaner air will drive a higher quality of life through job development, healthier living and more conservative management of our natural resources.”

Underscoring the need to cut carbon, more than 100 doctors and nurses from Wisconsin signed a letter to President Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy last week. The letter detailed air pollution’s links to major health issues such as asthma, heart attacks and low birth weight. In Wisconsin alone in 2011, more than 4,700 people were hospitalized with asthma and more than 19,000 people sought emergency room care for asthma. Chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or other chronic lower respiratory diseases, not including asthma, were the cause of death of 2,454 Wisconsin residents in 2008.

“Cutting carbon pollution is vital to protecting people’s health,” said Dr. Claire Gervais, a family practitioner in Madison and associate professor in the University of Wisconsin’s School of Public Health. “Air pollution’s connection to major health issues such as heart attacks and asthma has never been clearer, and we in the health community are eager – and willing – to continue working with the president and EPA to ensure these draft carbon limits are as effective as possible for cleaner air and a higher quality of life.”

Nearly 400 religious and faith-based organization leaders throughout the Midwest also sent a letter, explaining climate change’s role in global problems such as poverty, hunger, access to clean water and disaster relief.

“Climate change is a moral challenge for us all – not just for one religion, or just for people of faith,” said Peter Bakken, coordinator for public policy of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. “It is our challenge as human beings who care about vulnerable people suffering from hunger, lack of clean water, floods, storms and droughts. All of us have the moral responsibility to limit our carbon footprint for their sake, and for the sake of the future generations who will receive this planet as our legacy to them.”

Already, Wisconsin’s average temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century with projections ranging as high as 9 degrees higher by mid-century and 13 degrees by year 2100. Cold water trout fishing in Wisconsin offers one of the most vivid examples of what could be. Although the state is fortunate to have more than 10,000 miles of trout streams, current climate projections suggest we may lose more than 90 percent of our current native trout habitat by 2050. Drought and other severe weather events threaten long-term livestock production, a crucial threat in Wisconsin where 44 percent of the land is devoted to agriculture.

“It’s a serious matter that demands our undivided attention,” said Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin. “Limiting carbon pollution from power plants is a step in the right direction for Wisconsin and other areas of the nation to turn things around.”

Data shows that Wisconsin already is making strides in the right direction. Investor-owned utilities have decreased emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the EPA. Some Wisconsin utilities have demonstrated an even stronger position. Madison Gas and Electric and Wisconsin Public Service Co., for example, have reduced emissions by more than 20 percent between 2005 and 2012, and would be on pace to meet the 2030 standards years ahead of time.

Independent analysis by World Resources Institute, a global sustainability organization, has shown that Wisconsin could reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants by 43 percent by 2020 by making modest increases in clean energy investments, taking advantage of the cleanest power plants in Wisconsin and doubling down on energy efficiency.  That potential reduction far exceeds the EPA’s proposed limits.

Nationally, the EPA proposal is expected to contribute to an 8 percent reduction in electricity bills by 2030, according to information from the EPA. At the same time, the proposal stands chance to generate billions of dollars worth of health benefits, prevent thousands of premature deaths and avoid more than 140,000 asthma attacks in children.