Efforts launched to curb greenhouse gas emissions could pay for themselves, according to a new study investigating the potential healthcare savings of reductions in pollution.
It is already widely accepted by scientists that carbon-cutting policies, introduced primarily to mitigate climate change, can have positive impacts on human health.
Experts have suggested that a reduction in harmful air pollution would cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and other health problems, possibly including cancer and lung disease. Accordingly, a healthier population would ease pressure on medical care and boost economic output.
In the new study – the most detailed of its kind to date – researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggest that some of these policies could be so beneficial that they save more money than their implementation would require.
“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study
“In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”
Selin and her colleagues considered the impacts of three different types of proposed carbon cutting policy in the US; a clean energy standard, a transportation policy, and a cap-and-trade program.
A transportation policy, which would introduce new fuel-economy requirements, would be the most expensive. Its introduction would deliver health savings equivalent to around a quarter of its costs, the MIT researchers estimated.
However, the clean energy standard would cost $208 billion while saving $247 billion, while a cap-and-trade progam would cost around $14 billion and save more than ten times that, the study claims.
“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,” said study lead author Tammy Thompson, now of Colorado State University.
The economic case for such policies is compelling, but the human cost of air pollution is reason enough for taking steps to decarbonise. The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million people died in 2012 as a result of pollution from industry, cooking fires and transportation fumes.
Health experts have therefore urged investors to rapidly ditch their holdings in fossil fuel companies and support renewable energy instead.
“While air-pollution benefits can help motivate carbon policies today, these carbon policies are just the first step,” Selin added.
“To manage climate change, we’ll have to make carbon cuts that go beyond the initial reductions that lead to the largest air-pollution benefits.”
Photo: Martin Nikolaj Bech via Flickr