Skip to main content


Massachusetts carbon tax ‘would save 340 lives’

24 Jan 2019
Photo of Cambridge skyline, Massachusetts
(Image By King of Hearts - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A carbon tax on fuel used in transport, buildings and industry in Massachusetts, US, would save 340 lives over 23 years from reduced air pollution, according to an analysis by researchers in the US.

The tax analysed by the researchers, which is based on several proposals in the Massachusetts legislature, would have dual climate and health benefits, cutting carbon emissions by 33 million metric tons while simultaneously curbing air pollutants.

“Climate policies, even at the state or local level, can have substantial, basically immediate, and local benefits to health,” says Jonathan Buonocore at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, US. “By improving air quality, these policies can especially protect children, the elderly, and others that are more vulnerable to air pollution.”

Many studies have investigated the health impacts of large-scale US climate policies. But since the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, it is state and local governments that have been most active in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Buonocore and colleagues. For this reason, they say, analysis of climate-policy impacts should also focus on the state and local level.

“Policy makers [need] to understand the full impact of their decisions – not only how they can reduce emissions, but also how they can usher in immediate health benefits to residents across a state or region,” says Buonocore. “It also becomes more important for residents to understand how their health is affected by bills that pass through their state houses and town halls.”

Recently, the Massachusetts legislature has considered the imposition of a carbon fee-and-rebate bill, which would use a fee on carbon emissions either to reduce people’s taxes elsewhere, or to support energy-efficiency and renewable-energy programmes.

Buonocore and colleagues modelled how such a bill would affect carbon emissions and the consumption of fossil fuels for 2017–2040, and how these changes would affect the prevalence of the air pollutants sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. In the final step, the researchers estimated the resultant health benefits, based on previous work.

“Air pollution causes harm by increasing the risk of many health conditions including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and it also increases the risk of premature death,” Buonocore explains. “Decreasing air pollution reduces people’s risk of dying from these diseases. When the benefits of decreased air pollution and reduced risk of dying is spread across the population, it ends up working out to being 340 lives saved from the policy.”

These lives saved had a monetary value of $2.9 bn (£2.3 bn). This is potentially higher than the monetary value of climate benefits at $2.0 bn (£1.6 bn), although the researchers point out that the health-value estimate rests on uncertain factors, such as the amount of methane that leaks from the natural-gas supply chain.

Now the researchers want to study in greater detail how natural-gas leakage affects the policy’s health benefits. “We would like to work on better assessing the impacts of natural gas, so that impacts of extraction, transmission, distribution, and these other ‘upstream’ impacts can be included in assessments of health benefits of climate policies,” Buonocore says.

The team reported the findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Copyright © 2024 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors