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Act on climate emergency to prevent millions of deaths, study suggests

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Editor’s Note (6/30/22): This article will be republished later ruling of the Supreme Court Art West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agencywhich limits the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Every metric ton of carbon dioxide that humans emit has value in more than just perspective financial losses caused by floods, heat waves and droughts, but also at the cost of human lives. Significantly reduce emissions today could prevent tens of millions of premature deaths during the 21st century, according to a new study that calculated this “carbon mortality cost.”

The study, published Thursday in the Communications of nature, breaks down one part of the social cost of carbon (SCC), a metric that calculates the future harm from carbon emissions today, to determine the price of those emissions. SCC helps governments weigh the costs and benefits of climate regulations, mitigation projects, and fossil fuel infrastructure. The Biden administration is currently in the process of revamping the US federal government’s assessment of this metric to include the most recent science on climate impacts, as recommended 2017 Report of the National Academies of Sciences, Technology, and Medicine. These consequences include expected premature death. The Biden administration temporarily delivered its own SCC estimates at about $51 per tonclose to what it was in the Obama years – before the Trump administration cut it to just $1 a ton.

R. Daniel Bressler, Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University and the author of the new study, was interested in how the SCC estimates would change if the researchers included the most recent scientific data on temperature-related deaths linked to climate change. He also singled out this component to make the human sacrifice more understandable. To do this, Bressler updated a model created by economist William Nordhaus (who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this model in 2018). It effectively links different climate scenarios with their economic impacts to calculate the social cost of carbon and determine the optimal plan to reduce emissions. Bressler wanted to adjust the model to make climate-related mortality a larger contributor to the overall costs of climate change and incorporate extensive recent research on the issue. “There really was an explosion of literature [on the topic] over the last decade or so,” he says.

When Bressler included this new study, he estimated that under a scenario in which emissions continue to rise, every 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere in 2020 would lead to one extra death worldwide by 2100. (For comparison, 3.5 Americans emit that much in their lifetime.) Looking more broadly, one million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2020—or what 35 commercial airplanes, 216,000 cars, or 115,000 American homes would emit per year—will lead to 226 premature deaths by the end of the century.

Accounting for these deaths increased the social cost of carbon from $37 to $258 per metric ton, effectively making it much more cost-effective to cut emissions now. It also makes rapid emissions reductions and full decarbonization by 2050 more cost-effective than the narrower approach originally recommended by the Nordhaus model. The result is “a pretty big difference in terms of proposed climate policy,” says Bressler. Following a faster path to emissions reductions, rather than letting emissions continue to rise, would reduce the number of premature deaths from about 83 million to nine million by 2100.

Bressler notes that his study has a wide range of uncertainty and that the mortality figures only include temperature-related deaths. Ideally, disease transmission, flooding, and other climate impacts should also be considered, but these elements require less research. Bressler’s work is similar to what other scientists, including those at the Climate Impact Lab, are doing to rethink the social cost of carbon, says Maureen Cropper, a University of Maryland economist and co-chair of the team that wrote the 2017 National Academies. the report Bressler’s SCC estimate is much higher than the Climate Impact Lab estimate because of the different economic assumptions it made, but translating this aspect of the social cost of carbon from more abstract dollar numbers is valuable, Cropper adds. “When it comes to people,” she says, “I think it resonates.”

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