NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The debate has been heating up this past spring and early summer about whether the United States should pass a comprehensive climate law. There will undoubtedly be a stronger push for some kind of legislation this fall, especially as the United Nations recently released yet another report highlighting the current impacts of climate change — including increased floods, droughts and less-secure food crops. Riding on these changes is the wallet of the American consumer, who could stand to reap huge health care savings from more stringent policies.

Many who oppose passing climate policies argue that it could have seriously chaotic implications for the American economy. But a study published in Nature Climate Change indicates that the health cost savings of certain climate policies such as a cap-and-trade system would actually outweigh the costs.

When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide and many other chemicals are released into the atmosphere. These substances often interact with each other to form ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which contribute to the development of asthma and other respiratory health problems.

As of 2011, 231 counties in the U.S. exceeded the EPA's regulatory standards for ozone, the primary culprit in causing smog, and the standards for fine particulate matter were exceeded in 118. Limiting carbon emissions would inevitably address adverse air quality and their related health impacts.

"Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality," says Noelle Selin, an assistant professor of engineering systems and atmospheric chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the study. "In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution."

For their study, MIT researchers modeled where these other air pollutants were winding up and projected their health impacts. They then conducted a cost-benefit analysis of three climate policies, including a clean-energy standard, a transportation policy and a cap-and-trade program.

These three policies were modeled after those that have been introduced into Congress or discussed by economists and other pundits as ways to address climate change. For instance, the clean-energy standard model is based on the power plant emissions reductions the Obama administration had proposed as part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan.

Overall, the research team found that health benefit savings would dwarf the expense of the cap-and-trade program's $14 billion price tag 10.5 times over. These savings would take the form of avoided sick leave and medical care.

The other climate policies the researchers investigated were not found to reap as substantial savings, with one actually costing more than it saved in health savings: The sample transportation policy with rigid fuel-economy requirements was found to top out over $1 trillion in 2006 dollars, with health benefits recouping only a quarter of those costs.

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The clean energy standard did reap more health benefit savings than costs — by about $40 billion.

"If cost-benefit analyses of climate policies don't include the significant health benefits from healthier air, they dramatically underestimate the benefits of these policies," says lead author Tammy Thompson, who conducted the research as a postdoc at MIT and is currently at Colorado State University.

The health effects the researchers looked at were restricted to air quality and did not include heat stroke or direct threats to safety from floods or droughts.

“We calculated mortalities only from particulate matter and ozone exposure, predominantly cardio-respiratory associated, but based on exposure response functions from epidemiological studies,” Selin says.

The study offers the most detailed analysis to date of the impacts of competing methods of climate policy on the economy, air pollution and health costs correlated to air pollution. The researchers focused on how changes in emissions incited by public policies benefit local and regional air quality by using comprehensive models of the economy and atmosphere — with cap-and-trade coming out on top by a large margin.

“Cap-and-trade had the largest net benefits because it was the cheapest policy,” Selin says. “All of the policies examined had relatively comparable benefits, but cap-and-trade had the lowest costs, so its net benefits were highest.”

Selin warns that though cutting carbon dioxide from current levels in the U.S. will result in health savings from better air quality, those benefits will decline as carbon policies become more stringent.

"While air-pollution benefits can help motivate carbon policies today, these carbon policies are just the first step," Selin says. "To manage climate change, we'll have to make carbon cuts that go beyond the initial reductions that lead to the largest air-pollution benefits."

— Written by Laura Kiesel for MainStreet