WASHINGTON — A complete phase out of fossil fuel generation in the Commonwealth by 2045 -- that's what the Virginia Clean Economy Act passed in 2020 mandates.

Dr. Samantha Ahdoot, a pediatrician in Alexandria and chair of the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, sees firsthand the harmful impact climate change is having on our health. She says the bill opens up numerous benefits for her patients. 

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“I find this so exciting for my young patients in Virginia who I know now will be growing up in a state with less air pollution and a safer climate as they grow older ... and eventually raise their own families,” Ahdoot said. “We were really pleased to support this legislation back in 2020. And to bring the health voice to that discussion so people understood that clean energy policy is really about the health of people.”

Dr. Ahdoot says some of the impacts of climate change are easier to point to, like warming temperatures leading to shifts in climate sensitive infections such as Lyme Disease and worsening water quality from flooding and sea level rise. But others, like the effects of air pollution, we may not be able to see, but our bodies can certainly feel. 

“It’s 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. Particulate matter 2.5," explains Dr. Ahdoot.  "So when you breath in that stuff it gets everywhere in the body. And it causes stress and cell damage and that can lead to heart attacks, high blood pressure, arrhythmias, asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, but also it gets into our brains.”

And new research shows that this fine particulate matter can also affect diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism and ADHD. It has even been linked to premature births.

But the decarbonization the Commonwealth by 2045 is expected to have a significant, positive impact on the adverse health effects of climate change.

So what are we talking about when we say decarbonization? It’s all about eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. When we burn fossil fuels, we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which eventually leads to warming global temperatures. Alternative energy types include wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric energy and biofuels. 

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Assuming a steady rate of declining air pollution between now and 2045 when the goal of 100% reduction is achieved, the Commonwealth is expected to prevent between 280 and 640 premature deaths.

Credit: George Mason University - Virginia Climate Center

It would also mean saving between $141 and $356 million per year in health costs. This would lead to a total savings of $2.8 to $7 billion over the next 20 years.

Credit: George Mason University - Virginia Climate Center

Another expected benefit includes preventing thousands of work loss days per year, ultimately saving the Virginia economy $7.8 million by 2045. The greatest health costs are forecasted to occur in Chesterfield, Henrico and Fairfax counties with a total annual savings of $40 million in Chesterfield, $35 million in Henrico and $26 million in Fairfax.

So how did the Virginia Climate Center forecast these projections? Enter Luis Ortiz from the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences at George Mason University and a team of researchers. They looked at the co-benefits of phasing out power plants using a model development by the Environmental Protection Agency called COBRA.

“We adapted it to the Commonwealth of Virginia and then we developed a series of scenarios," explains Ortiz. “And then we looked at for every sort of period of time how much of those benefits were accrued.”

The research was conducted over 3-4 months and is the first product for the new Virginia Climate Center.

"It involved everything from ideating or conceptualizing the scenarios to modifying the model so we can get the results we needed for the Commonwealth of Virginia," Ortiz said. 

And it all points toward a greener, healthier future and emphasizes Virginia's leadership in clean energy policy.

“It’s important to know that climate action is not just this sort of very far away ideal or very far away thing," adds Ortiz. "It’s something that effects us at home.”