As anyone interested in the topic of renewable energy knows Premier Brad Wall made the news the other night. He did so by giving a speech where he discussed a number of the figures provided in the “100% clean economy by 2050” plan being pushed by the followers of the Leap Manifesto. As described in the CBC article, Premier Wall took a serious hit on social media for his troubles. So what was his major sin? Well unlike the Leapers who like to take a superficial look at these sorts of things Premier Wall actually took the time to look into the supporting material associated with the still-draft paper prepared by Dr. Jacobson 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World (called 100% WWS hereafter) that serves as the basis for the plan presented in the Manifesto. To get an idea of what Premier Wall had to say look at my post Debunking the Leap Manifesto 100% Renewables by 2050 demand which identifies many of the same numbers as the Premier presented with the benefit of providing links to the original documentation to demonstrate that Premier Wall did indeed get the numbers absolutely right.
So what is this report I am talking about? Well 100% WWS provides a description of a program that theoretically could allow each country in the world to achieve 100% renewable energy (excluding nuclear power and any new hydro). Regular readers of this blog know I have written a lot about the Leap Manifesto. Recent readers to this blog may not know, however, that I have written even more about the 100% WWS project. In fact I have written so much about 100% WWS that it has its own section in my blog. My research on the topic has demonstrated to me that 100% WWS is simply is not a realistic approach to achieving a fossil fuel-free future. As for the Leap Manifesto, some of you might have the mistaken belief that the advocates of the Leap Manifesto did some background research for the programs proposed in their Manifesto. In that you would be wrong. Rather the advocates of the Leap Manifesto didn’t do any energy math themselves, instead they hooked their rail car to the train run by Dr. Jacobson and his team so the flaws in 100% WWS also represent flaws in the Leap Manifesto.
As I point out above, as punishment for the sin of actually presenting the numbers underlying the Leap plan, the Premier was pilloried on Twitter by Naomi Klein and her followers. Because the numbers Premier Wall presented were all correct, Ms. Klein and her acolytes chose not to attack the Premier on that topic, instead choosing to raise a series of claims about the purported health care savings associated with the switch to 100% WWS. As I will show these claims are, to put it nicely: a load of bunk. You might ask where Ms. Klein gets her numbers? The answer is “The Solutions Project” which is a web site created by Dr. Jacobson and his team to promote 100% WWS.
So now the obvious question? What is wrong with these health cost claims? Well as I will show below the health cost claim made in 100% WWS begins with a scientifically unjustifiable extrapolation and then multiplies that extrapolation with a number completely unrelated to actual health care costs. The result is a scientifically unjustifiable factoid that has been used to shout down their opponents. The claim Ms. Klein keeps citing is from the Solutions Project infographic for Canada. The infographic claims that implementing the 100% WWS program will save $107 billion a year in health costs and avoid 9598 air pollution related deaths a year. Now you are probably thinking to yourself that $107 billion sounds a lot for of saved health care costs and, of course, you would be right. Consider that in 2012 Canada’s total health care spending was $207 billion. Cutting $107 billion out of that sounds miraculous, and it would be miraculous if it were true, the only problem is that the number is simply a figment of someone’s imagination and does not reflect what 100% WWS actually says.
To explain, the number used in the infographic comes from Table 7 in the report “avoided air pollution PM2.5 plus ozone mortalities”. As indicated in Table 7, under the plan it is theorized that the application of 100% WWS would result in 9,598 avoided air pollution-related mortalities per year in Canada by 2050. That is a pretty impressive number, but where does it come from? Well that is an interesting question. The answer is that it is an unrealistic extrapolation from an incorrect baseline. To explain: in the paper Dr. Jacobson et al. look at global estimates of deaths caused by exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone. They present a range (4-7 million deaths a year) and use that number to estimate the number of deaths per country. Now their initial number is entirely correct. The World Health Organization reported that 7 million premature deaths were attributable to air pollution in 2012. Unfortunately what Dr. Jacobson et al. fail to mention is that:
more than half of those premature deaths, 4.3 million, were attributable to indoor air pollution, largely fumes from coal- or wood-burning cookstoves in places like Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Africa.
Another 2.7 million premature deaths were tied to outdoor air pollution, mainly in the cities of East Asia and South East Asia. The researchers linked this pollution to fatal conditions like heart disease, strokes, or lung cancer.
Read that carefully, almost all the deaths are attributable to energy poverty in the developing world and/or bad environmental regulations in the developing world, almost all occurred in Asia and Africa. Now, in 100% WWS the authors make the assumption that the deaths attributed to air quality are evenly distributed across the world. They take those huge number from East Asia and using statistical tools they allocate those deaths evenly across the entire world based solely on populations. By taking these deaths in East Asia and Africa and allocating them to Canada they calculate that in Canada 14,373 deaths were associated with PM2.5 and ozone in 2011. Taking that incorrect baseline number they then apply some correction factors to account for improvements in medical care between now and 2050 and present us with a yearly death toll of 9,598 in 2050. The problem is that this number is ridiculous on its face, so let’s fact check them for a minute. According to Environment Canada:
The ozone component of the Air Health Indicator model indicates a slight increasing trend since 1990 and suggests that about 5% of cardio-pulmonary mortalities were attributable to ozone exposure overall at the national level. The fine particulate matter component of Air Health Indicator suggests neither an increasing nor decreasing trend between 2001 and 2010. About 1% of cardiopulmonary mortalities could be attributable to fine particulate matter exposure.
