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The missing maths: the human cost of fossil fuels

Posted on 26 April 2018 by Guest Author

Dr. Ploy Achakulwisut is a Postdoctoral Scientist at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She has a PhD in Atmospheric Science from Harvard University.

While the climate policy world is littered with numbers, three of them have dominated recent discourse: 2, 1000, and 66. 

At the 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris, world leaders agreed to limit global warming below 2°C to avoid catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate change. The science consequently dictates that, for a 50% chance of staying below 2°C, around 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (or 300 billion tonnes of carbon) can be emitted between now and 2050, and close to zero thereafter. We’re currently emitting 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. However, the potential greenhouse gas emissions contained in known, extractable fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this carbon budget, meaning that 66% must be kept in the ground.

The debate du jour thus centers on which emissions reduction pathway is most optimal for staying below 2°C. The calculus of many policymakers, economists, fossil fuel companies, and indeed scientists, is that the most economical way to stay below 2°C is to delay most emissions reductions for decades to come, and then to play catch up by relying heavily on as-yet technically and economically unviable negative-emissions technologies. However, a crucial number has been neglected in this mainstream calculation: 6.1 million.

Each year, 6.1 million lives are lost prematurely due to air pollution. Though most acutely and visibly hampering megacities of the developing world, air pollution is a growing public health emergency that affects almost all of us in our daily lives, whether or not we are aware of it. The Health Effects Institute estimates that only 5% of the global population are lucky enough to live in areas with air pollution levels below safe guidelines. Though recent studies suggest there may in fact be no risk-free level of air pollution.

Why is this number relevant to climate policy? Because one common culprit is responsible for the majority of both climate change and air pollution: fuel combustion. Burning coal, oil, natural gas, and biomass – for everyday uses ranging from electricity, heating, cooking, to transportation – releases hundreds of gases and particles, some of which disrupt the climate system or are harmful to human health, or both. Climate change could also worsen air quality in the future.

Decades of research have revealed that air pollution is associated with a wide range of diseases and disorders, including asthma, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and premature birth. There is also emerging evidence that pollution from coal combustion and motor vehicles can cause development delays, reduced IQ, and autism in children. The societal and economic costs of air pollution are multifold. There are costs to the affected individuals, to their families and to society in terms of direct medical costs, costs to healthcare systems, productivity losses, and lower economic growth (not to mention costs resulting from damages to ecosystems).

Yet almost none of these costs stemming from our fossil fuel reliance are included in the majority of cost-benefit analyses of climate mitigation strategies. A recent study estimates that the health co-benefits from air pollution reductions would outweigh the mitigation costs of staying below 2°C by 140–250% globally. Historical evidence paints a similar picture. The EPA estimates that the U.S. Clean Air Amendments cost $65bn to implement, but will have yielded a benefit of almost $2tn by 2020 in avoided health costs.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. The real inappropriate math is thinking it is OK to balance costs in the future with lost opportunity for benefit today.

    Any delay of action today to reduce the magnitude of accumulated impact adds to the harm and costs that will be faced by Others in the future. That type of thinking is undeniably disgusting, yet it is 'the way many want to think'. It certainly allows undeserving Winners today to prolong their undeserved perceptions of prosperity and superiority. But it is an undeniably unacceptable and unethical and immoral way for people to think about things.

    Rapidly reducing the burning of fossil fuels today should be required of every already more fortunate person, with the strictest requirement for rapid reduction applied to all of the wealthiest on the planet (no exceptions allowed for those who would prefer not to have to care to lead humanity to better behaviour).

    Also, at the time that Kyoto was being proposed I remember reading and understanding that an associated benefit of CO2 emissions reduction was the linked reduction in other pollution (like particulates, NOx and SOx). And that understanding was the basis for considering CO2 capture and storage to be a less desirable action than reduced burning of fossil fuels. There is also a reduction of environmental impact and risk of harm to people in the extraction, processing, transportation and burning of the fossil fuels.

    There are many Good Reasons to rapidly terminate the burning of fossil fuels. There are only Poor Excuses to delay that required correction of what has so incorrectly developed so far.

