How Clean Power Could Save US Billions: Six Questions With Duke University’s Drew Shindell

An author of the climate study that found clean power could save the U.S. $250 billion each year weighs in during an exclusive interview with Manufacturing.net.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)
Drew Shindell, Duke UniversityDrew Shindell, Duke University

A recent study, titled “Climate and health impacts of U.S. emissions reductions consistent with 2 degrees C,” received national attention when it found that clean power initiatives could save the U.S. billions of dollars — far exceeding expected implementation costs.

Published by Nature Climate Change in February, the study estimated that the U.S. — by sticking to emissions targets designed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius — would save an average of $250 billion per year. Clean Power Plan standards, which would get the U.S. about halfway to those goals, are expected to cost $7 billion to $9 billion to implement — a large sum, but not nearly as large as the potential savings.

An article Manufacturing.net ran covering the study’s findings, however, garnered skepticism about the breakdown of clean power savings, reliability and benefits, so we reached out to Drew Shindell, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Duke University. In an exclusive interview with Manufacturing.net, Shindell answers some of your biggest questions.

Katie Mohr (KM):  What are the key takeaways from the study?

Drew Shindell (DS):  Highly ambitious U.S. clean energy and transportation policies that would be consistent with the 2 degrees Celsius target provide substantial climate benefits, as they were designed to do. The bulk of those benefits are felt elsewhere and many decades in the future, however. The policies also provide great public health benefits. For instance:

  • The U.S. clean energy policies could prevent about 175,000 premature deaths by 2030, with about 22,000 fewer annually thereafter.
  • Clean transportation could prevent about 120,000 premature deaths by 2030 and about 14,000 annually thereafter. Importantly, these benefits are realized almost immediately and largely within the U.S. 

These near-term national health benefits have a value of about $250 billion per year, which likely exceeds the costs of the transition to clean energy and transportation. Adding in the monetary value of the longer-term, worldwide climate impacts, benefits roughly quintuple, becoming five to 10 times larger than the estimated implementation costs.

(AP Photo)(AP Photo)

KM:  How does the $250 billion in estimated annual savings break down?

DS:  The $250 billion is largely the value of the avoided risk of premature death based on spending for other risk reductions such as occupational safety, vehicle safety, etc.

In other words, we'd get about as much benefit as spending $250 billion on other methods to reduce risk of premature death. There are also benefits due to direct impacts, such as reduced number of lost work days due to illness, reduced health care spending, etc.

These costs are a portion of the hidden costs of fossil fuels, which also include their impact on climate change (so the hidden cost is the larger value of approximately $1 trillion).

KM:  Are there benefits to extra carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that we should consider before we further restrict emissions?

DS:  Not at the kind of levels we're talking about. There might be some modest gains in some locations in the near-term for crop yields due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but overall the effects are strongly negative for agriculture due to the climate change caused by carbon dioxide.

KM:  How much control does the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have over the global climate?

The leverage is a function of the amount added. Other gases are more powerful in enhancing the greenhouse effect on a molecule-for-molecule basis, but combining the amount added with the efficiency per molecule carbon dioxide has been the dominant driver of human-caused warming to date.

KM:  Are clean power sources, such as solar and wind power, generally less reliable than fossil fuels?

DS:  No, they're not. They are intermittent, so not always available, which is why they work best when linked in large areas and combined with storage capacity and non-intermittent sources including hydropower or nuclear.

KM:  How would you respond to climate change doubters?

DS:  I would call them “deniers” rather than “doubters” as the scientific evidence is overwhelming. There's really no doubt whatsoever among the world's scientists.

I would also point out that what our study shows is that even if you ignore climate change, clean energy and transportation policies are good for the U.S. owing to the dramatic public health benefits they bring right now here at home.

We should pursue these whether or not the point is to mitigate climate change.

Do you think Professor Drew Shindell makes a solid case for the clean power transition? Which industries do you think would benefit the most by the switch? Comment below or tweet @KatieeMohr.

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