Freedom from Fossil Fuels is Good for Your Health

By James Boyce, Senior Fellow, Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Freeing ourselves from reliance on fossil fuels is not only good for the planet and future generations. It also saves lives here and now.

That’s the message from studies of the public health “co-benefits” that come with reduced emissions. In many cases, these alone are large enough to provide a compelling case for replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, even without counting benefits for the climate.

The burning of fossil fuels releases a toxic stew of air pollutants alongside carbon dioxide, the number one culprit in climate change. Foremost among these “co-pollutants” are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are hazardous in themselves and undergo chemical reactions in the air to form suspended particulates that penetrate the lungs and further damage human health. Coal-fired power plants are the main source of sulfur dioxide emissions, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated are responsible for about 70% of the health costs from power plants.

Air pollution is a leading cause of death at home and abroad. In the U.S., a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that outdoor air pollution kills more than 100,000 Americans each year. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that dirty air kills more than 4 million people annually.

Economically, this is a big deal – even bigger than the climate damages often measured by conventional cost-benefit analysis. And politically, the deaths and ill health caused by air pollution are more immediately visible than climate instability: the costs are borne by people alive today rather than by future generations, and they are borne mainly in the same places where the emissions occur rather than by people worldwide.

The Co-Pollutant Cost of Carbon

In a recent study I carried out with colleagues at MIT and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we analyzed the “co-pollutant cost of carbon” in U.S. electric power generation – the premature deaths from co-pollutants per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. A prior study by MIT researchers estimated that in 2005, power plant emissions were responsible for 53,900 deaths per year nationwide. Using standard EPA measures for the value of a statistical life, we found that in 2011 the average co-pollutant cost of carbon was roughly $45/ton. This can be regarded as a conservative estimate in that it does not include the costs of non-fatal illnesses.

The co-pollutant cost was 20% higher than the “social cost of carbon” estimate of $37/ton that the Obama administration used for climate damages. In other words, including the here-and-now health benefits of cutting fossil fuels – alongside the climate benefits – would have more than doubled the economic rationale for doing so.

These results are even more striking when we compare public health co-benefits to the revised social cost of carbon being used now in the Trump administration. By making two changes to its calculations – bumping up the discount rate so that future damages look smaller in terms of present dollars, and zeroing out the costs of damages outside the U.S. – the EPA whittled its measure of the social cost of carbon to merely $1-$6/ton. By this measure, the co-pollutant cost of carbon vastly exceeds its climate cost. The Trump-era EPA maneuver underscores the difference between the health costs and climate impacts of fossil fuels. Unlike climate damages, the health costs of co-pollutants are not affected by how much or little weight policymakers put on the well-being of future generations and of people in other countries.

Elsewhere, too, the public health costs of fossil fuels provide a compelling reason to shift to clean energy. In Europe, a 2019 study estimated that outdoor air pollution causes 790,000 premature deaths annually. In India and China, countries with some of the worst air quality in the world, the World Health Organization puts the annual death tolls at 620,000 and more than one million, respectively.

Differential Benefits from Emissions Reduction

Apart from strengthening the case for replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, accounting for the health co-benefits changes how we think about where to cut emissions. From the standpoint of climate change, all carbon dioxide molecules are the same, so it doesn’t matter where emissions are reduced. The quantity and impacts of co-pollutant emissions, on the other hand, vary greatly across pollution sources.

From the standpoint of efficiency, it makes sense to cut emissions where they result in the highest number of premature deaths from co-pollutant exposure. From the standpoint of safety and the right to a safe environment – the cornerstone of U.S. air pollution policy – it makes sense to cut emissions where they pose the greatest health risks to individuals (even if some of them live in sparsely populated areas where the total number of deaths is not so high). From the standpoint of environmental justice, it makes sense to cut emissions where they harm vulnerable communities already facing disproportionate pollution burdens. To some extent these three criteria – efficiency, safety, and justice – overlap. Regardless of the relative weight assigned to them in environmental policy, all point to the conclusion that we should put priority on cutting emissions in the locations and sectors where the benefits are greatest.

In our study of the electric power sector, for example, we found that the co-pollutant cost of carbon varies significantly from state to state. In terms of total deaths, the impact per ton of carbon emissions in New Jersey was more than double the national average, reflecting proximity to major population centers, and more than 20 times the impact in Arizona, the state with the lowest number of deaths per ton.

In a multi-sectoral study, Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California and I found that emissions from petroleum refineries generally have the biggest adverse health impact from air pollution of any major industrial sector in the U.S. Refineries also have the greatest disproportionate impacts on African-Americans, Latinos, and low-income communities.

Internationally, too, we find wide variations in the co-pollutant cost of carbon. The number of premature deaths per ton of carbon emissions is roughly twelve times higher in India than in the U.S. and more than five times higher in China. The people of both countries have a lot to gain from a clean energy transition.

Changing the Narrative on Fossil Fuels

A favorite ploy of the fossil fuel lobby is to claim that we face an inexorable tradeoff between advancing economic well-being and protecting the environment. Environmentalists all too often play into this narrative when they call for belt-tightening by the present generation on behalf of generations to come. The result is to give an “eat your broccoli” flavor to climate policy: you ought to swallow it even if you don’t like it.

Recognizing the health co-benefits of freeing ourselves from fossil fuels can help change this narrative. The clean energy revolution will save millions of lives worldwide. It will improve public health for people alive today, and will achieve this regardless of what other countries do.

