PUBLIC HEALTH
September 4, 2014

Money in the Air

The healthcare savings connected to clean air go a long way toward paying the costs of reducing carbon emissions.

When it comes to enacting clear air policies, cost is a big stumbling block, but what if we could almost pull the money to fund such programs out of the air?

The health benefits of reducing pollution lower healthcare costs to such a degree that they can offset the expense of implementing policies to reduce carbon emissions from sources such as power plants and vehicles, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The MIT scientists calculated that the health care savings can be big relative to the costs of various carbon emissions policies. Theirs is the most detailed look to date at how such policies affect the economy, air pollution, and the cost of health problems related to air pollution.

The difference in savings depended largely on the costs of the policies; the savings — in the form of avoided medical care and saved sick days — remained roughly constant.

Any cost-benefit analyses of climate policies that don't factor in the significant health benefits cleaner air brings will dramatically underestimate the benefits of these policies, according to Tammy Thompson, lead author of the study.

“When you reduce carbon emissions from the economy, or from a particular sector of the economy, you are also reducing the production of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide,” Thompson, now a research scientist at Colorado State University, told TheDoctor. When these pollutants are released into the atmosphere, they react to form other pollutants that are linked to conditions like asthma and even premature death, she said.

The team analyzed three different ways of implementing carbon emissions policies. The first was a cap-and-trade policy, with a limit on the total carbon emissions from the entire economy; the second was a clean energy standard, with a cap on carbon emission from the power plant sector; and the third was a cap on emissions from transportation.

Emissions from the power plant and transportation sectors are often reduced first because they are known to be dirtier. Coal power plants release a lot of sulfur dioxide, which leaves particulates in the atmosphere, and road vehicles like cars and trucks emit pollutants right along the street where you are walking.

When researchers looked at the savings connected to lowering emissions among cars and trucks, they found that the reduction in health problems could make up for 26 percent of the cost of putting a transportation policy into effect. But healthcare savings would pay up to 10.5 times the cost of implementing a cap-and-trade program, the investigators found.

The amount of savings depended largely on the cost of the policies; the savings — in the form of avoided medical care and saved sick days — remained roughly constant. Policies aimed at specific sources of air pollution, like power plants and vehicles, did not result in significantly larger benefits compared to cheaper policies, like a cap-and-trade approach.

There has been a lot of discussion about climate policy, carbon emissions, and the so-called Clean Power Plan, Thompson says. “When people talk about reducing carbon emission, scientists have found it really difficult to explain to people how these policies will affect them.

“We wanted to bring this issue home to people by showing that if we implement carbon emission policy in the U.S., it can have an immediate, direct impact,” she said.

A strategy to reduce carbon emissions can change not only Americans’ air quality tomorrow, but also their health, and for a few years down the line, she added.

The study was published online recently in Nature Climate Change.

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