Last December, world leaders made an unprecedented pact to wean their countries off fossil fuels this century. The oil lobby says such a transition would be an economic death sentence. But a new study paints a sharply different picture: Working toward the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 2C could save the US over a trillion dollars in the next fifteen years by preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. That's according to climate researchers at Duke University and NASA, who examined the public health and economic impacts of implementing clean energy policies that would get us toward the Paris goal — a goal, mind you, that's far more ambitious than the one espoused in Obama's Clean Power Plan. Indeed, while the Clean Power Plan seeks to cut power plant carbon emissions by a third by 2030, the US needs to reduce its entire carbon footprint by 80 per cent by 2050 to keep themselves on a 2C warming path. Doing so will require dramatic short-term emissions cuts in both energy production and transportation. Opponents argue such cuts would spell an economic disaster.
But while disaster may cometh for oil investors, the public health benefits of meeting the Paris goal haven't been assessed. Simulating scenarios in which transportation emissions are reduced by 75 per cent and energy sector emissions by 63 per cent over the next fifteen years, the new study finds that aggressive clean-energy policies would greatly reduce regional concentrations of particulate matter and ozone, air pollutants that contribute to a host of respiratory problems. Drawing on epidemiological studies, the authors show that the air quality improvements translate into roughly 36,000 fewer premature deaths each year.
Overall, nearly 300,000 premature deaths in the US could be prevented by 2030, if a Paris-minded clean energy transformation began today. Near-term, the national cost savings in the health care system are valued at $US250 billion (with a range of $US140-1050 billion) per year. For comparison, the Clean Power Plan, which gets us about halfway toward the Paris goal over the short term, is reckoned to cost between $US7 and $US9 billion.
"Although costs might increase as reductions deepen," the authors write, "this suggests that at least for the first half of the energy sector emissions reductions the net societal benefits are roughly 20 to 80 times the implementation costs."
This isn't to say an energy transformation will be easy: It won't. Embracing clean energy may be the largest technological and infrastructure project both the US and Australia have ever tackled, impacting everything from the way our buildings heat and cool to how we cook and shower. We won't need to scrap and replace all the buildings, pipes and power lines of the fossil fuel era (at least not immediately), but we will need to change how we manage them. Doing so will take an enormous shift in societal attitudes and political will.
Still, if the life savings and economic benefits are a fraction of what this new report figures, the future envisioned in Paris is a future well worth our effort.