New paper finds that Americans who would otherwise die from lung cancer, heart attacks or respiratory diseases would be saved by reduction in air pollution
March 10, 2016 — America’s international climate obligations carry a significant public health benefit, with new research finding that about 295,000 premature deaths could be prevented in the country by 2030 if deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are achieved.
At a summit in Paris in December, 196 nations, including the US, agreed to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The agreement, the first to demand all countries slash emissions, will require major emissions reductions given that the world has already warmed by 1°C during the past century.
A paper by Duke University calculates that in order to help achieve the Paris goal, the US will need to reduce its emissions by 40% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. This is a jump from the 26-28% reduction the US has promised to undertake by 2025.
The US would prevent many premature deaths and save the economy billions of dollars should it make the necessary emissions cuts, the Duke study shows. A total of 295,000 Americans who would otherwise die from lung cancer, heart attacks or respiratory diseases by 2030 would be saved due to the reduction in air pollution.
Currently, the US experiences about 200,000 early deaths each year due to emissions from heavy industry, cars, trains and ships, as well as commercial and residential heating. Ozone and particulate matter released from the burning of fossil fuels are linked to 100,000 of these annual deaths.
“If we continue on the current high trajectory of emissions we’ll continue to have a large number of pollution-caused deaths,” said Professor Drew Shindell, lead author of the research. “Climate change doesn’t feel immediate unless you have the kind of smog you have in China right now but the health benefits would happen right away if we acted. And they’d happen right here in the US.
“People should realize that emissions are having a big impact already. You are talking about more than 100,000 deaths a year at a time when people spend a huge amount of time and money on a relatively small number of deaths from terrorist attacks or plane crashes. Air pollution is a very big health challenge, it’s having a major public health impact in the US.”
Although coal is in decline in the US, the main national mechanism to reduce emissions has been put on hold by the supreme court, which is considering challenges from nearly 30 states to a plan by Barack Obama’s administration to limit emissions from power plants.
To get to a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, not only would this plan need to proceed unhindered, it would also have to be expanded to areas beyond electricity generation. Almost all of America’s car fleet would need to be electrified.
“It’s a tall order, there’s no getting around that,” said Shindell. “We’d need the support of Congress and the supreme court. But it’s achievable if we really want it. The US does require a big jolt because we are nowhere near the path we need to be on. We are creating a very difficult climate for future generations.”
The study, which has been published in Nature Climate Change, is based on a model of future emissions scenarios and the known health impact of air pollution. The economic cost was calculated from the value the Environmental Protection Agency places upon each avoided premature death.
A 75% reduction in transport emissions would save 120,000 lives by 2030, the Duke study calculated, while a 63% cut in energy emissions would prevent a further 175,000 deaths. Most of these saved lives would be in cities and states that contain high concentrations of polluting industry, such as Ohio and Kentucky.
The US would also gain economically from emissions cuts, with $800bn saved by 2030 due to the reduced health burden, increased consumer spending and transition to new clean energy opportunities.
According to the World Health Organisation, about seven million people died in 2012 as a result of air pollution. WHO said this total – which represents one in eight of all total global deaths – shows that air pollution is the “world’s largest single environmental health risk”. Heart disease and stroke are the primary deadly consequences of air pollution.