Concerns about the health issues relating to the use of fossil fuels have been around for years. Nevertheless, many people do not know how bad things can get – or are.
In October 2016, the American Lung Association in California (ALAiC) published a paper, “Clean Air Future: Health and Climate Benefits of Zero Emission Vehicles.” It addressed the health issues of air pollution arising from the use of vehicles powered by fossil fuels (www.bit.ly/35LBuut). The paper looked at ten states that had specific laws promoting the use of electric vehicles (EVs). Two of these states are on the West Coast, but others included New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine.
According to that paper, burning a gallon of gasoline in a car produces societal effects that come to $1.30. About two-thirds of this is related to the cost of health effects. A simple way to look at this is that if you burn ten gallons of gasoline, you cost people $8.67 in damage to their health, and about $4.33 in other damages.
The ALAiC paper put the annual societal cost of the use of fossil fuels in transportation in Vermont at $313 million. This was about $486 per person per year. It was covered mostly by insurance and taxes, so most people don’t know about it. Nevertheless, for a family of five, the damage done by fossil fuels would have been upwards of $2,400 per year.
Recently, we got more information in a somewhat different form. A team of researchers from Columbia and Duke Universities did a newer analysis that looked at the question to find out what we could save over time by switching away from polluting energy sources as quickly as possible. Their paper, “Temporal and spatial distribution of health, labor, and crop benefits of climate change mitigation in the United States,” (C&D paper) appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (www.bit.ly/32rNLWN).
According to the C&D paper, if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gasses (GHGs) immediately, the climate would still warm for some time because of the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, something many of us knew already. But the focus of the article is that the particulates, ozone, and other air-borne toxins would disappear almost as soon as the GHGs are eliminated, and the health effects of this would be almost immediate.
The health benefits of stopping the use of fossil fuels would very quickly mean saving thousands of people in this country from early deaths every year. And, of course, it would correspond with a very large decrease in health costs for many thousands of people.
The research also touches on peripheral, but vital, areas. Worker productivity would increase, because people in better health work better. Also, the pollutants that affect human beings also affect animals and plants, so eliminating pollutants will increase the food production.
It is important to note that, if we eliminate fossil fuels, the benefits will come back to us locally, regardless of whether the rest of the world goes on polluting.
All told, the report concluded that the benefits of eliminating fossil fuels will provide health and other side benefits that are worth between five and twenty-five times the cost of switching to other sources of energy. That amount, please note, is in addition to the amount saved by reducing climate change.
To put specific values on it, the paper concludes that U.S. public health benefits during the remainder of this century arising out of eliminating fossil fuels quickly could be somewhere between $56 trillion and $163 trillion.