Benefits from Shift to Renewables Exceeds Policy Costs, MIT

Wind turbine

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New research into health savings from cleaner air by MIT shows that the health costs saved exceed the projected policy costs.

The period after Trump took his office as President of the United States saw rollbacks to the Clean Power Plan and various other environmental regulations and projects were benched or blocked by representatives at the federal, state and city and town level. Due to this, several local and state bodies have taken matters into their own hands and are implementing policies to encourage renewables and put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. 

To bolster this approach, a research team at MIT looked into modelling a framework to combine economic and air-pollution models to assess the impacts of RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standards) and carbon pricing on human health and in turn its impact on the economy and climate change. The study was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air, Climate and Energy Centers Program with the team’s goal being to try and quantify the extent to which improves the air quality, could help policymakers assess the benefits and costs of implementing policies such as the RPS. A Renewable Portfolio Standard is a regulation that requires the increased production of energy from renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. Other common names for the same concept include Renewable Electricity Standard (RES). 

Research has shown that boosting levels of renewable electric power helps mitigate global warming and also reduces local air pollution which has effects like lower instances of pulmonary diseases in the population. In a study focused on the Northern American Rust Belt, the assessment showed that the health co-benefits of increasing renewable energy are bigger than the cost of implementing climate policies. The results 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,” says the study’s lead author Emil Dimanchev, a senior research associate at MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, 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.

Greenhouse gas production caused by the burning of fossil fuels results in air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Exposure to PM2.5 can lead to adverse health effects that include lung cancer, stroke, and heart attacks. This means higher medical bills, lost income, and reduced productivity. Hence, the adoption of cleaner sources of energy will lead to significant cost savings, i.e. health co-benefits.

Framing a model to study this the MIT researchers estimated that existing RPS in the nation’s Rust Belt region creates health co-benefit of $94 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction in 2030. Their central estimate is 34% higher than the total policy costs. The team also discovered that carbon pricing delivers a health co-benefit of $211 per ton of CO2 reduced in 2030, 63% greater than the health co-benefit of reducing the same amount of CO2 through an RPS approach, thus suggesting carbon pricing to be a more efficient approach, however, the cost incurred for implementation of both these strategies varies. The research team’s results for the Rust Belt also concur with previous studies done on this matter, which found that the health co-benefits of climate policy (including RPS and other instruments) tend to exceed policy costs.

“This work shows that there are real, immediate benefits to people’s health in states that take the lead on clean energy,” says MIT Associate Professor Noelle Selin, who led the study and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Institute for Data, Systems and Society. “Policymakers should take these impacts into account as they consider modifying these standards.”

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