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Want to solve Utah’s air quality problem? Now there’s a roadmap for that

Last year, the Utah Legislature gave the Gardner Institute $200,000 to complete a six-month study of climate and air quality and tasked the organization with proposing science-based solutions. Here’s what they came up with.

The Huntington Power Plant in Huntington, Utah. In the foreground are the cooling towers pictured Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers released a set of seven recommendations Monday meant to guide Utah’s legislators in addressing the state’s climate and air quality concerns. Those recommendations include reducing air pollution emissions by 50% and carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

“If Utah acts on this, we would be the first red state to do so,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

Last year, the Utah Legislature gave the Gardner Institute $200,000 to complete a six-month study of climate and air quality and tasked the organization with proposing science-based solutions.

“There was a real interest in having a trusted entity bring together a diverse group of experts to give us good counsel,” Gochnour said Monday in a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards. Those experts included economists as well as representatives from the energy sector, health industry, academia and government agencies.

The report, called “The Utah Roadmap,” will be available for public comment on the Gardner Institute website until Jan. 27, after which it will be finalized and presented to the Legislature.

Other recommendations from “The Utah Roadmap” include having the government lead by example with low-emissions buildings and vehicles and creating a climate solutions laboratory where scientists can explore the latest technologies and innovations in air quality control.

“We should have the best monitoring network in the country here in Utah, and we should have some of the most cutting-edge research on air quality coming out,” said Gochnour.

The suggestions are directed at legislators, but the goal of reducing air pollution by 50% was made with individuals in mind, according to Gochnour. She said every Utahn should think about how they can cut their personal emissions in half by driving less or making their homes more energy efficient, for example.

The Utah Roadmap: Positive solutions on climate and air quality by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute

All of the Gardner Institute’s proposed actions will simultaneously reduce air pollutants that are harmful to human health — like particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen oxides — as well as cut carbon emissions, which contribute to a warming climate, said Glade Sowards, policy analyst with the Utah Division of Air Quality.

While Gochnour says there is “no consensus” on Capitol Hill in terms of how to address climate change, scientists agree reducing carbon emissions is essential to guard against potential wildfires, shrinking snowpack levels and extreme weather.

Inversion in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s total carbon output is small on a global scale, but per capita emissions are higher than most states, “The Utah Roadmap” report says. One of the reasons is that Utah is highly reliant on coal. With plans to retire existing plants or convert them to natural gas, that will change, Sowards said. But more action will be required to meet the Gardner Institute’s reduction goals, especially in terms of air quality.

Sowards worked on projections for the study that show Utah’s air quality will continue to improve until about 2025 with planned improvements including Tier 3 fuel, or gasoline with lower sulfur content. Without additional action, Utah’s air quality will become stagnant after 2025 as the benefits of coal-fired power plant closures across the state will be offset by population growth, according to Sowards.

And if for some reason the power plants don’t close as planned, Utah’s air quality could start to get worse, Sowards said.

“The timing is right for the state to act,” said Gochnour. “I feel like there are lot of things pointing in the right direction, at the top of the list would be what we are seeing in technology and new opportunities in the energy sector.”

Gochnour also hopes that a potential 2030 Olympic bid will motivate Utah legislators to take action. The 2002 Olympics provided a target for improving Utah’s infrastructure, including the creation of TRAX, Utah’s light rail system. The new Olympic bid could do the same toward motivating toward clean air solutions.

The final recommendations from the Gardner Institute include adapting to population growth with more public transportation, energy-efficient housing options and the preservation of open space, encouraging the adoption of electric cars, providing economic development assistance to rural communities as they face energy-transition, and working toward the adoption of a national carbon pricing plan.

Glade Sowards, policy analyst with the Utah Division of Air Quality

Such changes will not be free, however. While the Gardner Institute did not include a cost calculation in its report, Gochnour predicts that economic investment on par with the $29 million the Legislature designated toward air quality last year will be necessary to achieve the roadmap goals.

“I think they did a public service to the state of Utah to delve into this subject in a very short amount of time and to wrestle with some very complex issues,” Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said of the Gardner Institute. “I look forward to having a broader dialogue with Utahns of all persuasions and legislators about these recommendations.”