Coal-exit health and environmental damage reductions outweigh economic impacts

Abstract

Cheap and abundant coal fuelled the industrialization of Europe, North America and Asia1. However, the price tag on coal has never reflected the external cost to society; coal combustion produces more than a third of today’s global CO2 emissions and is a major contributor to local adverse effects on the environment and public health, such as biodiversity loss and respiratory diseases. Here, we show that phasing out coal yields substantial local environmental and health benefits that outweigh the direct policy costs due to shortening of the energy supply. Phasing out coal is thus a no-regret strategy for most world regions, even when only accounting for domestic effects and neglecting the global benefits from slowing climate change. Our results suggest that these domestic effects potentially eliminate much of the free-rider problem caused by the discrepancy between the national burden of decarbonization costs and the internationally shared benefits of climate change impact mitigation. This, combined with the profound effect of closing around half of the global CO2 emissions gap towards the 2 °C target, makes coal phase-out policies attractive candidates for the iterative strengthening of the nationally determined contributions pledged by the countries under the Paris Agreement.

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Fig. 1: Energy system transformation pathways and emissions across scenarios.
Fig. 2: Globally aggregated direct policy cost and environmental and health cost/benefits relative to annual gross domestic product (GDP) purchasing power parity (PPP).
Fig. 3: Regional analysis of local co-benefits and direct policy cost relative to annual GDP PPP.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper, its supplementary information files and in the following repositories. The energy–economy–climate model REMIND is available at github.com/remindmodel/remind. The Life Cycle Assessment notebooks and data are available at github.com/rauner/holistic-coal-exit. The air pollution data is available at github.com/rauner/air-pollution.

Code availability

The code used to generate the energy–economy–climate model REMIND can be accessed at github.com/remindmodel/remind. The code used to generate the Life Cycle Assessment results can be accessed at github.com/rauner/holistic-coal-exit, at bitbucket.org/cmutel/brightway2 (Brightway2), at github.com/IndEcol/wurst (Wurst), and at github.com/Loisel/rmnd-lca (rmnd-lca). The code used to generate the air pollution results can be accessed at github.com/rauner/air-pollution.

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Acknowledgements

The research leading to these results was supported by the ENavi (funding code 03SFK4P0), INTEGRATE (01LP1928C) and PEGASOS (01LA1826C) projects funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Author information

S.R., N.B. and G.L. designed the research. S.R. designed the modelling framework and performed the integrated assessment analysis. S.R. and R.V.D. performed the air pollution analysis. S.R., A.D. and C.M. performed the LCA analysis. S.R. created the figures and wrote the paper with inputs and feedback from all authors.

Correspondence to Sebastian Rauner.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Dev Millstein and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–33 and Tables 1 and 2.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Energy-economy-climate results including CO2 pathways and technology mixes.

Supplementary Data 2

Life cycle assessment mid-point results.

Supplementary Data 3

Life cycle assessment end-point results.

Supplementary Data 4

Life cycle assessment end-point monetized results.

Supplementary Data 5

Region-country mapping.

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Rauner, S., Bauer, N., Dirnaichner, A. et al. Coal-exit health and environmental damage reductions outweigh economic impacts. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0728-x

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