Climate change bill would cut U.S. air pollution deaths by up to 3,900 per year, study finds

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The budget reconciliation bill that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., agreed to with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., could save up to 3,900 lives per year by 2030, thanks to reduced air pollution, according to a new study from the nonpartisan think tank Energy Innovation.

The bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), contains $369 billion in spending to address climate change over 10 years, in addition to other provisions, including closing tax loopholes and holding down the rate of increase in the cost of prescription medication.

Sen. Chuck Schumer emphasizes a point as he speaks to reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Researchers from Energy Innovation, which advocates for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, modeled the effects of the climate provisions, such as loans for the manufacture and purchase of electric vehicles, tax credits to boost solar-panel and wind-turbine manufacturing and subsidies for state and local governments to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The budget compromise also includes the first-ever fee for oil and gas drilling operations that leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“The IRA provisions could also generate enormous public health and jobs benefits,” the report states. In addition to preventing between 3,700 and 3,900 premature deaths from air pollution in 2030, Energy Innovation found it would lead to a net increase of up to 1.5 million jobs in 2030 and increase the United States' gross domestic product by 0.84% to 0.88% in 2030.

While the emphasis in media coverage of the clean energy programs has been on combating climate change, switching from coal and gas to wind and solar power, and from internal combustion engines to electric cars and trucks, the legislation would also reduce the presence of conventional air pollutants that are produced by burning fossil fuels.

Using open-source software from the Department of Energy, Energy Innovation modeled the effects of the energy policy components of the bill. The estimate of premature deaths prevented is based on the expected reductions in particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

A sparse row of conifers on the shore of a lake, with a patchy area of dead trees and fallen tree trunks on the dessicated landbehind them.
A forest killed by carbon dioxide near the dried-out Horseshoe Lake in California on Thursday. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Depending on a variety of factors, including economic growth and how eager consumers are to take advantage of the tax credits, the team played out four different scenarios.

If the bill doesn’t pass, the study projected that U.S. emissions will be 24% below 2005 levels by 2030. Largely thanks to gas, wind and solar energy displacing coal, U.S. emissions have already been reduced to 17% below 2005 levels, and that trend is expected to continue. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that emissions must drop much faster to avert catastrophic climate change. President Biden has pledged that the nation will reduce its emissions by 50% from the 2005 baseline by 2030.

If the IRA passes, even with the most pessimistic assumptions about the size of its effect, Energy Innovation projects that emissions will be 37% below levels in 2005 by the end of this decade. Under a moderate scenario, they will drop 39%, and under a high-effectiveness scenario, they will decrease by 41%. That alone is not enough to meet Biden’s target, but climate change experts hope that new federal regulations and state government policies will help at least partially to bridge the gap.

“The scenarios reflect a range of optimism about how effective the policies in the IRA will be and the uptake of different programs. How much will public sector spending leverage private sector spending?” said Robbie Orvis, the report’s lead author, in a press briefing.

Sen. Joe Manchin speaks.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Although some environmental activist organizations, such as Greenpeace, are criticizing the IRA for including new federal offshore oil and gas drilling and other pro-fossil-fuel development measures — which were needed to win Manchin’s support — Energy Innovation finds the bill would be a huge net positive for the climate.

“For every ton of emissions increases generated by IRA oil and gas provisions, at least 24 tons of emissions are avoided by the other provisions,” the report concludes.

Anand Gopal, executive director of strategy and policy at Energy Innovation, predicted that if the IRA passes, it would catalyze emissions reductions from other countries as well, because the Biden administration would be in a more credible position from which to extract new pledges at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP27, in Egypt.

“We think this will change U.S. engagement on climate internationally going into COP27, as well as bilateral engagement,” Gopal said. In particular, he said, collaborative efforts with China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, “are more likely to pick up steam.”


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