The social cost of carbon

By Bill Flank
Riderwood Resident

Do energy projects create jobs?  Wildly exaggerated claims have been made for political purposes.  However, as a scientist, I think that’s the wrong question.  The right way to assess pipelines and similar projects has little to do with counting construction or even permanent jobs.  A realistic cost-benefit analysis of any plan would include both direct costs and “externalities,” the costs and benefits to our society (and maybe the world as well) like air or water pollution, or the finding of new or useful knowledge for the future.

When fossil fuels are involved, the social cost of carbon has to be included.  This cost includes an estimate of dollars per ton of emitted carbon dioxide that reflects the climate change consequences of the project’s emissions, like rising temperature and sea levels, droughts and floods, and negative agricultural impacts.

A realistic and widely used estimate has been made of $45 per ton.  Multiply that by the number of tons of a project’s expected carbon dioxide emissions and add that climate-change cost to the cost-benefit analysis.

Existing coal-fired power plants would become uneconomical, and gas-fired power plants would become less attractive, while renewables would benefit significantly.  On a national level, the U.S. in 2016 emitted five billion tons, about 14 percent of the global total of 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  That would add about $225 billion a year to the overall costs in our country alone.  That’s a huge price to pay.

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