Air Pollution Costs More Than Switching To Clean Energy

11:46 minutes

smoke stacks emitting pollution into the air, shadowed by an orange sunset
Credit: Shutterstock

Climate activists have struggled to convince lawmakers to meaningfully reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Now, new research ties air pollution’s monetary cost to arguments for change. As Vox reports, a Duke University researcher presented findings to Congress last week that air pollution’s effects are roughly twice as bad as previously thought, potentially costing the United States as much as $700 billion per year in avoidable death, illness, and lost productivity—more than the estimated price tag for transitioning to clean energy. 

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour we’ll talk about an unappreciated insect, the hell ant. It’s the latest installment of Charismatic Creature corner, plus a look at whether it’s time to rethink COVID-19 testing.

But first, people concerned about our climate crisis are pushing for a faster transition to 100% clean energy, a result that has another benefit– removing not just CO2, but removing the health hazards of air pollution. New research shows these hazards are twice as bad as we once thought, meaning twice as much death, twice as many health problems. And reducing air pollution could save twice as much money. Vox staff writer Umair Irfan is here to explain how these savings mean aggressive climate change action could essentially pay for itself. Welcome back, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: I just threw out a lot of big ideas. Can you connect the dots for us between air pollution and climate change?

UMAIR IRFAN: Sure. The fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide also produce a lot of particulates and a bunch of other hazardous chemicals that have immediate impact on our health and our environment. And we’ve known this for a long time, and research keeps coming in, showing us how dangerous it is for our health. But in particular, we’ve had a tougher time teasing out the economic impacts of this.

And recently, a researcher, Drew Shindell, who is an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate report, he testified before Congress on some recent research he had conducted and found that looking at the economics, when he used a high resolution climate model that incorporated air pollution, he found that the economic costs of air pollution are actually almost twice as much as what we had previously thought and that if we were to try to limit climate change in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement, meaning limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, we would have huge, enormous benefits to our economy. On the whole, we would probably save about $37 trillion in avoided deaths alone.

IRA FLATOW: You know, twice as bad is a huge difference between past assumptions and now. What changed in the calculations or the economics of this?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it was basically being able to simulate with a higher resolution. They developed a model that looked out to the year 2070 that could also incorporate changes in air pollution, but also changes in economics. And they were able to come up with an estimate that was probably a little bit more robust than some of the other previous estimates that were based on just what we’ve reported in the past about our own experience with the economy of air pollution and how that impacts us.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a dollar figure on that estimate, how much money could we save?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. The benefits to the US economy alone is about $700 billion per year if we were to get aggressive about fighting climate change. And it shows that basically that just the benefits of reducing air pollution alone make the case for getting rid of fossil fuels. Even if climate change weren’t a problem, this is a pretty compelling argument for getting rid of all these sources of pollution.

IRA FLATOW: You know, it’s kind of interesting. Why is this kind of data reducing human lives to dollar amounts useful for the cause of taking action on climate change? I mean, is that how we have to justify it to people who don’t really believe in climate change or are resistant to changing?

UMAIR IRFAN: In a way, yes. I mean, the cost-benefit analysis is always a little bit tricky, especially when you’re talking about human life. But under the Trump administration, they’ve been pushing doing these cost-benefit analyses on environmental regulations as a way to come up with rationales for rolling them back. But this new finding basically shows that if you do the cost-benefit analysis, it actually becomes an argument for more aggressive regulations to limit greenhouse gases and air pollution.

IRA FLATOW: And climate change continues to exacerbate disasters, like fires in California right now, fires in wetlands in South America.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. You may recall the Amazon fires that got global attention last year. We saw similar fires this year in the Amazon rainforest, but now we’re also seeing fires in wetlands in South America. These are some of the largest tropical wetlands in the world. And that’s sparked in part by recent weather– they saw massive drought, some of the lowest water levels in 50 years– but also human activity, from farmers in the region deliberately starting fires to clear land for planting and also for cattle cultivation.

IRA FLATOW: I imagine it’s going to take a while for climate action to make a difference in places like this. Can people do anything to protect fragile ecosystems from fire in the meantime?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, one of the key things to consider is the economics, just like we discussed with the air pollution. The reason they burn these forests is that it’s more valuable for farmers to cultivate crops or raise cattle, even if it is on marginal land. And so right now what governments are trying to do is come up with policy incentives and measures that can pay farmers to preserve these forests and actually come up with ways that they can benefit from them monetarily, things like through tourism or through using local crops or products in a sustainable fashion. But that requires a lot of infrastructure, requires a lot of monitoring, and it requires a political will, which some countries right now don’t have a lot of, especially with the current coronavirus pandemic.

IRA FLATOW: Your next story is one that I am legitimately excited about. And it’s the story of a new insecticide based on grapefruit.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. This is a pesticide called nootkatone. And it’s the first new insecticide we’ve seen approved in the United States by the EPA in more than a decade. This is, as you noted, it is an oil found in grapefruit, and it’s also found in cedar trees. You may have seen people selling, you know, cedar chips as something to put in your dresser to help get rid of moths and things like that. And it turns out there are some natural insect repellents in that.

