Navigant Research Blog

Climate Change Discourse Ignores Immediate Impacts

Ryan Citron — February 4, 2014

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he delivered a passionate statement on climate change: “The debate is settled.  Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Political discussions on the scientific legitimacy of climate change tend to ignore the enormous short-term consequences of relying on fossil fuels for the majority of our energy consumption.  According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths each year in the United States.  Vehicle emissions were found to be the biggest contributor to these early deaths (53,000), with power generation following closely behind (52,000).  Surprisingly, statistics like these are largely absent in the public discourse on climate change.  Controversies, such as Obama’s ordering the EPA to curb coal power plant emissions, and outdated arguments over the scientific merits of climate change obscure the immediate public health and air pollution impacts of fossil fuels.

Clearing the Air

Perhaps the second most surprising element of the MIT study, behind the sheer amount of pollution-related deaths that occur every year, is that road transportation caused more emissions-related premature deaths than electricity generation.   The fact that cars and trucks tend to travel within more populated areas, thus releasing tailpipe emissions in and around densely populated areas, is a potential explanation.  This is another reason why electric vehicles (EVs) offer so much promise.  With no local vehicle emissions, the increased use of EVs can improve local air quality in urban areas.   An EV emits roughly half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle, based on the United States’ 2012 electricity mix.  In states with higher percentages of renewable energy generation, such as California, EVs emit only one-quarter as much.  According to Navigant Research’s report Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, the United States will remain the largest light duty plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) market in the world, with forecast sales of 467,000 vehicles in 2022 (compared to 129,098 for 2014).

This growth will help alleviate dangerous local emissions that contribute to the high level of premature deaths outlined in the MIT report.  Whether you question the science of climate change or not, 200,000 untimely deaths per year from air pollution should be enough to support action on emissions reductions and promote the adoption of clean energy and clean transportation technologies.

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