Health Savings from Cleaner Air Exceed Policy Costs, Reports Study

In the midst of rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan and other environmental legislation at the federal level, many U.S. states, cities, and towns have made a determination to deal with issues by themselves and execute policies to advance renewable energy and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

A wind turbine on the coast of Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio. (Image credit: Sam Bobko/Flickr)

One prevalent strategy, currently in operation in 29 states and the District of Columbia, is to set Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which demand electricity suppliers to obtain a designated percentage of electricity from available renewable-power generating technologies.

Improving renewable electric power levels helps alleviate global climate change as well as minimize local air pollution. Measuring the extent to which this strategy enhances air quality could help legislators better evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of executing policies like RPS.

For that purpose, a team of scientists at MIT has created a new modeling framework that integrates economic and air-pollution models to evaluate the predicted sub-national effects of RPS and carbon pricing on air quality and human health, and also on the economy and on climate change.

In research addressing the U.S. Rust Belt, their evaluation revealed that the financial benefits related to air quality enhancements from these policies would return more than the cost of implementing them. The outcomes have been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

This research helps us better understand how clean-energy policies now under consideration at the subnational level might impact local air quality and economic growth.

Emil Dimanchev, Study Lead Author and Senior Research Associate, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, MIT

Dimanchev is also a former research assistant at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and a 2018 graduate of the MIT Technology and Policy Program.

Combustion of fossil fuels for energy production leads to air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Exposure to PM2.5 can cause undesirable health impacts such as stroke, heart attacks, and lung cancer.

However, preventing those health consequences—and the medical bills, lost income, and reduced productivity that accompany them—through the adoption of cleaner energy sources results in considerable cost savings, called health co-benefits.

Implementing their modeling framework, the MIT scientists predicted that current RPS in the nation’s Rust Belt area produce a health co-benefit of $94 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) decreased in 2030, which is 8 cents for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of renewable energy set up in 2015 dollars.

Their central estimate is 34% greater than the total policy costs. Furthermore, the group determined that carbon pricing offers a health co-benefit of $211 per ton of CO2 decreased in 2030, which is 63% more than the health co-benefit of minimizing the same amount of CO2 through an RPS strategy.

As a continuation of their published work concentrated on the state of Ohio, the scientists assessed the health effects and economy-wide costs of Ohio’s RPS using economic and atmospheric chemistry modeling. As per their best estimates, an average of 50 premature deaths per year will be prevented due to Ohio’s RPS in 2030.

This results in an economic benefit of $470 million per year, or 3 cents per kWh of renewable generation supported by the RPS. The costs of the RPS estimated at $300 result in an annual net health benefit of $170 million in 2030.

When the Ohio state legislature adopted Ohio House Bill No. 6, which projected to revoke the state’s RPS, Dimanchev shared these outcomes on the Senate floor.

According to our calculations, the magnitude of the air quality benefits resulting from Ohio’s RPS is substantial and exceeds its economic costs,” he argued. “While the state legislature ultimately weakened the RPS, our research concludes that this will worsen the health of Ohio residents.”

The outcomes of the MIT research team for the Rust Belt are in agreement with former studies, which identified that the health co-benefits of climate policy (including RPS and other instruments) are likely to go above policy costs.

This work shows that there are real, immediate benefits to people’s health in states that take the lead on clean energy. Policymakers should take these impacts into account as they consider modifying these standards.

Noelle Selin, Associate Professor, MIT

Also, Selin led the study and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

The research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air, Climate and Energy Centers Program.


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