Climate change policies pay for themselves, study says

An MIT climate change study released Sunday indicates the cost of slashing coal-fired carbon emissions would be offset by reduced spending on public health. The EPA-funded study examined climate change policies similar to those proposed by the Obama administration in June. 

Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/AP
Emission stacks at Cinergy Corp.'s Gibson Station power plant, near Princeton, Ind. A new study indicates that restrictions on emissions from power plants could result in significantly lower health spending.

President Obama’s controversial plan to phase out coal and slash carbon emissions is an expensive one. But a new study suggests it could be cheaper than the alternative: pollution, poor air quality, and accompanying health costs.

Cutting emissions might lower health spending so drastically that the US could end up saving ten times more than it would cost to implement carbon reductions, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Environmentalists have long argued that curbing pollution is good for protecting local habitats and public health. Recently, though, the push for tighter environmental protections has sometimes shifted the focus from human health and conservation to climate change. The MIT study ties both environmental paradigms together, demonstrating how policies targeting carbon emissions can boost public health by reducing the more conventional pollutants emitted alongside greenhouse gases. Those conventional pollutants include particulate matter and carbon monoxide, which officials link to increased incidence and severity of illnesses like asthma, heart disease, and lung cancer.

“Looking at all of the possible benefits of cutting carbon is important. It shows cutting carbon can have local benefits as well as cutting global climate change,” says Noelle Selin, a study co-author and professor of engineering systems and atmospheric chemistry at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

The findings provide ammunition for an administration hoping to cut climate-warming carbon emissions – particularly from the power sector, which makes up roughly a third of all US greenhouse gases. In June, the Obama administration unveiled a Clean Power Plan to cut power plant emissions by 30 percent over the next 15 years. It has drawn criticism from industry and business associations that say it will do little to curb global climate change, and will hinder an industry that provides roughly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.  

“EPA’s carbon proposal will cause electricity prices to skyrocket for American families and businesses,” Laura Sheehan, spokesperson for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a Washington-based industry group, said Monday in an e-mail statement. “We should all be concerned about the health consequences of higher energy costs, weakened electric reliability, widespread job losses and systemic economic devastation.”

The EPA-funded MIT study, which examined a policy similar to the Obama administration’s proposal, says the benefits outweigh the costs. The Clean Power Plan would cost $208 billion to implement, according to the study, but would reduce health costs to the tune of $247 billion.

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“If cost-benefit analyses of climate policies don’t include the significant health benefits from healthier air, they dramatically underestimate the benefits of these policies,” Tammy Thompson, a professor at Colorado State University and one of the lead authors of the study, says in a press release.

The MIT study analyzed two other hypothetical carbon reduction scenarios: a trillion-dollar greening of the transportation sector, and a cap-and-trade scheme, which would issue emissions credits that polluters can buy and sell. Cap-and-trade had far and away the biggest money-saving potential, Selin says, primarily because the cost of implementing such a system is relatively low.

“[Cap-and-trade] allows reductions of carbon to come from the cheapest sources,” Ms. Selin says in a telephone interview. “That’s really the definition of putting a price on carbon.”

However, cap-and-trade has been a political non-starter in the past. In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abandoned cap-and-trade legislation when faced with Republican opposition.

“The most efficient way may not be the most politically feasible,” Selin says.

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