The here-and-now benefits of replacing fossil fuels are not limited to cleaner air and longer lives. Investments in clean and renewable energy will create millions of new jobs, employing far more workers than will continued reliance on fossil fuels. Just transition policies can ensure that workers and communities who now depend on the fossil fuel industry will benefit, too.

If the climate policy mix includes measures to keep fossil fuels in the ground by strictly limiting the amount allowed into the economy, this will raise their price. Returning this money directly to the people in the form of equal per capita carbon dividends will bring net gains to the majority of households, protecting their incomes in the face of rising fossil fuel prices and helping to win durable public support for the clean energy transition.

Clean air, good jobs, more money in your pocket – what’s not to like? The bottom line: Effective and equitable policies to free ourselves from fossil fuels do not pose a threat to our well-being here and now. Instead, climate policy can be a potent tool for building an economy that works better for people as well as for the planet.

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  1. xkeyscored

    I don’t know what these standard EPA measures for the value of a statistical life are, but if they’re like similar ways of placing a price on life, they’re repugnant, and could logically lead to a different conclusion. If US lives are more valuable, on average, than lives in India or Africa, based on existing levels of privilege, then moving the pollution there might be a more ‘efficient’ solution.
    Does anyone know how exactly the EPA prices us?

    1. fwe’zy

      Yes, echoes of Larry Summers’ unironic modest proposal. ^ On the other hand, I worry about the ability of petrostates to “catch up” by diversifying their economies. “Dutch disease” etc. Right now the petro is their main treasure, and devaluing it is the subtext of much that goes on geopolitically, to weaken these states. Just transitions must extend globally.

      1. fwe’zy

        I see the next-to-last paragraph about rising prices for fossil fuels in the scenario of limiting extraction, but that can only be assured by controlling cartel dynamics.

  2. notabanktoadie

    Returning this money directly to the people in the form of equal per capita carbon dividends will bring net gains to the majority of households, protecting their incomes in the face of rising fossil fuel prices and helping to win durable public support for the clean energy transition. James Boyce

    In a similar way, an equal Citizen’s Dividend could protect real* incomes and “win durable public support” for transitions from public and private job-fare programs such as a bloated military and the health insurance industry.

    Not that monetary reform alone is sufficient since that would still leave the problem of rentiers. So we need land reform too.

    *If combined with deflationary measures such as de-privileging private depository institutions and eliminating all other fiat creation except by Federal deficit spending for the general welfare.

  3. chuck roast

    Back in the ’90’s I worked to enforce the Clean Air Act on a local and regional level. We modeled mobile, stationary and area source air pollution budgets in order for the regional transportation plan to “conform” to the regional air quality plan which underpinned the National Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Although we permitted major and medium sized stationary air pollution sources, our activities were not generally fine grained. The NAAQS contained generally accepted morbidity outcomes, but we had no hope of determining the “social costs” of air pollution.

    Being able to measure the the co-pollutant cost of carbon (CPCC) as constituents of social costs of carbon (SCC) would have been a revaluation to me. Our various models were quite good at determining aggregates and subsequent constituents, but we had no way to measure the actual cost of a particular anti-social activity or climate and air quality social cost (CAQCC).


    And to think of all the developers I could have abused using this simple formula and the MOBILE6 vehicular air pollution model. I could have measured the social costs of building a 140 dwelling unit subdivision out on the fringe of the city. Measuring the actual health costs of sprawl! It would have been my personal “holy grail.” Hah! I would have been shuffled back to the Parks Department post haste.

    1. Charger01

      CAQCC = a “family blog” phrase.
      Yeah, that acronym will go over well. Every developer and commuter would love to reference “family blog” acronym as to why their costs are increasing due to energy consumption.

    2. davidgmillsatty

      Depends on the size of the sprawl. If population density were significantly limited, there would be a point where sprawl would have been beneficial. Places of work would have had to move out as well and would have reduced drive times. Mega cities are a notoriously bad idea. But that is where the jobs are. Restrict the number of businesses per square mile and things would change.

    3. Titus

      Sociological models for any given energy source have been in use and steady improved since 1974. The issue isn’t how to do, it is being aware that it is being done and using them.

  4. Susan the other

    I liked this analysis until the last paragraphs. It amounts to a combination of extortion (nobody will help you anyway) and bribery (let us pollute and we’ll give you extra money so you can cope). I don’t like that at all. All the pollution from petroleum products finds its way into the environment and infuses ALL ecosystems with toxics: air, rain, agricultural products, fibers/clothing, etc. I’m sure even medications are contaminated with toxics. It is true that there are regions, with fewer people, that could support by-product pollution without directly creating justified claims for compensation – but it won’t be long now until the whole planet will be filing their actions. Look at Exxon. BooHoo. Anybody remember Bhopal (sp? -) they directly killed with acute poisoning from their chimney smoke stacks a whole town full of hopeful Indian residents. They were sued out of existence and sold to good ol’ Huntsman Chemicals who cleaned up the manufacturing and carried on. But the earth is actually saturated with these poisons – don’t let this article give you false hope. We need to eliminate them completely or at worst at the point of production and process them into harmless chemicals (very expensive) – so where’s that goddamned technology?. Nowhere? Why the fuck not?

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    Sulfur dioxide from coal burning? I thought we solved that with stack-based limestone scrubbering long ago to solve the acid rain problem. Have I been wrong all along?

  6. davidgmillsatty

    No mention is made about how cities contribute to this problem. It is quite likely that if the population were spread out nature could absorb many of these toxins. Whether it is fossil fuels or just human waste, cities are going to be far more toxic to plant and animal life than rural areas.

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