Wind and solar power are saving Americans an astounding amount of moneyNot getting sick and dying from pollution is worth quite a bit, it turns out.
By David Roberts | Vox.com | Aug 18, 2017
Wind and solar power are subsidized by just about every major country in the world, either directly or indirectly through tax breaks, mandates, and regulations.
The main rationale for these subsidies is that wind and solar produce benefits to society that are not captured in their market price (a.k.a. “positive externalities”). Specifically, wind and solar power reduce pollution, which reduces sickness, missed work days, and early deaths. Every wind farm or solar field displaces some other form of power generation (usually coal or natural gas) that would have polluted more.
Subsidies for renewable energy sources are meant to remedy this market failure, to make the market value of renewables more accurately reflect their total social value.
This raises an obvious question: Are renewable energy subsidies doing the job? That is to say, are they accurately reflecting the size and nature of their benefits to society?
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab published a comprehensive report on the health and environmental benefits of wind and solar in the US between 2007 (when the market was virtually nothing) and 2015 (after years of explosive market growth).
Below are the main conclusions:
- From 2007 to 2015, wind and solar in the US reduced SO2, NOx, and PM2.5 by 1.0, 0.6, and 0.05 million tons respectively;
- Reduction of those local air pollutants helped avoid 7,000 premature deaths (the central estimate in a range from 3,000 to 12,700);
- Those avoided deaths, along with other public health impacts, are worth a cumulative $56 billion (the central estimate in a range from $30 to $113 billion);
- Wind and solar also reduced CO2 emissions, to the tune of $32 billion in avoided climate costs (the central estimate in a range from $5 to $107 billion).
Costs and benefits
In this case, as in all such cases, it is somewhat misleading to simply compare total subsidies with total health and environmental benefits. The total amounts are not all that matters. It also matters how costs and benefits are distributed — i.e., equity matters as well.
To put it bluntly: A dollar in federal taxes is not equivalent to a dollar of avoided health and environmental costs. The latter dollar is worth more than the former dollar.
Why is that? Simple: Federal taxes come disproportionately from the wealthy, via our progressive federal income tax, but health and environmental benefits disproportionately help the poor. And as any good economist will tell you, the same dollar is worth more to a poor person than it is to a rich person.
This is something that often gets lost in discussions of environmental regulations. It’s not just that their total benefits almost always exceed their direct costs. It’s that those benefits are uniquely egalitarian and progressive.
In the case of climate change, any reduction in CO2 emissions benefits everyone on Earth (egalitarian), while disproportionately helping the poor, who suffer earliest and most from climate impacts (progressive).
In the case of local air-quality benefits, cleaner air benefits everyone in the region who breathes (egalitarian), while disproportionately helping the poor, who are more likely to live in close proximity to fossil fuel power plants (progressive).
In terms of equity, converting a dollar of wealthy people’s money into a dollar of health for low-income communities seems like a good deal to me. And if you can get multiple dollars of low-income health benefit for every dollar of high-income taxes, well, that’s a no brainer.
Everybody breathes. Any dollar of federal income taxes used to produce a dollar of air and climate benefits is a net gain for justice.
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