According to the Statistics Canada causes of mortality statistics for 2009 (sorry most recent I could find) cardiovascular disease of all kinds kill approximately 68,000 Canadian a year. According to the Environment Canada statistics 3400 of those could be attributed to ozone (mostly from automobiles) and 680 to particulate matter. That comes out to 4080 deaths which is a lot less than the 14,373 used as a baseline by Dr. Jacobson. Using the correction factors presented in Dr. Jacobson’s spreadsheets, the number of deaths attributable to fossil fuels in 2050 would drop from the 9,598 in the infographic to a considerably smaller: 2725. While 2725 sounds like a lot of people, remember that is about the same number as die in car accidents every year and we aren’t looking to abandon the automobile because of automotive-related deaths.
Now let’s go back to that absolutely wrong claim that the 100% WWS program will save $107 billion a year in health costs. By simply looking at actual health care costs we already know that that claim is a load of bunk but the interesting question is: what is the basis for the claim? Well in the paper they take the number of lives saved (9,598) and multiply it by a factor called the “value of statistical life” (VSL). The VSL is a very contentious term in economic research. The best description I could find on the topic is
A willingness-to-pay (WTP) estimate values the change in well-being that would result from changing the risk of death; it is measured by how much wealth a person is willing to forgo to obtain that reduction in the risk of death. Similarly, a willingness-to-accept (WTA) estimate is measured by how much more wealth an individual would require to accept a given increase in the risk of death. Summing such a measure across individuals can provide an estimated value of a “statistical life” (VOSL). Rather than the value for any particular individual’s life, the value of a statistical life represents what the whole group is willing to pay for reducing each member’s risk by a small amount. For example, if each of 100 000 people is willing to pay $ 40 for a reduction in risk from three deaths per 100 000 people per year to one death per 100 000 people, the total WTP is $ 4 million, and the value per statistical life is $ 2 millions (with two lives saved).
While that text is really quite challenging what is clear is that a VSL does not represent a real health care cost. Rather VSL represents a cost a society is willing to pay to avoid a death. As the literature points out VSL differs tremendously across countries and more interestingly based on the way people die. The VSL for deaths caused by children’s playgrounds differs from those to protect bike riders in cities. In Canada the current median estimate from the research is a VSL of about $4,688,000.
For the 100% WWS paper Dr. Jacobson chooses a VSL of $10,470,000, which as an American number is swollen by their litigous culture. He then takes that number and starts his unique manipulations for dates etc…. I will say it again in case anyone is confused: VSL is an interesting and controversial concept in the field of economics research but it has absolutely nothing to do with actual health care costs and cannot be used to estimate health care costs. the two are completely unrelated. To demonstrate how nonsensical this would be consider that the Canadian population is approximately 36 million and the Canadian VSL is about $4.5 million. Using the math presented in 100% WWS this would result in Canada’s health care costs being in the hundreds of trillions of dollars, but we already know that our actual total health care spending is around $207 billion?
So let’s look once more at the numbers we keep getting thrown out at us? We have an initial mortality number associated with fossil fuels that is based primarily on indoor air mortality in Asia and Africa. That number was then smeared evenly across the globe and used to extrapolate a Canadian mortality figure. Then instead of subjecting that extrapolated number to a reality check (say by looking at Canadian health statistics) the authors of 100% WWS blindly applied their own patented extrapolation system to establish what that number would look like in 2050. Essentially we can’t even argue that they made an educated guess because anyone making an educated guess would at least have done a reality check to see if their number had any relationship with reality before dumping it into their model.
Having derived their magical number of avoided premature mortalities by 2050 they then multiplied that number by another number (the value of statistical life) which as we have shown has absolutely no relevance to the topic at hand. What they have done is multiply a magical number by a completely irrelevant number in order to come up with a final number that they call in their infographic “avoided health costs per year”. This “cost” represents over half Canada’s total 2012 health care budget and represents 4% of our national GDP. As I have have shown this number, is in no way related to actual health care costs and so certainly does not represent a health cost saving.
Looking at this blog post I remain amazed that we have not seen this number debunked before as the numbers step way beyond ridiculous to the absurd. My only explanation is that no one has taken 100% WWS seriously enough to actually look at how they generate their outputs. To be kind, the spreadsheets provided to document the calculations form a rat’s nest of inter-related and under-documented Excel sheets and more interestingly, some of the numbers come from the previous spreadsheet created for the 100% USA report (which has an even more challenging set of spreadsheet tables). That being said, having demonstrated that the health care savings costs are so wrong only causes me to want to look into their jobs numbers, but the night is late and I do not have the energy to approach that problem tonight. Suffice it to say that with respect to health care costs, the numbers provided in the infographic and trumpeted by Ms. Klein, and her acolytes, has simply no basis is reality and should not be part of any substantive energy debate.