CREDIT: AP/Rick Bowmer
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions won’t just help alleviate climate change – it could also help save millions of lives each year, according to a new study.
The study, published Sunday in Nature Climate Change, found up to 3 million premature deaths could be avoided each year globally by 2100 if aggressive emissions cuts are made. By reducing carbon emissions, the study states, the world will also reduce “co-pollutants” such as ozone and particulates. Long-term exposure to these pollutants has been linked to premature death.
“It is pretty striking that you can make an argument purely on health grounds to control climate change,” said Jason West, one of the study’s lead authors.
The study broke the potential lives saved from reducing carbon emissions into increments: in 2030, aggressive carbon cuts would save 300,000-700,000 premature deaths a year, jumping to 800,000 – 1.8 million in 2050 and 1.4 million to 3 million in 2100. The study also found another surprising co-benefit of reducing emissions: By cutting each ton of CO2, the associated cost savings of were $50 to $380, based on a cost-benefit analysis that associates saving lives with saving money — more, the study found, than the estimated cost of cutting carbon in the next few decades.
Though the study is one of the first to take a global look at how reducing air pollutants could save lives, its findings back up previous examinations that have taken a regional approach. This month, researchers from MIT found that in the U.S., exposure to air pollution leads to about 200,000 premature deaths each year, with California experiencing the most early deaths from air pollution. A study from April found that in 2010, air pollution was linked to 1.2 million premature deaths in China, making it the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in the country. That study also found that globally in 2010, air pollution contributed to 3.2 million deaths, ranking it seventh on the global list of risk factors for death. And a new NASA map, which was put together with the help of West’s research, displays the regions of the world most prone to early death from air pollution, with China, Europe and India displaying some of the worst rates of pollution-induced premature death.
The study’s findings also make sense given the large body of research linking air pollution to adverse health effects. Studies have found long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to kidney damage, heart attack and stroke, lung cancer, and of course asthma and respiratory illnesses. Women’s exposure to high levels of traffic pollution in the first two months of pregnancy has been found to dramatically increase the risk of severe birth defects in the unborn child.
In the U.S., more than 40 percent of Americans live in regions with unhealthy levels of particulate and ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association. That’s part of the reason why public health advocates have lauded President Obama’s climate plan, saying it has the potential to cut down on incidences of asthma and respiratory illnesses. The president’s plan and any further cuts to emisisons have the potential to help city-dwellers and poor and minority communities most of all: a 2012 report found people in non-white and low-income communities breathe in more toxic particulate pollution than people in white, affluent communities.