Cutting Carbon Pollution Saves More Money Than It Costs By Making People Healthier

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The health benefits of policies that aim to reduce carbon emissions can more than pay for the costs associated with implementing these policies, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change and completed by researchers from MIT, looked at three different models for policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions in the U.S. — a clean energy standard, a policy aimed at emissions from transportation, and a cap and trade program — all of which were created to resemble policies already proposed in the United States. The researchers found that, in one scenario, the health care-associated savings — mostly from things like avoided hospital visits and reduced spending on pollution-related illnesses — from a carbon-reducing policy were more than 10 times the cost it took to implement the policy.

“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,” lead author Tammy Thompson said in a statement.

For the cap and trade program, the researchers found that the savings related to health benefits far outweighed the $14 billion cost associated with the policy, with health care benefits equaling out to 10.5 times as much as as the policy’s implementation cost. The clean energy standard, which was designed to cut emissions a similar amount to the EPA’s new proposed power plant rule, had $247 billion in health care savings and cost about $208 billion to implement. The transportation policy, on the other hand, which set strict standards on fuel economy, didn’t earn back its implementation costs in health care savings: it cost about $1 trillion, according to the study, and its health benefits evened out to only about a quarter of that cost.

“A particularly notable aspect of this study is that even though several recent studies have shown large co-benefits, this study finds large co-benefits in the U.S., where air quality is assumed to be high relative to other countries,” Gregory Nemet, a professor of public affairs and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison said in a statement. “Now that states are on the hook to come up with plans to meet federal emissions targets by 2016, you can bet they will take a close look at these results.”

MIT is calling the study the “most detailed assessment to date” of the health care savings associated with carbon-reduction policies, with the researchers paying “especially close attention to how changes in emissions caused by policy translate into improvements in local and regional air quality.” But the study isn’t the first to look at the negative health impacts of pollution and the health care costs these impacts create. Long-term exposure to air pollution has been linked to kidney damage, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and death. A 2010 study by the RAND Corporation that focused on California found that air pollution that was higher than federal clean air standards caused almost 30,000 hospital admissions and visits to the ER in California between 2005 and 2007. Those hospital admissions were attributed to exposure to fine particulate matter, which is emitted from smokestacks and cars, and high ozone levels. The study found that these hospital visits added up to more than $193 million in added costs in California.

The study also isn’t the first to find that health care savings can sometimes outweigh the costs of pollution-reducing policies. A study published in Nature last year estimated that health benefits from cutting one ton of carbon dioxide equaled out to $50 and $380, which is more than the estimated cost of cutting one ton of carbon dioxide.

The EPA’s rule on carbon emissions from existing power plants, which was proposed in June, was lauded by organizations like Moms Clean Air Force and by President Obama for its potential to cut back on the air pollution that contributes to asthma attacks and hospital visits. The EPA, too, estimated that health care benefits would help offset the policy’s implementation cost — the agency’s models found the new rule would cost $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion each year, while the benefits of saved hospital visits and other health improvements totaled $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030.