Social costs of carbon are much higher than expected

The social cost of carbon is a crucial metric for climate policy analysis measuring the economic damages that result from the emission of one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. After years of robust modeling and analysis, a team of researchers led by the Resources for the Future (RFF) institute and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) has found that each additional ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere costs society $185 dollars – far higher than the current federal estimate of $51 per ton.

“Our estimate, which draws on recent advances in the scientific and economic literature, shows that we are vastly underestimating the harm of each additional ton of carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere,” said study co-author Richard G. Newell, the RFF President and CEO. “The implication is that the benefits of government policies and other actions that reduce global warming pollution are greater than has been assumed.”

To more accurately measure the social cost of carbon, the scientists took into consideration the probability of different socioeconomic and emissions trajectories far into the future, and incorporated a modern representation of the climate system, together with state-of-the-art scientific methodologies for assessing the effects of climate change on agriculture, temperature-related deaths, energy expenditures, and sea-level rises. 

“We hope that our research helps inform the anticipated updated social cost of carbon from the government’s interagency working group,” said study co-author Brian C. Prest, the director of RFF’s Social Cost of Carbon Initiative. “Decisions are only as strong as the science behind them. And our study finds that carbon dioxide emissions are more costly to society than many people likely realize.”

A major output of the study is the Greenhouse Gas Impact Value Estimator (GIVE) model, an open-source software platform allowing users to replicate the researchers’ methodology to compute their own social cost of carbon estimates, as well as a new data tool – the Social Cost of Carbon Explorer – that shows the working mechanics of the GIVE model and offers users the opportunity to explore the data in detail.

“Our hope is that the freely available, open-source GIVE model we’re introducing today forms the foundation for continuous improvement of the estimates by an expanded community of scientists worldwide,” said study lead author and RFF fellow Kevin Rennert. “A completely transparent methodology has been a guiding principle for our work, which is also directly relevant to other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxides.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Andrei Ionescu, Earth.com Staff Writer  

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