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US shift from coal to natural gas saved lives and crops

by Cheryl Hogue
January 11, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 2


Photo shows a combination harvester pouring corn grains into a trailer.
Credit: Shutterstock
The US produced more corn when air pollution from coal-fired power plants declined because they were replaced with units that burn natural gas.

The shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation in the US has saved tens of thousands of lives and bumped up yields of three major crops, says a recently published analysis (Nat. Sustainability 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0453-5). The electricity sector’s fuel switch between 2005 and 2016 lowered its emissions of particulate matter and precursors to ground-level ozone, according to the analysis by Jennifer A. Burney, an environmental scientist and professor of global policy and strategy at the University of California San Diego. Both ozone and fine particulate pollution are linked to health problems and they depress crop production. Burney estimates that improvements in air quality from 2005 to 2016 due to fuel shifting for electricity production saved about 38,000 lives and increased yields of corn, soybeans, and wheat by a total of 169 billion liters. Air pollution from coal-fired plants that operated during the same period caused more than 300,000 deaths and the loss of nearly 360 billion liters of those crops, her analysis suggests.


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