The average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. right now is $2.47. If that cost took into account the environmental and human health costs of burning the gasoline, however, it would more than double, according to a new study.
The study, published this week in the journal Climatic Change, created models for the “social cost of atmospheric release,” a method of determining the costs of emissions beyond their market value. According to the study, accounting for the social costs of burning gasoline would add an average of $3.80 per gallon to the pump price, raising the price to $6.27. Diesel has an even higher social cost of $4.80 per gallon.
The study also measured the social costs of other fossil fuels not used at the pump. Coal, for example, would jump from 10 cents per kilowatt hour to 42 cents per kilowatt hour, the study found. And natural gas, which has emerged in recent years as a cheap source of fuel, would see its price rise from 7 cents per kWh to 17 cents per kWh.
In all, according to the study, the environmental costs of producing electricity in the U.S. total $330–970 billion every year.
Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies use the Social Cost of Carbon to measure the monetary impact of carbon emissions on human health and the environment. But there is no similar measure for fossil fuels in general.
Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and author of the study, told ThinkProgress that he was interested in putting a price on the health and environmental impacts of pollutants other than carbon because he wasn’t satisfied with the current methods available for comparing sources of energy. People would discuss whether natural gas was more environmentally-friendly than coal, and come to a conclusion using metrics that only took into account the energy source’s global warming potential. But that ignored the fact that burning coal produces copious amounts of other air pollutants besides CO2, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates, and that natural gas produces air pollutants too, though to a lesser extent.
So Shindell worked to develop a way that would take both climate considerations and health and environmental considerations into account when looking at different forms of energy.
“I wanted to do something that would treat both air quality and climate consistently,” he said. “It’s easy to get misleading answers on what’s better for society when you’re only looking at a portion of puzzle.”
Multiple studies have confirmed air pollution’s toll on human health. A study last month found that air pollution in India is cutting three years off the lives of some of the country’s residents, and a more wide-reaching report from the World Health Organization last year found that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths around the world every year. Shindell said he knew about air pollution’s effect on health, but he was still surprised at just how high the social cost of burning fossil fuels was, according to the study.
And even those costs, he said, are on the conservative side, because the study only included damages that he had enough data on, such as pollution’s ability to contribute to early death, or to send people to the hospital. There are plenty of other impacts — such as air pollution’s impact on children’s IQ, or ocean acidification’s impact on coral reefs — that are difficult to put a price on, and therefore weren’t included in the study.
Ideally, Shindell said he’d like to see this data get worked into the economic market. It might be hard to get places that already have an established carbon market, such as the European Union, to change their pricing to incorporate the social cost of pollutants other than carbon, but Shindell said he thinks there’s more of a chance that states and countries that haven’t yet put a price on carbon could consider his data when determining that price. For countries like India and China that contribute heavily to climate change and have a considerable amount of air pollution, he said, factoring in these social costs makes a lot of sense.
Shindell said incorporating the social costs of pollutants other than carbon into government decisions would help the government get a better picture of each fossil fuel’s true impact, but he’s also hoping that the data can be transformed into a tool Americans can use to determine the costs of their day-to-day activities. Even if the data doesn’t make its way into carbon markets, he said, finding a way to make it “as widely accessible as possible” to the average person would still be beneficial.