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Cutting Carbon Emissions Pays for Itself

Aug 25, 2014 10:39 AM EDT
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(Photo : Reuters/Yves Herman)

Cutting carbon emissions pays for itself because the health benefits from doing so outweigh the costs of implementing such carbon-reducing policies, according to a new study.

MIT researchers found that carbon-cutting policies in the United States could save more than 10 times the cost of carrying out these plans.

Emissions can cause many health problems, like asthma, which affects 18.7 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This condition costs the United States about $56 billion in medical costs and sick days, but introducing carbon-reduction policies could lower that number significantly.

"Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality," study co-author Noelle Selin, an assistant professor of engineering systems and atmospheric chemistry at MIT, said in a statement. "In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution."

Selin and colleagues 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. All of these programs were designed to resemble real-life proposed US climate policies.

The researchers found that savings from avoided health problems could regain 26 percent of the cost to employ a transportation policy, but up to 10.5 times the cost of applying a cap-and-trade program.

Based on the results, the transportation policy would be the most expensive to implement at $1 trillion, with health benefits recouping only a quarter of those costs. Meanwhile, health benefits greatly surpass the $14 billion cost of a cap-and-trade program.

"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," added lead author Tammy Thompson of Colorado State University.

The researchers also projected the health effects of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, two of the biggest health offenders related to fossil-fuel emissions. Both pollutants can cause asthma attacks and heart and lung disease, and can lead to premature death.

In 2011, 231 US counties exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory standards for ozone, and 118 counties.

Implementing carbon-reduction policies could not only reduce our carbon footprint, but also lessen the health effects of air pollution.

The study findings are detailed in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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