Curbing Climate Change Could Save 500,000 Lives

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Coal and oil lobbyists like to tell us how much more expensive renewable energy is than good old fossil fuels. But they always leave out the hidden costs of fossil fuels to our health and the environment. These are things we pay for in lives, healthcare costs and untold amounts of suffering. It’s hard to put a price on all that, but it would easily shift the affordability argument in favor of renewables.

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The latest attempt to put a price tag on those hidden costs comes in a paper in the Sept. 22 edition of the journal Nature Climate Change. Jason West and his colleagues have done a comprehensive analysis using global modeling methods that looks at relationships between deaths and exposure to particulate matter and ozone: air pollutants indirectly influenced by climate change. They found that 500,000 premature deaths could be avoided by the year 2030, of which two-thirds would be in China. By 2050, 800,000 to 1.8 million premature deaths could be avoided.

Reductions in premature deaths from particulate air pollution (CPD plus lung cancer) and ozone (respiratory) in 2030 and 2050 (deaths per year per 1,000 km). Credit: West, et al., 2013, Nature Climate Change

“Actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions often reduce (other) air pollutants, bringing co-benefits for air quality and human health,” write the researchers. Previous studies of this sort of thing typically looked at near-term and local benefits, neglecting the long-range transport of air pollutants, long-term changes in populations and the effects of climate change on air quality.

In this case West and his multidisciplinary team — from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the UCAR/NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research — simulated the benefits of reducing greenhouse gases globally, using a global atmospheric model.

Specifically, they looked at the effects of reducing air pollution and the slowing of climate change — and its effects on air quality. They also used new relationships between chronic mortality and exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone. They found that the global average benefits of avoided mortality are $50–380 per ton of carbon dioxide. Considering that the average American’s carbon footprint is about 28 tons per year, well, you do the math. That’s not chicken feed.

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“Monetized co-benefit estimates are $50-380 per ton of CO2 for the worldwide average, $30-600 for the U.S. and Western Europe, $70-840 for China and $20-400 for India,” the researchers write. “These are higher than previous estimates of $1-128 for the U.S. and Western Europe, and $6-196 for developing nations.”

So the next time someone tells you fossil fuels are cheaper, remind them that there’s a lot more to it than the price at the pump.

IMAGE: A Massachusetts Water Resources Authority wind turbine turns in front of a 1951 megawatt fossil fuel power plant in Charlestown, Massachusetts on Sept. 18, 2013. The wind turbine powers the MWRA waste water pumping station at that site and the power plant uses natural gas and oil. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conference will be held in Stockholm September 23 to 26. This is an in-camera, multiple exposure photograph. (Brian Snyder/Corbis)

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