New Hampshire, Climate, and Public Health: New Commission Seeks to Up the State’s Game

September 28, 2020 | 3:55 pm
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John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

States continue to push forward on climate and clean energy, and Stanford University student and 2020 UCS Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow Myles Haigney has been supporting a new New Hampshire commission focused on the very related issues of emissions and pollution. I’m pleased to offer here his take on issues and opportunities for the Granite State.

Myles Haigney

A new state commission in New Hampshire is driving the local conversation forward on emissions reductions, public health and climate change.

New Hampshire is the lone Northeast state not in the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 24 states that have committed to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, the goal the US committed to under the landmark 2015 Paris agreement. And while New Hampshire formulated a climate and economic action plan in 2009 that recommended reducing CO2 emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, New Hampshire will not meet either its own goals, or those in line with the Paris agreement, without more ambitious roadmap strategies.

The urgency of climate action has become far more clear since 2009. Recent reports, such as the 2018 IPCC special 1.5°C report and the 2018 National Climate Assessment, have shown that reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 is not ambitious enough to avoid the serious climate impacts that will stem from more than 1.5°C warming. The associated public health impacts of unchecked emissions of co-pollutants from fossil fuel combustion in the transportation and electricity generation sectors alone are cause for action. While New Hampshire’s share of the United States’ carbon emissions may be low, that does not insulate it from the local impacts of fossil fuel combustion nor climate change. Without federal leadership on climate action, New Hampshire itself will have to act to protect the welfare of its citizens, and act as boldly as it can at the state level.

Moving the granite state forward

The New Hampshire Ad Hoc Commission on Emissions, convened for the first time this August, is the start of that action. Chaired by State Senator Tom Sherman, the commission is tasked with identifying “science-based emission reduction targets.” Both the New Hampshire Medical Society and New Hampshire Public Health Association are organizing partners of this commission, as recognizing and attending to the public health impacts of climate change was one impetus for its formation.

This summer I supported the initial work of the commission by reviewing the literature covering two buckets important to the commission’s purpose. (See here for my annotated bibliography.) One is the intersection between public health, climate change, and emissions of CO2, particulate matter (specifically, PM2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur oxides (SOx), all important pollutants. The second focus of my research has been to examine how other states have reached their respective emissions reductions goals and clean/renewable energy targets, and enacted laws to bring those to fruition.

Momentum is building across the country to build clean energy economies, to modernize our antiquated grid and energy distribution systems and to plan for the toll that climate change will take on us, and particularly our vulnerable communities. Sea level rise, more frequent and devastating extreme weather events, and more dangerous wildfire seasons capture our attention through media and have inflicted serious pain and suffering upon communities across the country and around the world.

But perhaps the most tangible impacts we are already experiencing and will continue to struggle with are those related to the air we breathe and the environments we live in.

Air pollution is directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the US. New England has often been referred to as the “tailpipe” of the nation, as air pollution from power plants, transportation and industrial facilities doesn’t confine itself to state borders. With pollution flowing from the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and other southern areas of the Northeast, New Hampshire leads the nation in adult asthma rates at 13.1%.

Scientists have found that globally PM2.5 in particular is responsible for roughly 95% of health consequences from air pollution. These health impacts include cardiovascular and lung ailments, asthma, diabetes, developmental impacts on children, and premature death. In New Hampshire, PM2.5 is typically generated in fossil fuel combustion from transportation, maritime shipping, and electricity generation. And while it is not as serious a heat-trapping gas as CO2 or methane in terms of its global warming potential, particulate matter can also contribute to planet warming. So as New Hampshire has convened its Ad Hoc Emissions Commission, participants are considering both the benefits to air quality that will come from curbing fossil fuel emissions as well as the known climate benefits of keeping warming “well below 2.0 degrees Celsius.”

New Hampshire and 2050

What does this mean for New Hampshire in terms of updating its non-binding emissions reduction target of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050?

It means that it must take stock of which sectors contribute most to GHG and co-pollutant emissions, examine how other states have led in enacting ambitious renewable and clean energy development laws, and take ownership of the future of its citizens’ health with a serious commitment to an equitable transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy. This is no small task and requires ambitious, thoughtful, and strong leadership from the state legislature and Governor to enact.

Fortunately, the state can look to neighbors for ideas on next steps. New Hampshire could look to Massachusetts’ work on setting a “net zero carbon” economy by 2050 with established roadmap targets on the way. Or it could consider Maine’s target of 100% renewable energy generation by 2050.

Perhaps it’s not an either-or question, as both such commitments include important yet intentional gaps on the details of how they plan to achieve such goals. Net zero, down the road, means figuring out how to deal with the emissions remaining after important strategies like efficiency and electrification (from zero-carbon electricity). A 100% renewable or clean electricity commitment requires figuring out what will get to count (and some options are more controversial than others).

Yet even as those gaps may exist, it’s important to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Both goals and targets are great examples of state action to protect the interests, public health, and economic livelihoods of residents. And ultimately, we’ll need both: zero carbon in the power sector, and zero carbon across the economy.

Given the scale of investment and action that’s required to meet a net zero or 100% renewable energy goal, it’s important that states such as New Hampshire take ambitious action now to accelerate their transition to a more sustainable energy system that can both protect its citizens’ public health and accelerate economic growth. The formation of this Ad Hoc Emissions Commission is an important step in the right direction for New Hampshire, and I’m excited to see how the Granite State chooses to chart its path forward and away from the outdated, polluting fossil fuel-based economy of the past.

Posted in: Climate Change, Energy

Tags: New Hampshire

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.