Eighty percent clean electricity generates large benefits

Eighty percent clean electricity generates large benefits
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Congressional proposals for cutting carbon pollution from the electricity sector are flying around Capitol Hill this week. Bold progress on cleaning up the nation’s electricity grid is central to curbing global climate change. It would also have a dramatic, but often under-appreciated, impact on local air quality and health. Clean Energy Futures project examines how different policy proposals stack up.

A clean electricity standard that promotes the shift to clean and non-emitting sources and achieves a target of 80 percent “clean” generation by the year 2030 results in the top estimated net benefits for both climate and health among eight options we analyzed, including cap and trade policies, carbon prices, alternative clean electricity standards, and regulatory options.

Our new analysis shows that a national program for reaching 80 percent clean electricity by 2030 (80x30) would drive down carbon pollution, averting approximately 30 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next three decades. Based on the social cost of carbon, the value of those carbon reductions is nearly two times the estimated program costs. The average cost per ton of carbon averted would be just $11.50 — less than a fast-food meal. That alone is good news, but when the health benefits from cleaner air are considered, the net benefits of the 80x30 clean electricity standard we analyzed reach $367 billion by 2030 and grow to $1.4 trillion by 2050.

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We found that the clean air benefits of an 80x30 clean electricity standard are very large and widespread. Our map of air quality improvements illustrates that all states gain cleaner air by 2030 and all racial and ethnic groups experience lower average pollution. In fact, our research shows that non-Hispanic Black people would receive the largest clean air benefits on average. It is important to note, however, that given large and longstanding disparities in air pollution exposures, pollution reductions across all sectors would be needed to eliminate inequalities. 

How do these clean air benefits work? Currently, most of our electricity comes from power plants that burn coal or gas. These fossil fuel sources emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, but they also emit tons of pollutants that cause soot and smog, also known as fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone. Mercury and other air toxins are released into the air as well. As a result, air quality is degraded across large areas of the U.S. exacerbating asthma, heart attacks, respiratory illnesses, and ultimately, premature deaths. Recent research shows that poor air quality can also make COVID-19 more deadly.

The bottom line is that cutting carbon pollution by shifting to solar, wind and other lower or non-emitting sources provides a “two-fer” — cooler climate and cleaner air leading to safer and healthier communities; and an 80x30 clean energy standard is the most cost-effective way of accelerating progress toward both, according to our analysis.

These projected air quality gains of 80x30 clean electricity would change and save people’s lives. Even if natural gas qualifies for partial clean energy credits, we estimate that an 80x30 clean electricity standard would eliminate about 2 million asthma attacks and 50,000 premature deaths by 2030. By 2050, the benefits grow to about 12 million fewer asthma attacks and 317,500 premature deaths avoided over three decades with a value of $1.8 trillion. While large, these numbers underestimate the full benefits of a clean electricity standard since the impacts of lower nitrogen dioxide levels and fewer heat-related illnesses and deaths are not included in the count. A more stringent CES could generate even larger health benefits.

As Congress takes up climate change in budget reconciliation talks, our analysis shows that the stakes are high for both climate and health. While there are many ways to get there, it is clear that decarbonizing the electricity sector by 80 percent over the next decade will deliver large benefits that are widespread and far outweigh the costs. 

Kathy Fallon Lambert is the senior advisor at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environmental Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Charles T. Driscoll is a university professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University.