The Social Cost of Atmospheric Release

Climatic Change (2015; doi:10.1007/s10584-015-1343-0) / by Drew T. Shindell

[Forbes] Although they’re starting to creep back up, Americans continue to enjoy relatively low gasoline prices, with the current national average of $2.50 per gallon down by about $1 over the same time last year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that new research suggests the price is actually much higher — you’re simply paying for it elsewhere and in other ways, largely in the form of damages to the environment and public health.

The new analysis, spearheaded by Drew T. Shindell, a professor of climate sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, estimates that when these “social costs” are factored in, an extra $3.80 is added to the price at the pump. And not surprisingly, the same calculus holds true for the costs of virtually all fossil fuels, such that a gallon of diesel — currently averaging about $2.90 per gallon — actually costs $7.70. Electricity generated with natural gas jumps from 7 cents per kilowatt to 17 cents, while the cost of coal-fired power quadruples, from 10 cents per kilowatt hour to 42 cents.

The peer reviewed study, published in the journal Climatic Change, is the most recent in a growing body of research seeking to quantify the externalities associated with the use of fossil fuels — that is, those costs that aren’t currently baked into retail prices. We all pay those costs one way or another, and the federal government uses metrics like Shindell’s in order to weigh the potential impacts — and savings — that might arise from various emissions and pollution control rules…

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