Lower CO2 Emissions Could Save the US Billions
CLIMATE CHANGE IS about money. The expenses associated with adapting to, saving people from, and mitigating the effects of climate change drove much of the discussion during last year’s big Paris negotiations. And those costs are arguably at the root of climate denial—or at least provide excuse enough for many to throw their hands up at the problem.
Those expenses aren’t the whole picture, however. More and more economic research is suggesting that reducing emissions could actually save society money—partly in terms of public health. See, whether carbon dioxide is farted from a tailpipe or coughed through a smokestack, it’s always part of a cloud of other gases and particulates. Nasty stuff, linked to conditions like asthma, lung damage, and heart attacks. (Not that CO2 is harmless either—side effects may include famine and the spread of tropical diseases. But that’s all way down the road.) A new study published today in Nature Climate Change finds that, by removing harmful particulates and gases, strict vehicle and power plant emissions policies could have near term health benefits that translate into billions of dollars. Far more money, it appears, than the costs of implementing lower emissions.
The study has its roots in a 2014 agreement between the US and China. Both countries agreed limit their emissions to prevent the world’s temperature from rising more than 2˚C. For the US, that translates to lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. “I looked at the scenarios that would put us on that path, and it’s a really dramatic transformation of the energy and transportation sectors,” says Drew Shindall, climate scientist at Duke University, and co-author of the paper. Way more dramatic than anything currently on the books, even. Take for instance the contested Clean Power Plan, which only accounts for about half the emissions cuts necessary to meet the 26 to 28 percent reduction goal.
Carbon dioxide—and pollution in general—comes from a lot of sources. But to keep the study simple, Shindall and his co-authors kept their analysis to just transportation and energy. And within those emissions sources, they focused predominantly on particulates and gases—things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and black carbon. These pollutants are emitted alongside carbon, but, unlike the time delayed effects of that notorious greenhouse gas, have immediate effects on human and environmental health.
Shindall and his co-authors established the study’s baseline emissions in the year 2010, from the UN’s most recent climate change assessment. Then, they calculated the volume of pollution the US would be spared by cutting more than a quarter of its energy and transportation emissions by 2030.
They translated that missing pollution into health terms—all the asthma and heart disease that Americans would not be suffering—using a method Shindall developed called the Social Cost of Atmospheric Release. For example, their combined clean energy and transportation scenario would prevent an estimated 15 million lost adult work days a year. Similarly, about 29,000 kids each year wouldn’t have to go to the emergency room for their asthma attacks. In the near term, those and other missing afflictions would save the US economy around $250 billion a year.