Harvard University researchers have found that renewable energy measures and low carbon energy sources could result in savings of $5.7-$210 million each year, based on the accepted dollar value of human life. At the announcement of the study’s publication in the journal Nature Climate Change, lead author Jonathan Buonocore from Harvard’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment said that the study demonstrated that both energy efficiency and low carbon energy have climatic and public health benefits, and could also lead to a more comprehensive cost benefit analysis process for such projects. He also stated that the results showed the climate and health benefits were on a par with each other.
The Harvard study adds to the findings of other recent research showing the improvement in public health that can be realised by taking global action on climate change. A study by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which was published in June this year reported that by 2100, approximately 60,000 less American people would die as a result of poor air quality each year if worst case climate change was averted. The US EPA study also reported that 12,000 deaths from extreme temperatures would be avoided in 49 cities, along with savings of more than $1 billion in bridge repairs, $4-$7 billion in road/highway adaptation and more than $3 billion in avoided damage to coastal areas from sea level rise and storm surge.
Mark Jacobson from Stanford University who was involved in the study commented that one of the biggest barriers to replacing fossil fuel infrastructure was that very few people in the community or policymakers had any idea of the quantifiable health impacts of fossil fuels. Jacobson added that this study could inform the public and policymakers with regards to the impacts and allow them to compare the complete cost of fossil fuels against those of renewables, and make more informed decisions about the future of US energy.
Coal fired power stations are predominantly used to generate power, regardless of the demand for that power. When electricity usage peaks in the middle of a very hot summer day, natural gas, solar and wind help to meet the increased demand. When demand is low at night, wind and energy efficiency measures can offset coal usage. Buonocore also pointed out that the health impacts of exposure to air pollution increase as higher numbers of people are exposed and therefore the benefits are significant when air quality improves in areas with very high populations.
Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California Berkeley Daniel Kammen commented that the model used to measure the human health impacts in the study was “gold standard”, and that investigations of human health impacts in the US are sophisticated. I agree with this statement given the significant number of community level studies within and across many US states over the last 3 decades, and the significant standing in which these studies have been held, as evidenced by many studies around the world that have built on the methods and findings of the US studies.
While Kammen credited the model used in the study, he pointed out that the study didn’t take into account the inequality in US society where low income minority communities are more vulnerable than others often as a result of the proximity to power plants, and as a result, it didn’t address two of the most currently debated topics.
Although the Harvard study may not have taken inequality into account, I believe that the approach the authors used should generate a significant amount of discussion in policymaking and scientific circles and the wider community – a discussion that rightly needs to be held. There is nothing to say that future studies can’t address the inequality issue either. More importantly, I believe that studies of this nature (if communicated in a way that non-scientifically trained policymakers and the wider community can understand) will bring home the significance of climate change from economic and health impact perspectives. I also believe that this study can add significant value to the cost benefit analysis process for projects that have a potential health impact component.