Summary

  • Strategies to reduce the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, can reduce health costs and add health benefits in three ways:
  1. Reduced obesity: transportation strategies and community design that promotes less driving and more walking and biking can substantially reduce the health risks associated with obesity.
  2. Reduced pollution: air and water pollution from burning fossil fuels has major impacts on the respiratory, cardio-vascular, and neurological systems of the human body.
  3. Reduced risk of climate change: extreme temperature and precipitation events will have a wide range of public health impacts, including heat stress, respiratory diseases, malnutrition, and water-borne, and insect-borne diseases.
  • A new National Academy of Sciences report has reaffirmed and added new urgency to scientific findings that climate change is happening and driven primarily by human activities. The Earth’s surface temperature has warmed approximately 1.4°F over the last century, and may warm another 2-11°F by the end of this century.
  • A National Research Council study of 406 coal-fired power plants estimated non-climate damages of $62 billion dollars per year from air pollution in 2005. Health impacts (49,000 deaths and 450,000 serious illnesses) accounted for 94 percent of these damages.
  • The dirtiest 10 percent of coal-fired plants accounted for 43 percent of the damages, while the least-polluting 50 percent of plants accounted for only 12 percent of damages. Variation was due primarily to pollution intensity (emissions per kWh), not total output.
  • A study of 498 natural gas-fired plants estimated aggregate damages of $740 million in non-climate damages in 2005, with an average cost of 0.16 cents per kWh. Natural gas-fired power plants have fewer pollutants overall relative to coal plants and emit about half as much carbon dioxide per unit energy.
  • Health impacts from cars and trucks (which account for approximately 75-80 percent of transportation emissions) were estimated to total $56 billion in 2005. Light-duty vehicles accounted for $36 billion, and heavy-duty vehicles $20 billion. Damages per vehicle-mile traveled (VMT) ranged from 1.2-1.7 cents or the equivalent of 23-38 cents per gallon of gasoline.
  • Full life-cycle analysis of health impacts is important when comparing energy sources. Corn-based ethanol, for example, can have larger health costs than gasoline when the diesel fuel and fertilizer used to produce the fuel are factored in. Ethanol that uses fewer petroleum-based inputs, or advanced fuels such as cellulosic ethanol, show health costs almost half that of gasoline.
  • Policies to reduce carbon emissions would have estimated health benefits of an average of $49 per ton of carbon dioxide, based on air quality improvements alone. Carbon prices under climate legislation are projected to be under $30 per ton for at least the first decade.
  • Obesity in the United States now outweighs air quality impacts in terms of health costs and potential health benefits from energy and climate policy. Obesity is a high-risk factor for six of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States including heart disease, cancer, stroke and other vascular brain diseases, respiratory disease, diabetes, and accidental injury.
  • A moderately overweight adult who adds a 3-mile bicycle commute would lose approximately 9-10 pounds over one year, and would reduce their risk for heart disease by 47 percent; colon cancer by 43 percent; stroke by 39 percent; breast cancer for women by 34 percent; and type 2 diabetes by 31 percent.
  • Policies to promote one energy technology or another should compare total costs and benefits per kilowatt-hour or per mile. For example, an energy-saving technology that reduces one MWh of electricity use (and one ton of carbon emissions) at a cost of $20, but also saves $30 per MWh in avoided health costs, will reduce carbon at a net savings of $10 per ton.