Medical Researchers Conclude that Health Benefits Alone Justify the Costs of Transition to Clean Energy
During the 2020 pandemic shut down, in Connecticut and worldwide, we all inhaled cleaner air and enjoyed bluer skies. The healthier air became evident within a few weeks and was a result of decreased emissions of airborne pollutants.
In an article published in the April 7, 2020 issue of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), the authors (scientists from the University of Wisconsin and the Natural Resources Defense Council) explain how the value of health benefits alone justifies the entire agreed-upon investment in clean energy as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The economic value of these health benefits is estimated to exceed the cost of the prescribed clean energy interventions by 1.4- to 2.5-fold (a return on investment of 40 to 150 percent!).
The Paris Agreement, which encompasses commitments of compliance from 195 countries, is designed to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily through making a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The cost of this transition is offset not only by the value of health benefits from doing so, but also by the value of many other benefits, including reduced sea level rise, preservation of biodiversity, maintenance of stable food and water supplies, and increased political stability.
In their JAMA article entitled “A Low-Carbon Future Could Improve Global Health and Achieve Economic Benefits,” the authors describe the enormous health benefits of a low-carbon future, as illustrated by advances in three carbon-intensive sectors of the global economy: energy (electric power production), food production and consumption, and transportation. In each of these three categories, vast improvements can cost-effectively be made in reducing emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, as well as other forms of air pollution caused by combustion of fossil fuels.
Health Benefits of Low-Carbon Power Production
The health benefits of reduced fossil fuel-related emissions have been estimated at 94 dollars per ton of CO2 reduction in the year 2030. These benefits accrue from reductions in the morbidity and mortality associated with poor air quality. The health risks are caused not only by global warming resulting from GHGs, but also by six different types of air pollutants co-emitted with CO2. Consistent with these projected health advantages from the Paris Agreement are the real-world benefits that have already resulted from regulation of air pollution in the United States since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the benefits of which have exceeded costs by an estimated 30 to 1 ratio.
Even without subsidies, the great majority (75 to 80 percent) of new solar and wind installations for electric power production is expected to produce power at lower cost than even the least expensive fossil fuel (coal, oil, or natural gas) alternatives.
Health Benefits of Low-Carbon Food Production and Consumption
World-wide, food production alone accounts for more than 25 percent of GHG emissions. Agricultural activities are energy intensive and require large land areas appropriated from natural environments (including rain forests, which function as “carbon sinks” by absorbing atmospheric CO2). GHG emissions from the production of animal-based foods far exceed those from the production of plant-based foods, mainly because of the huge amount of plant food needed to raise and support animals for meat and dairy production. Direct consumption by humans of plant foods is a far more energy-efficient source of nutrition. Furthermore, diets that rely mostly on plant foods, such as the Mediterranean diet, have direct health and nutrition benefits that also reduce the costs of healthcare.
Health Benefits of Low-Carbon Transportation
Transportation is the third major energy-intensive sector addressed by the authors of the JAMA article, accounting for an estimated 14 percent of global GHG emissions. In Connecticut and other Northeastern states, transportation accounts for an even higher percentage of GHG emissions (40 percent). One study concluded that in 2015 an estimated one trillion dollars was spent on the adverse health effects caused by emissions from the transportation sector, especially those of diesel-powered vehicles. Electrification of transportation, especially if powered from renewable energy sources, will greatly reduce health hazards from this sector.
An economic argument provides strong support for the transition to renewable energy sources. The predicted benefits (only one of which is a healthier planet) to human societies from phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewables overwhelmingly outweighs the cost of making this transition. In fact, investing in a clean energy future can be justified entirely by the health benefits alone.
Beva Nall-Langdon is a Sierra Club member and science writer who has organized four National Drive Electric Week events in Connecticut to promote the transition to electric vehicles.