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May 20, 2014
Viewpoints: Two policies that help limit air pollution and reduce emergency room visits

JV_EMERGENCY_ROOM_CPR 5.JPG(May 20 - By David Tom Cooke, Special to The Bee)

I've spent the better part of my life as a doctor, caring for my patients, working to make their lives better and helping them live longer.

Modern medicine, innovative research and preventive health care have certainly improved patients' quality of life, but over the years, the growing number of patients suffering from lung cancer, asthma, heart attacks, and other respiratory and cardiac illnesses continues to disturb me.

A key factor linked to the increase and worsening of these conditions, air pollution, isn't new to California. According to the American Lung Association State of the Air report, our state regularly tops lists of worst polluted areas in the country and is home to the five worst polluted cities in the United States for both ozone and particle pollution. Our Sacramento metropolitan area ranks fifth on the list of worst polluted cities for ozone or smog.

Unfortunately, poor air quality can't be solved with two aspirin and a call in the morning.

A new report from the American Lung Association in California and Environmental Defense Fund, however, shows two policies that are key components of the state's landmark climate law, AB 32: the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the market-based emissions reduction and trading program, cap and trade. They help to limit air pollution and reduce the number of emergency room visits along the way.

To put it in financial terms, the report finds these policies will save Californians more than $10 billion in health and economic costs by 2020, giving some much-needed relief to our fiscal and personal well-being. This is good news for Californians.

By 2025, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and cap and trade will save more than $8 billion in pollution-related health costs, including reduced costs of premature deaths, hospitalizations and the need for expensive medications. These policies will result in 38,000 fewer asthma attacks and almost 75,000 fewer lost work days linked to air pollution. All told, these policies will decrease emissions by 165 million metric tons of climate pollution as well as reductions in smog and soot over the next 10 years, the equivalent of taking 32 million cars off the road.

These findings reinforce the important fact that California's clean energy policies are reducing transportation pollution, providing tremendous clean air and health benefits, and saving money for state residents.

Case in point: the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, aimed at reducing the levels of carbon in transportation fuels as compared to gas and diesel, is already working to significantly grow the number of cleaner alternative fuels like electricity, hydrogen and advanced biofuels over the next five years.

Cap and trade, which places an economywide cap on harmful greenhouse gas pollution in California, is already on track to reduce climate warming emissions below the state's 2020 target levels. Under AB 32, cap and trade has already raised more than $660 million for emission-reducing programs throughout the state, including $166 million to assist disadvantaged communities suffering from some of the worst air pollution in the state.

California long has been a standard-bearer in the U.S. for adopting clean air and clean energy standards that improve public health, spur innovation and stimulate a cleaner, greener economy. In January, California will continue this innovation by including the transportation sector - the state's leading contributor to pollution - in the cap-and-trade program.

With more than 21,000 annual premature deaths in California, mostly attributed to emissions from vehicles and fuels, the benefits of AB 32 - and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and cap and trade in particular - are vital for the future of public health.

We must ensure all of these popular policies remain in place and aren't weakened.

Unfortunately, critics of these policies, including oil companies and other dirty energy interests, continue their efforts to derail AB32's progress, as they work to undermine the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and try to prevent expansion of the cap-and-trade program to include transportation fuels.

We all know someone at increased risk due to harmful pollutants in our air, whether young children, senior parents, friends with heart disease and diabetes or kids and grandchildren living with asthma. We need to do everything we can to protect their health and wellness today and tomorrow.

Preserving a healthy life for my patients and their loved ones is my daily pledge. AB 32 and its suite of policies, which are cutting pollution and cleaning up the air we breathe, are making my job a little easier - and the lives of Californians a lot healthier.

Dr. David Tom Cooke, a member of the American Lung Association in California board of directors, is head of general thoracic surgery at UC Davis Medical Center.