And this is a big deal because this is a natural insecticide that’s pretty safe. It’s safe for humans, mammals, birds, and, crucially, bees. But it’s also very potent in driving away more dangerous insects, things like mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks, things that can potentially spread disease.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’ve tried the citronella candles, the other natural way, and other essential oils, and natural bug sprays, just like everyone else has. Why should this one be different? Why should this work better?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the researchers have looked at this, and they found that this is actually a little bit more potent. In fact, it’s comparable in its potency to a synthetic pesticide. So yes, as you noted, things like citronella, they have a moderate effect, and it doesn’t last very long. But this is something that’s actually pretty strong and can actually kill off some of the more dangerous insects.

IRA FLATOW: And it comes from grapefruit.

UMAIR IRFAN: It comes from grapefruit. And the way scientists want to use it now is not just as a way to spray it on things, but they want to impregnate it into fabrics, things like bed nets or even clothing. And someone suggested that we could blend this into soap so that, you know, you could take a shower in the morning and end up coated in this insect repellent all day and prevent bites to begin with.

IRA FLATOW: I love it. When can I get some of this stuff?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, because it’s been approved, I mean, you can probably get it now. It’s just a matter of getting it incorporated into products. And so it could be very soon.

IRA FLATOW: There’s another item from the department of things I want yesterday, and that’s a vaccine for the common cold. How does that work? I know the cold is many different viruses, so how do we get one vaccine for all of them?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it’s not one vaccine for all of them. It’s a vaccine for one of the more common causes of the common cold. As you noted, there are about 200 different viruses that are associated with the common cold. But one of the more common ones is called RSV, the respiratory syncytial virus. This is such a contagious virus, and it’s so common that about 90% of people have been infected by it before the age of two.

And because it’s a common cold, it’s not something that scientists have really focused on. But they’ve realized recently that when people get infected very early it can cause lifelong complications, things like asthma, and in the elderly can be particularly dangerous. Because this is such a common virus, we can see about 60,000 children a year under the age of five and about 14,000 adults over the age of 65 die from this virus every year. So it does make it a worthwhile target.

IRA FLATOW: And what’s the catalyst for actually coming up with this now? I mean, people have been looking for stuff like this for years. Why now this breakthrough?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well scientists, have– you know, it’s a cumulative process. And I think they are just now starting to get attention on it. There’s a German pharmaceutical company, Bavarian Nordic, that’s behind this particular one. And they just recently conducted a clinical trial on 420 adults over the age of 55. And now they have some interest and momentum in doing a larger scale clinical trial.

These drugs, you know– these vaccines are a hugely costly endeavor because you have to go through such extensive safety and approval testing. They have to meet a much higher bar for safety than conventional drugs because you usually give them to healthy people. And so a lot of pharmaceutical companies have been really reluctant to invest in them, but now the economics sort of pan out for an illness like the common cold. And potentially the company sees a potential financial upside in investing in this.

IRA FLATOW: So how soon might we see something like this available to everybody? And would everybody get it to begin with, or would they prioritize people?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, they would definitely prioritize people, because this is more dangerous for very young people and very old. They’re likely to focus very early on the elderly. They will likely get the first doses and children afterwards once they clear those clinical trials. The company wants to begin larger trials next year with about 12,000 adults. And they say that if those trials go well, they could potentially have this on the market by 2024.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s pretty fast.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, it is.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s go to your last story. And this is a really cool one because I like space, and I know a lot of our listeners do– is we’re going to distant planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Umair, I was so excited to see this headline. Ceres might have an ocean. How cool is that?

UMAIR IRFAN: It’s very cold, but not cold that it’s frozen. Because one of the key findings here is that there is a liquid ocean. It’s not just ice. And this comes from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. It arrived in 2015 at Ceres, and it kind of wrapped up its mission in 2018. But just this week, scientists put out their analysis of some of their key findings there. And one of the big things they found is that there’s evidence that there might be a liquid ocean far beneath the surface of this small dwarf planet.

IRA FLATOW: How would a liquid ocean be possible for an object as small and as far away as that? I mean, it’s really cold out there, isn’t it?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, it is, but many planets and planetoids have a warm core. And so potentially if you have water that’s closer to the core, there might be enough heat there to maintain it as a liquid.

IRA FLATOW: I know scientists want to send probes out to the moons of Jupiter. They think there might be liquid oceans in some of those moons, even some moons of Saturn perhaps. Would Ceres be a good target for probes also?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, it’s probably very likely that they want to do a follow-up mission there. Because while scientists did say that they found strong evidence for liquid water on Ceres, other researchers are a little bit skeptical, and they want to see better evidence. The researchers in this case, they used a combination of gravitational data, basically monitoring how the density of the planet changed with the space probe, and they used a simulation to see how heat would move through the planet’s surface if there were ice or if there were liquid water. And they found that the combination of the simulation and their data showed that there was likely an ocean there.

But other researchers say they want more tangible evidence. They want more direct evidence that there’s some liquid water there. And that might be a mission for a follow-up probe.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: No problem.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox.

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