EPA Proposes New Way to Evaluate Social Cost of Carbon: Unequal Values for Lives Lost

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a new way to evaluate the cost to humanity of emitting greenhouse gases.[0] This cost is expressed in a single number: the social cost of carbon.[1] It adds up all the damage from carbon emissions – the lost crops, flooded homes and lost wages when people can't safely work outside, plus the cost of climate-related deaths – and expresses it in dollars.[2] For every ton of carbon dioxide emitted, the current social cost of carbon is $51.[2]

Most climate experts agree that the current number is too low, and that the benefits to humanity of reducing emissions are being underestimated.[1] The proposal for a new way to evaluate the social cost of carbon is an “absolutely enormous improvement”, says Tamma Carleton, a climate economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is an expert on the social cost of carbon.[2] This is the primary method we have for major climate initiatives at the federal level; there are no other options.[2]

The social cost of carbon is potentially a powerful tool for the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and dramatically. Daniel Hemel, a law professor who studies how policymakers assign value to lives saved for the purpose of regulations, says the EPA's social cost of carbon does put a dollar amount on human lives, and this has implications for who lives and who dies due to climate change.[2]

However, the EPA does not assign the same dollar value to every life.[2] A life lost in a lower-income country due to climate change is worth less than a life lost in a higher-income country; this is an unfair reality.[2] A comparison of the value of a climate-related death in the United States with other countries reveals that it is equal to approximately 9 deaths in India, 5 deaths in Ukraine, and 55 deaths in Somalia.[1] Qataris are said to be afforded a life that is almost twice as valuable as that of an American.[2]

Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in New Delhi, India and a leading expert on global climate economics, says this approach is “inherently inequitable”.[2] “All lives are equally valuable,” he says.[2]

Ultimately, a higher social cost of carbon would theoretically push the U.S. government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more quickly and dramatically.

0. “Why the EPA puts a higher value on rich lives lost to climate change” MPR News, 8 Feb. 2023, https://www.mprnews.org/story/2023/02/08/npr-why-the-epa-puts-a-higher-value-on-rich-lives-lost-to-climate-change

1. “The EPA is updating its most important tool for cracking down on carbon emissions” kclu.org, 4 Feb. 2023, https://www.kclu.org/2023-02-04/the-epa-is-updating-its-most-important-tool-for-cracking-down-on-carbon-emissions

2. “Why the EPA puts a higher value on rich lives lost to climate change” WBHM, 8 Feb. 2023, https://wbhm.org/npr_story_post/why-the-epa-puts-a-higher-value-on-rich-lives-lost-to-climate-change/