The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States

The recent shift in the United States from coal to natural gas as a primary feedstock for the production of electric power has reduced the intensity of sectoral carbon dioxide emissions, but—due to gaps in monitoring—its downstream pollution-related effects have been less well understood. Here, I analyse old units that have been taken offline and new units that have come online to empirically link technology switches to observed aerosol and ozone changes and subsequent impacts on human health, crop yields and regional climate. Between 2005 and 2016 in the continental United States, decommissioning of a coal-fired unit was associated with reduced nearby pollution concentrations and subsequent reductions in mortality and increases in crop yield. In total during this period, the shutdown of coal-fired units saved an estimated 26,610 (5%–95% confidence intervals (CI), 2,725–49,680) lives and 570 million (249–878 million) bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat in their immediate vicinities; these estimates increase when pollution transport-related spillovers are included. Changes in primary and secondary aerosol burdens also altered regional atmospheric reflectivity, raising the average top of atmosphere instantaneous radiative forcing by 0.50 W m−2. Although there are considerable benefits of decommissioning older coal-fired units, the newer natural gas and coal-fired units that have supplanted them are not entirely benign.