A new study has found that decarbonizing the U.S. energy system would save tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars every year, and this will do nothing to make those in power move any faster.
A new study adds to the case for urgent decarbonization of the U.S. energy system, finding that slashing air pollution emissions from energy-related sources would bring near-term public health gains including preventing over 50,000 premature deaths and save $608 billion in associated benefits annually.
I’m going to make a brief aside here. At this point I have no faith that anyone with the power to make a difference on climate change will actually do so any time soon. Those empowered by our system have made it clear, through decades of inaction, that they have no interest in doing anything to prevent that system from destroying us all.
It’s also worth noting that the ideas of saving lives and money don’t actually hold any value to the people running our world. That number of premature deaths isn’t far off from the number killed by the US for-profit healthcare system, but because that system makes a few people very rich, it’s protected by both major parties. It doesn’t matter that a universal system would save money and lives, because that’s not the point. Likewise, the folks running the U.S. government are perfectly fine pouring trillions of dollars into endless war all over the planet. They do not care about lives lost or money wasted, as long as they get some personal benefit in the process.
That said, I like research like this. I think this kind of thing is useful in making the case that there are far fewer downsides to climate action than some would have us believe. It’s also useful for making the case that those who claim to care about life, money, or climate change are just lying for votes, for as long as they’re not doing everything they can for real climate action. When it’s clear that the truth is not enough to move the powerful to action, we need to consider how research like this can be used.
Published Monday in the journal GeoHealth, the analysis by Mailloux and fellow UW-Madison researchers focuses on emissions of fine particulate matter, referred to as PM2.5, and of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the electric power, transportation, building, and industrial sectors.
Those sectors account for 90% of U.S. CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the paper notes. The bulk of the emissions from the sectors comes from fossil fuel use, though the study points to “a substantial portion” of particulate pollution stemming from wood and bark burning and “a small portion” resulting from non-combustion sources.
“Many of the same activities and processes that emit planet-warming GHGs also release health-harming air pollutant emissions; the current air quality-related health burden associated with fossil fuels is substantial,” the analysis states.
The study also notes that “the current pace of decarbonization in the U.S. is still incompatible with a world in which global warming is limited to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” and that “deep and rapid cuts in GHG emissions are needed in all energy-related sectors—including electric power, transportation, buildings, and industry—if states and the country as a whole are to achieve reductions consistent with avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.”
The researchers measured the potential benefits of the removal of the air pollution, ranging from all-cause mortality to non-fatal heart attacks and respiratory-related hospital admissions, using the Environmental Protection Agency’s CO-Benefits Risk Assessment tool.
They also looked at the impacts of both U.S.-wide and regional action on the reductions; they found that nationwide actions delivered the biggest benefits, though “all regions can prevent hundreds or thousands of deaths by eliminating energy-related emissions sources within the region, which shows the local benefits of local action to mitigate air quality issues.”
According to the analysis, the pollution reductions would save 53,200 premature deaths and provide $608 billion in annual benefits. The avoided deaths account for 98% of the monetary benefits. But apart from avoidance of human lives lost, the particulate matter reductions offer further benefits including up to 25,600 avoided non-fatal heart attacks, as well as preventing 5,000 asthma-related emergency room visits and avoiding 3.68 million days of work lost.
I know the tone of this post has been gloomy. It might be possible for me to not be consumed by frustration at the state of things, but if so, I’ve yet to figure out how. That said, it is good to know that the right choice will have benefits beyond “merely” keeping the planet hospitable to human life. As much as I’m afraid I’ll be saying this until I die of old age, it’s good that the only real obstacles to a better world are political. It means that we know we can do things differently, and make a better world in the process.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that the lives saved by taking these measures would be disproportionately poor and non-white. I’m in favor of real, targeted reparations, but the reality is that most actions we take to benefit all of humanity will benefit all humanity, if we actually do the work right. It should come as no surprise that those people most subjected to the ravages of pollution are also those with the least social and political power.
This study will do no more to move our so-called leaders than have the studies that came before it, but as with those prior studies, it makes it clear that we need to take matters into our own hands. Those who we’ve foolishly empowered to solve problems for us will not act until it is far too late. Sometimes that knowledge makes me despair, but then I remember that if we can figure out how to actually take the steps, a better world is within reach.
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