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Waiting to Slash CO2 Emissions? It Could Cost You

The cost of the U.S. delaying action on climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions could increase 40 percent each decade if no action is taken, according to a Council of Economic Advisers report released by the White House on Tuesday.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later helps to offset the threat of sea level rise, higher temperatures and melting ice sheets, which could cause costly and widespread damage in the future if nothing is done to slash CO2, according to the report.

Damage from Hurricane Sandy in Brooklyn in 2012. Credit: Adam Lerner/flickr

It’s also less expensive to meet certain emissions reduction goals now than it will be to slash emissions more sharply later. The report says that if the goal is to stabilize global warming at 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, as world governments agreed to do in 2009, that goal will be harder and more expensive to reach with each passing year, increasing costs of meeting such a goal by about 40 percent for each decade of delay.

The report comes out as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds public hearings this week on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

The price of delaying action on climate change is also considered part of the social cost of carbon, which is how much it will cost communities to adapt to a warming world and pay for property damages caused by sea level rise, storm surges, wildfires and other climate change-driven disasters.

A report released in June by the Risky Business Project estimated that sea level rise alone will increase the average cost of coastal storms striking the East Coast by up to $3.5 billion over the next 15 years. Annual losses from coastal storms could reach $35 billion when considering possible increases in hurricane activity because of climate change.

The Risky Business Project, which is co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, estimated that sea level rise will submerge up to $106 billion worth of coastal property nationwide by 2050.

With the costs of taking no action on climate becoming more and more clear, the White House has framed action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a form of “climate insurance,” according to its report.

Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, making nearly certain a degree of global warming that will be felt over time, not right away. With that comes possible rising seas, increased temperatures, and other effects that will become nearly inevitable over time as more greenhouse gases are emitted.   

Reducing those emissions today would “insure” the U.S. against the economic consequences of the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change, the White House report says.

“The longer that action is postponed, the greater will be the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the greater is the risk,” the report says. “Just as businesses and individuals guard against severe financial risks by purchasing various forms of insurance, policymakers can take actions now that reduce the chances of triggering the most severe climate events.”

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