The United States saved thousands of lives during the decade it took to shift from coal to gas for electricity generation.

A new University of California study published in Nature Sustainability says the US by the shift away from coal between 2005 and 2016 saved an estimated 26,610 lives.  

"When you turn coal units off you see deaths go down.  It's something we can see in a tangible way," said the study's author, Professor Jennifer Burney of the University of California San Diego.  "There is a cost to coal beyond the economics.  We have to think carefully about where plants are sited, as well as how to reduce their pollutants."

A glut of natural gas helped seal coal's fate.  Taking 334 generating units offline and replacing them with 612 gas-fired units resulted in preventing more than 300 million tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide from being released.  Levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, emitted by coal plants and linked to irritations of the nose and throat, dropped by 60 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

But switching to natural gas is not enough to stop global warming from raising the earth's average temperature to 2 C degrees over pre-industrial levels.  It will have to be replaced with zero-emission alternatives such as wind or solar power.  That's going to be difficult with Donald Trump trying to reverse the tide of history and propping up the dying coal industry and rolling back Obama-era standards aimed at curtailing pollution from coal-fired power plants.

"Particulate pollution from coal still kills thousands of Americans yearly and hundreds of thousands of people worldwide," said Stanford University climate expert Rob Jackson.  ""Rolling back emissions standards won’t just harm the climate, it will kill people, especially poorer people more likely to live near coal-fired power plants."