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  2. "redesigning urban spaces to make it easier and safer to commute by foot, bicycle, and public transportation, and transitioning to a more circular and sustainable economy."

    The concluding paragraphs of the article held the above gem.  The first thought that sprang to my mind was the herd of large SUVs converging to disgorge and retrieve the young during the 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. migrations to and from our centers of youthful indoctrination. While the instructions of "Right Think " are  drilled into them, they would never consider walking or riding thier bikes to school, or submitting to the stigma of riding the bus.  Parents think that they are providing a safe secure conveyence to the schools, where the kids are sheltered from the travails of the world, while securely belted in to thier heated leather seats, lost in their  cocoon of smart phone social contacts.  These are the same citizens who will rail about pipelines and social justice, oblivious to the contribution they make to the perpetuation of the same.  

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  3. windrunner,

    Having to redesign and rebuild already incorrectly developed urban zones is a major competitive disadvantage for every one of those incorrectly developed urban area. And the New World portion of the current Winners of socioeconomic competition are full of those 'incorrectly developed expensive and time consuming to correct' urban areas. That is part of the reason there is strong opposition to rapid transition to a lower energy consumption non-fossil fuel powered future. And those current incorrectly developed bigger winners also have abundant fossil fuel resources.

    The reluctance to understand climate science becomes pretty obvious from that perspective. It puts many of the current Biggest Winners at a serious competitive disavantage. They do not deserve their developed perceptions of superiority and prosperity relative to others. And so much of today's world has developed to be damaging competition to appear to be superior to others, better off than others any way that can be gotten away with.

    And it is really easy to get away with harming future generations; future generations have no current day votes or any other current day ways to get even with people today who get away with causing problems future generations have to deal with.

    A similar thing can be seen to happen with wealthy nations and corporations causing problems poorer nations suffer from without any ability to 'get even' or correct the immoral unethical behaviour of the Bigger Winners.

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  4. Re #2… My wife & I lived in Mexico City thru most of the 1990's and saw streets around schools clogged with cars. Particularly while schools were letting out. From conversations with friends, neighbors, co-workers etc we knew that even when a family lived fairly close to a kid's school, a parent (or servant) would drive to pick up the scholar. Indeed, chauffering their scholars was a major reason for some people to have a car who otherwise will might not. And during a Level 3 smog alert, one thing one never heard on radio or TV was an admonition for the kids to walk. Why? Kidnapping. One then-prominent politician (Diego Fernández de Cevallos) stated that kidnapping was one of the few profitable businesses around. (He himself was later kidnapped!) Poor people walked their kids, of course.

    Some friends of ours here in Chicago (they are blacks) also drive their teenage son to & from his high school every day. To protect him from gang recruiters (who do not take "no" for an answer). This is a major problem for Latins also.

    Even a car provides only partial protection to scholars. Not too long after he got his driver's license, my "ethnically diverse" son was stopped by cops while driving to school with a classmate. They got off easy; they were only slapped around and insulted for a while and then, strangely, let go. (They were written up of tardiness, tho, once they got to school.)

    Our fight to protect the environment must include our fight against racism, socioeconomic inequality, crime, etc. And our efforts must go far beyond the linear thinking that handicaps our "leaders" — our problems run deeper than we realize.  (Viz. the essay on which we here comment!)

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  5. DCrickett @4, I agree particularly about the fight against racism, and I would add bigotry in general. 

    I can totally understand parents taking children to school in high risk places like Mexico or some American cities, but in New Zealand most of the reason for this habit appears to be "stranger danger" related to an exaggerated fear of paedophiles, orginating with various historic sex cases against these people in recent decades. Don't get me wrong, they should be locked up for a very long time, but most sexual assaults of this kind happen within families or institutions, not children being picked up or molested on the street.

    All we are doing is creating a generation of spoilt and physically unfit obese children, more grid lock on the roads, and high CO2 emissions. In addition, a recent check of our cities and main roads showed levels of particulate emissions and nitrogen oxides well above acceptable levels for public health.

