Social Price Tag For Pollution Is Steep, But Dropping

Feb 17, 2016

Consumers often hear about the economic costs of environmental regulations on the energy industry, but there’s a flip side to that issue — the social price residents collectively pay for burning fossil fuels to produce electricity.

But is there a way to place a dollar amount on the hidden costs of pollution? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University think so.

CMU professor of environmental engineering Paulina Jaramillo and a colleague designed a model that takes into account EPA pollution figures, weather models and population data. They found emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants are going down. Because of this, so are the health costs associated with this pollution.

“We cannot pinpoint who is specifically benefiting,” Jaramillo said. "But on a population basis, there are benefits."

Jaramillo said new regulations that forced coal-fired power plants to clean up were a big factor, and the Great Recession lowered demand for energy overall. Cleaner energy sources like natural gas also cut into coal’s share of the electricity market.

The costs of pollution may be going down, but the price tag Jaramillo calculated — $400 for every person in the U.S. — is still pretty steep.