(CN) – The Trump administration’s industry-friendly energy policies will undermine efforts to decrease ozone emissions, researchers said Friday – a day after an analysis of federal data revealed an increase in deadly air pollution levels after a seven-year decline.
The Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan tightened air quality standards by limiting carbon emissions from power plants and decreasing levels of ozone, or smog, across the U.S. Ozone forms when carbon emissions from cars and factories react with volatile compounds, making the air hard to breathe and harmful to plants and animals.
In Earth’s upper atmosphere, the colorless gas acts as a critical shield to space radiation.
The plan called for the “acceptable” ozone rate to shift from 75 to 70 parts per billion.
In California, an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis found those standards saved more than 100 lives each year, eliminated 380 asthma-related emergency room visits and prevented at least 120,000 lost school days.
But the Obama-era regulations were scaled back this past June by the Trump administration amid legal challenges by energy industry players who said compliance with the regulations wasn’t feasible.
In a statement, Huizhong Shen of the Georgia Institute of Technology, lead author of the study published in the journal One Earth, called ozone a “secondary pollutant” since it’s formed in the air, not emitted.
“Consequently, we can't regulate it by simply cutting off its emitters, because it doesn't have any,” Shen said. “We need strict emission policies that cut other pollutants in order to reduce ozone."
To study the impact of relaxed energy policies, Shen and other researchers created a simulation that factored rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan, the Production Tax Credit, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for cars.
Study co-author and Georgia Tech scientist Yufei Li said in the statement that the policies encompass sectors with both the largest consumers of energy and the largest polluters.
"We chose this subset of energy policies not only because there have been many discussions around them but also because they target the power sector and the transportation sector," Li said.
The scientists’ computer model revealed that loosened energy regulations envisioned by the Trump administration will increase the number of communities with ozone levels above the federal limit.
By 2050, under scaled-back energy policies, between 17 and 22 U.S. counties would exceed federal limits on ozone emissions and Earth’s atmosphere would contain 6.5% more nitrogen oxides, which are dangerous ozone components.
The additional counties represent a 63% to 81% increase as compared to a scenario where energy policies remained unaltered and global climate change was interrupted.
Li said the study provides an accurate view of the link between policy and pollution, adding that a current trend towards rolling back energy standards will increase ground-level ozone.
“Uncertainty in science, especially when it comes to climate change or energy policy, plays a huge role in affecting legislation," Li said in the statement. "Lobbyists and politicians tend to use these uncertainties and emphasize the extremes to argue for their personal interests. As scientists, we want to speak with data and present only what the data shows us."
There are currently more than 120 million people living in areas with ozone concentrations higher than the federal standard of 70 parts per billion, the study said.
The computer model also factored in the impact of climate change, finding that warmer climates will force plants to release volatile organic compounds stored in their roots.
Shen said in the statement that their research departs from previous investigations of the links between energy policy and greenhouse gas emissions.
"Through our study, we hope to point out the impact of energy policies on air quality, which tends to be overlooked."
The study was supported by the EPA, the National Science Foundation and the JPG Foundation.
Friday’s study comes on the heels of an analysis of EPA data on fine particle pollution by Carnegie Mellon University researchers, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They found that after declining by 25% between 2009 and 2016, particulate matter increased 5.5% between 2016 and 2018.
The increases were associated with 9,700 additional premature deaths in 2018, which researchers said represent $89 billion in damages.
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