When the Supreme Court decided West Virginia v. EPA last week, most of the response was focused on the ruling’s impact on the government’s regulatory power over carbon emissions. The decision limited the EPA from making certain broad regulatory decisions — such as implementing a cap-and-trade program — to control greenhouse emissions from power plants under the authority of the Clean Air Act. While the ruling didn’t get rid of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as many environmentalists feared the Court might, it still limits the agency’s overall policymaking power.
Climate action is the main victim, but fossil fuel power plants emit more than just CO2. They also emit air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter. Conventional air pollution has damaging effects on health, life expectancy, cognition, productivity, and infant mortality. It’s a risk factor for heart disease, cancer, respiratory infections, and other major causes of death. Even small increases in air pollution lead to negative health consequences. And as bad as it is now, scientists are constantly learning that air pollution is even worse than we thought.
How bad? The WHO updated its guidelines in 2021 to take into account the most recent findings, and under these new, tighter suggested limits, most of the US is currently breathing unhealthy levels of pollution.
Since the new Supreme Court ruling curtails the EPA from implementing “generation shifting” measures that are proven to reduce both CO2 and air pollution, it has implications for health as well as the climate. Regulations and policies that accelerate the transition from coal and gas to renewable energy sources are doubly beneficial, and limiting the power of the EPA to do this — now and in future — will thus be doubly detrimental.