Coal Is Literally Killing Us

A Harvard study says clean energy could save billions of dollars—and thousands of lives—every year.

Photo: Jon Sullivan/Flickr

Most of our arguments over whether, when, and how to transition to a renewable-energy economy involve numbers: measuring the cost of fossil-fuel production against the cost of solar production, for example, or calculating the environmental impact of coal vis-à-vis one of its renewable counterparts. There’s no shortage of data informing these arguments—and the good news, if you happen to believe that this transition can’t arrive soon enough, is that the information now coming in continues to support the idea that renewables are as cost-effective as they are clean.

One somewhat under-discussed aspect of the debate has to do with the effects of different forms of energy production on public health and, by extension, the staggeringly high costs that are typically associated with maintaining it. Now, a recent study out of Harvard University seems likely to accelerate this discussion and, at the same time, to help round out renewable energy’s profile as a net public good. Among the more startling findings: Dumping coal and switching over to clean wind and solar could reap a massive—and immediate—public health benefit.

The study, commissioned by Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and published in the journal PLOS ONE, examined the costs and “health co-benefits” of theoretical new carbon standards for power plants that would, much like the Clean Power Plan proposed by President Obama, slash the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions by up to 35 percent. The authors found that in the very first year of implementation, 10 out of the 14 U.S. regions studied would see “positive net co-benefits” in terms of greatly reduced public health costs; within five years of implementation, that figure would rise to 13 out of 14.

Interestingly, the one region that wouldn’t see positive net co-benefits by year five was the Pacific Northwest, where coal already accounts for a much lower percentage of electricity generation than it does elsewhere.

So what are some of these co-benefits, you’re wondering? Well, for starters, they include dramatic decreases in the presence of toxic air pollutants like ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides—chemicals and compounds that are widely known to cause asthma, heart disease, and a host of other ailments.

And here’s the big, grabby news that’s been showing up in all the headlines: Taken together, these reductions in atmospheric pollutants would translate into a public health cost savings of a whopping $38 billion a year.

Now, there are those who will point out that phasing out our coal-fired power plants and switching over to clean energy will be a lengthy and expensive process, and that it’s a bit premature to talk about how it could be “saving” us money from the get-go. Considering all the expenses associated with taking these plants off-line and making the switch to renewables—including capturing, storing, and transmitting wind and solar power on a large scale—the up-front costs of such a transition are likely to dwarf whatever savings there are to be realized in the realm of public health, at least for a while.

But put aside for a moment the fact that this argument ignores the trend lines telling us that the costs for wind and solar are dropping rapidly (in wind’s case, by 66 percent over the past six years), and that the whole point of renewable energy in the first place is that once you’ve paid for the necessary infrastructure, the source of that energy is essentially inexhaustible. What’s really important about the $38 billion in estimated savings isn’t the dollar figure itself; it’s what that dollar figure represents.

According to Jonathan Buonocore, one of the report’s authors, adopting new carbon standards for power plants wouldn’t just dramatically cut rates for heart disease and respiratory disease (although it would certainly do that). It would also save 3,500 lives annually. Not “improve” them or “enrich” them—but literally save them. Underneath all the wonky language about cost assumptions and spatial distribution of co-benefits, the Harvard report is basically telling us that we have the power to rescue thousands of people from an early death every year by switching from dirty coal to clean, renewable energy.

Actually, believe it or not, that number is almost certainly low. When imagining their scenario, Buonocore and his fellow researchers didn’t even consider the way coal-fired power plant carbon pollution is driving global climate change. (They may do so in future studies, he says.) But given the role that these facilities play in heating up the planet, there’s no question that switching from coal to renewables would also lead to measurable reductions in heat-related illnesses, cataclysmic weather events, hunger, and some communicable diseases—all of which are exacerbated by climate change.

The simple truth is that coal is so unbelievably dirty, and so manifestly deleterious to public health, that it's difficult to fully account for the damage it does in a simple cost-to-benefit analysis. Because when you factor in the many different societal and environmental costs that attach to coal, they all but annihilate the only two benefits that anyone could ever possibly claim for it: that it’s relatively easy to find, and that it’s very easy to burn.

No doubt, $38 billion is a lot of money. But that’s not the big news here. We actually have a chance to save thousands of lives every year, and to vastly improve tens of thousands more, by cutting coal from our energy diet. One of those lives could be your child’s, or your parent’s—or yours. How do you attach a dollar value to that? 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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