Book Review – The Climate Bonus: Co-benefits of Climate Policy by Alison Smith

For several decades, we have heard, over and over, that climate change is a very bad development, and that addressing climate change and evolving to a sustainable or low-carbon society are a necessary response—seemingly painful in the short term, desirable in the long-term however. But how desirable?

Smith, an environmental policy consultant to the UK government and the EC, who has been a lead author for the IPCC, provides a detailed, systematic overview of the many benefits of a green economy, concluding that “Far from being a burden on society, tackling climate change presents us with an opportunity to move to a cleaner, safer and healthier world.”(p.334)

The climate debate has polarized into one of the pressing immediate economic needs vs. the long-term, uncertain, and largely invisible threats of climate change that are easy to ignore. “Yet this misses the bigger picture. Low-carbon policies often provide a whole range of additional environmental, social, and economic benefits. These often-overlooked co-benefits can help to offset the financial cost of the technology and boost its political acceptability…

Many of these benefits are far more immediate and visible than the impacts of climate change, and can provide a much stronger motivation for supporting the move to a low-carbon society. For many low-carbon policies, we might argue that the co-benefits alone would justify their adoption even if climate change did not pose a threat.” (p.2)

Great progress has been made in reducing air pollution over recent decades, but these technical advances have been partly offset by the rapid growth in vehicle use and electricity demand, such that “air pollution limits are still being exceeded.” Many of the co-benefits of climate policy are linked to reducing use of fossil fuels. The main policies for cutting the climate impacts of fossil fuels are 1) improving energy efficiency and promoting energy-saving behavior; 2) switching to low-carbon energy sources such as renewable energy and nuclear power, or switching from high-carbon coal to medium-carbon gas; 3) reducing methane emissions from coal mines and oilfields by collecting the gas and using it instead; 4) reducing waste of materials by re-use and re-cycling; 5) carbon capture and storage; 6) geo-engineering to reflect sunlight. The first four options give rise to three major sets of co-benefits: cleaner air, safer and cleaner energy, and energy security (which reduce risks of price spikes, supply disruption, and conflict).

Six chapters enumerate the many co-benefits, while also discussing conflicts and “the way forward.”

1.Cleaner Air: Cutting Pollution. Co-benefits for health, ecosystems, and the economy include: 1) lower incidence of premature death and illness from heart and lung diseases and cancer; 2) lower health costs; 3) less work time lost due to pollution-related illness; 4) healthier forests, streams, lakes, and other ecosystems; 5) reduced damage to buildings from acid rain and soot; 6) increased crop yields due to reduced ozone concentrations; 7) cost savings of installing and operating pollution control equipment.

Air quality benefits offset much of the climate policy cost, and can even exceed it. However, policies to address climate change and air quality have been separate: air quality has typically been the responsibility of local or regional governments, while climate change is a global issue. “There is an urgent need for a more integrated strategy to maximize the synergies and minimize the conflicts between the two goals.” Twelve “win-win options” good for both climate and air quality are listed.

2. Greener Land: Forests, Food, and Farming. Better land management is essential to meet climate targets. Deforestation and agriculture account for about 24% of GHGs, yet with best practice both could be carbon-neutral by 2030. Co-benefits include: 1) protecting biodiversity, which is currently declining at an alarming rate (the main driver of this decline is habitat loss); 2) water catchment, flood protection, and soil protection (trees perform a vital function in stabilizing soil, providing clean water, and preventing floods); 3) reduced air pollution from forest fires (the risk of fires increases significantly when forests become degraded, leading to lost tourism revenue, healthcare costs, more carbon emissions, etc.); 4) preserving livelihoods for indigenous people and workers in the forestry sector; 5) preserving ecosystem services to poor communities (estimated at >$1 trillion per year); 6) preserving aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual values of forests; 7) reducing soil erosion, as well as air and water pollution; 8) improving farm incomes by cutting fertilizer costs, boosting yields, and enhancing resilience to climate change (by adding organic matter to soils or leguminous cover crops, and conservation tillage); 9) agroforestry (planting trees and shrubs) can diversify and improve farm incomes.

Badly-designed policies, however, can undermine the co-benefits or even make the situation worse, e.g. support for biofuels can lead to clearing natural habitats, and payments for forest carbon can lead to land grabs, corruption, and fraud. The way forward is to expand protected areas (some 14% of forests are currently protected—in theory), put an economic value on forest carbon through a well-designed REDD system (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), cut perverse subsidies, curb rising demand for paper and timber, clarify ownership of forests and improve governance, support certification schemes (promoting sustainable timber, paper, and food), reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizers and methane, eat less meat and dairy products, and increase carbon in agricultural soils by burying biochar and by integrated pest management.

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