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U.S. Wind and Solar Boom Helped Prevent Up to 12,700 Deaths Between 2007-2015

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A new study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab gives us further reason to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

According to the research, the U.S. wind and solar power boom helped prevent the premature deaths of thousands of people and saved the country billions of dollars in healthcare and climate-related costs in the years spanning 2007 through 2015.


"We find cumulative wind and solar air-quality benefits of 2015 US $29.7–112.8 billion mostly from 3,000 to 12,700 avoided premature mortalities," according to the paper authored by Dev Millstein of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and his team. The research was sponsored by the Department of Energy and published in the journal Nature Energy.

Unregulated and poorly regulated energy production and use, as well as inefficient fuel combustion, are the "most important man-made sources of key air pollutant emissions," a 2016 International Energy Agency study found. Eighty-five percent of particulate matter—which can contain acids, metals, soil and dust particles, and almost all sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides can be linked back to those sources.

Unhealthful levels of air pollution can put people at risk for premature death and other serious health effects like lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. But unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar power systems have no associated air pollution emissions.

As the Independent noted from the current study, major air pollutants have declined between 2007 and 2015. Carbon dioxide fell by 20 percent, sulphur dioxide by 72 percent, nitrogen oxide by 50 percent and tiny particles known as PM2.5 by 46 percent.

This decline is due to fossil fuels being replaced by renewable energy—solar and wind capacity increased from about 10 gigawatts in 2007 to roughly 100GW in 2015—as well as tougher emissions regulations.

The study also estimated that wind and solar contributed to the "cumulative climate benefits of 2015 US $5.3–106.8 billion," which includes "changes to agricultural productivity, energy use, losses from disasters such as floods, human health and general ecosystem services."

"The ranges span results across a suite of air-quality and health impact models and social cost of carbon estimates," the study added. "We find that binding cap-and-trade pollutant markets may reduce these cumulative benefits by up to 16 percent."

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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