Cutting carbon dioxide emissions will not only save us from the worst impacts of global climate disruption, but also simultaneously reduces toxic air pollution. That will save thousands of lives annually, as well as reduce rates of asthma, heart attacks, hospitalization and autism – here and around the world. It will also save an immense amount of money. One 2010 study put the cost of the adverse public health impacts from coal combustion alone at $100 billion per year.
The idea of measuring the co-benefits of carbon reduction is part of the calculation of the social cost of carbon. While these estimation techniques are still emerging, it’s obvious that the benefits, when monetized, are huge - and must be included in how we as a society evaluate the real, all-in costs of cutting carbon.
A new study from MIT researchers has looked at the health benefits of cleaner air in comparison to the costs of reducing carbon emissions in the US and found that the savings are big, and vary depending on the policies adopted.
A systems approach to evaluating the air quality co-benefits of US carbon policies was published in Nature Climate Change. According to a university press release, the study is the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and the cost of health problems related to air pollution. It:
compared the health benefits to the economic costs of three climate policies: a clean-energy standard, a transportation policy, and a cap-and-trade program…
The researchers found that savings from avoided health problems could recoup 26 percent of the cost to implement a transportation policy, but up to to 10.5 times the cost of implementing a cap-and-trade program. The difference depended largely on the costs of the policies, as the savings — in the form of avoided medical care and saved sick days — remained roughly constant: Policies aimed at specific sources of air pollution, such as power plants and vehicles, did not lead to substantially larger benefits than cheaper policies, such as a cap-and-trade approach.
Savings from health benefits dwarf the estimated $14 billion cost of a cap-and-trade program. At the other end of the spectrum, a transportation policy with rigid fuel-economy requirements is the most expensive policy, costing more than $1 trillion in 2006 dollars, with health benefits recouping only a quarter of those costs. The price tag of a clean energy standard fell between the costs of the two other policies, with associated health benefits just edging out costs, at $247 billion versus $208 billion.
But it’s not necessarily that simple, as we've mucked up the atmosphere so much in history's largest uncontrolled chemistry experiment that:
“To manage climate change, we’ll have to make carbon cuts that go beyond the initial reductions that lead to the largest air-pollution benefits.”
Still, the study is further evidence that climate protection is a cheap investment.