Skip to content

Clear Links Found Between Carbon Capture, Environmental Justice, and Reduced Air Pollution

Clear Links Found Between Carbon Capture, Environmental Justice, and Reduced Air Pollution

Key takeaways: 
  • The United States has made significant progress over the past several decades to reduce air pollution, but that progress has recently slowed.
  • Exposure to air pollution continues to pose significant risks to public health in the United States, especially for more vulnerable communities.
  • New research indicates that, in addition to reducing carbon emissions, implementing carbon capture and storage technology also reduces harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.
  • This research concludes that implementing carbon capture technology across the nation could improve air quality, resulting in the potential for billions of dollars in savings through improved public health.

Clean air is crucial for maintaining good health and well-being for all individuals, regardless of age, gender, or background. Exposure to air pollution can lead to a range of adverse health effects, both short-term and long-term, from minor irritations to severe respiratory problems and chronic diseases. 

Carbon capture technologies offer promising solutions to enhance air quality, address environmental injustices, and achieve our shared climate objectives.

This expansion of carbon capture comes more than half a century since the United States passed the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions and curb air pollution, resulting in a staggering drop in rates of harmful pollutants nationwide between 1970 and 2015. In those 45 years, rates of carbon monoxide plummeted by almost 80 percent.

Across that same time frame, other pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were reduced by roughly two-thirds, while rates of sulfur dioxide (SO2) fell nearly 90 percent. 

However, since 2015, those reductions have slowed significantly. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates the rate of consistent reductions in pollutants had become nearly stagnant by 2022. 

Meeting our public health and climate goals requires additional emissions reductions

While the United States has successfully taken steps to decrease emissions, additional emissions reduction measures are needed to help meet our public health and climate goals.

Carbon capture is one technology suite that provides an opportunity to reduce these emissions. Over the past five decades, carbon capture projects in the United States have reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Recent research has shown it holds the potential not only to continue this valuable role in combating climate change but also to improve air quality.

Communities near industrial plants and factories are at increased risk for health effects from air pollutants 

People living and working in communities situated near industrial factories and energy plants emitting these types of pollutants are at even greater risk for prolonged exposure and detrimental health outcomes. Exposure to pollutants like NOx, SO2, VOCs, and PM (particulate matter) is known to increase health issues (including asthma, heart disease, and mortality rates), especially for vulnerable communities.

A 2019 report by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution suggests as many as 100,000 Americans die prematurely every year from health complications brought on by prolonged exposure to air pollution. 

Additionally, a study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reviewed the connection between asthma rates and proximity to industrial factories. The study focused on nearly 40,000 public school students in the Santa Ana Unified School District in California.

Researchers examined asthma rates of the Santa Ana students living roughly one-third of a mile from an area zoned for industry, compared to rates for children living roughly two-thirds of a mile or more from an industrial zone. Researchers concluded that children living near industrial areas were at greater risk of developing asthma at an early age.

Asthma, which affects 25 million Americans (including almost 5 million children), is just one of the detrimental health outcomes linked to prolonged exposure to air pollutants. To protect human health and reduce preventable illnesses caused by air pollution, improving air quality must be prioritized. 

Disproportionate effects of air pollution impact environmental justice 

According to mapping tools from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), millions of Americans currently live near industrial facilities that emit significant levels of pollutants like nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide.

The EPA’s mapping tool shows that hundreds of these plants are in communities with especially high populations of vulnerable residents, including children, older adults, people of color, and low-income residents. 

The EPA’s tool reveals this proximity to pollution: 

  • More than 230 plants in communities with a higher-than-average population of children under the age of five
  • 478 plants in areas with large populations of residents over the age of 64
  • Over 420 plants in communities with large numbers of low-income residents
  • Nearly 400 plants are in or near communities of color

While the United States made significant progress in combating pollution through enhanced efforts under the Clean Air Act, it’s clear even more work is necessary. With recent legislation, many of these facilities located in more vulnerable communities are eligible for enhanced tax incentives to retrofit with carbon capture technology. In addition to reducing carbon from the atmosphere, a new study suggests that the expansion of carbon capture technology could also advance efforts to reduce other co-pollutants from the air. 

New research shows promising co-benefits of public health and pollution reduction through carbon capture technology 

The ongoing detrimental impacts on public health brought on by poor air quality have a significant social and economic cost to individual communities and the nation. 

But now, an enhanced national and global focus on reducing emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change allows for a renewed opportunity to simultaneously address causes of air pollution. 

A new report from the Great Plains Institute, in collaboration with Carbon Solutions, LLC, demonstrates how carbon capture technology can be used to reduce harmful pollutants and improve public health. The report, Carbon Capture Co-Benefits, is among the first to ever put a dollar amount to the cost benefits of that can be realized by removing pollutants from the air through carbon capture and storage. 

Retrofitting current facilities with specific equipment to capture and store CO2 can also ensure a reduction in NOx, SO2, and PM. 

A review of potential emission reductions at 54 facilities in ten regions around the country shows the potential for billions of dollars in economic co-benefits from improvements in public health. These findings present a real, tangible, and economically viable opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions and limit the release of other harmful pollutants—all at once. 

With recent significant investments in carbon capture technology provided by an increase in the 45Q tax credits for CO2 storage, there is more financial incentive than ever for industry and energy companies to retrofit their plants and reduce emissions. 

These record levels of investment, coupled with the knowledge provided in the co-benefits report, indicate the use of amine-based carbon capture technology could be a feasible and effective method of reducing air pollution without requiring the closure of factories or the loss of jobs in communities that are already economically vulnerable. 

Equipped with this co-benefits report, it’s evident there is now an unparalleled opportunity to reignite the work started in 1970 and drive toward a future with clean, safe air for all.