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  6. Given the costs of vehicle and power station emissions on both the environment and human health, the reasons to reduce emissions are clearly  overwhelming, but human stupidity and the brainwashing campaign of the denialists is getting in the way, along with politicisation of the issue into near hysterical attacks on governments proper role.

    Humanity is "kicking the can down the road" onto future generations, not just with climate change, but with other environmental issues, and in the huge government and private debt that is building up globally. Its not fair on future generations and various other at risk groups.

    I know we can't see all ends and some technical solutions may be found for some things, but to me the main point is to at least make an informed judgement on what future technological solutions are plausible, and which ones are low probability, and in that respect dreams like fusion power or sucking C02 out of the atmosphere are either low probability or likely to remain very expensive.

    Right now humanity risks collapase of civilisation. We have numerous environmental, social, economic and debt problems and all these things are happening on a fast time scale in terms of human history and the large combination of dangerous factors looks unprecedented in our history.We cant quantify the things or predict them accurately, but imho humanity is loading the dice incressingly towards the collapse of civilisation in the name of very short term gains of profitability or short term pleasures and excesses.

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  7. nigelj@6,

    I agree with your points in general. But would add that currently there is a competition to develop CO2 removal technology (See this link). And the people who got wealthier from the burning of fossil fuels owe the future generations the reduction of the excess CO2 using the best of these technologies (no profit for the action, just a charitable non-profit action paid for by all the appropriate wealthy people including those who don't want to have to pay for it).

    And that CO2 removal cost would be reduced by those same wealthy people pushing for the rapid reduction of increased CO2 that they would have to pay to remove. That is how free-markets are supposed to work. The responsible people decide if they want to act to reduce their costs of clean-up or pay the full cost of clean-up.

    Understanding the corrections required for the future of civilization has been a work in progress since before the 1972 Stockholm Conference. The currently developed best understanding of the required corrections is achieving all of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. It is clear that achieving all of the goals is the only way to a better future for humanity. Not achieving any one of the goals means that none of the other goals will have been sustainably achieved.

    For quite a while now, global political and business leaders, and all of the wealthiest around the world, have had no excuse for not being aware of the required corrections. Their actions, including actions in the past, that are contrary to achieving those goals, including attempts to delay the proper awareness and understanding in the general population, needs to become the ethical/legal basis for the international community of caring powerful people ensuring that the undeserving among the winners lose their ability to influence things until they prove they have meaningfully responsibly considerately changed their minds and decided to become helpful rather than harmful.

    Albert Einstein understood that it was essential for sovereign freedoms to be given up if humanity is to have a future when he wrote: "This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? ... As one immune from nationalist bias, I personally see a simple way of dealing with the superficial (i.e., administrative) aspect of the problem: the setting up by international consent of a legislative and judicial body to settle every conflict arising between nations. ... Thus I am led to my first axiom: the quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action, its sovereignty that is to say, and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security." (to Dr. Freud (q.v.), July 30, 1932)

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  8. Minor revision of my comment @7,

    "That is how free-markets are supposed to work. The responsible people decide if they want to act to reduce their costs of clean-up or pay a higher cost for the clean-up."

    Back to my comment @1. The undeserving among the wealthy today would prefer to have future people pay for the clean up. They will also try to argue that the math makes sense as long as the costs others have to pay, as today's undeserving wealthy people figure it, is less than the lost opportunity for personal benefit the undeserving among the current wealthy would suffer, as they figure it, if they were forced to reduce their Private Interest creation of future costs.

    It is undeniably unacceptable/unethical/immoral for any current day pursuit of Private Interest to create negative consequences for anyone else, no matter how the Private Interested people want to try to justify it. And people desiring to benefit from unsustainable and harmful Private Interests have proven they will try to get away with being as unethical as possible in pursuit of maximizing their 'competitive advantage' in their negative-sum pursuit of appearing to be a bigger winner.

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  9. Despite decades of research linking fossil fuel particulates and gases as dangerous to human health, Scott Pruitt (no surpise) is trying as hard as possible to undermine this science.

    Much of the research used confidential medical records understandably, and Pruitt is challenging the research on the basis that this use of confidential records in 'suspect' because "the science is hidden" . Sigh, I try not to hate people, but.....

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