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Want To Save A Million Lives In The Next 50 Years? Just Clean Up The Air

A new model shows the public health repercussions of all the pollution wafting around the globe. Even if you don't care about climate change, perhaps you care about people's lives?

[Image: Smog via Shutterstock]

This week, for the first time in six years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a new report on the risks of climate change. It's likely much of that report will go over familiar threats—rising seas, glacial melt, extreme weather events, and why certain areas, like Bangladesh, will see catastrophic stress on resources. But new, striking research could also snag some attention: Scientists from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill estimate that global emissions standards could save more than a million lives cut short due to pollution by the year 2050.

The lives saved estimates come from two scenarios: One, in which emissions go the way of business-as-usual, and the two, in which strong global emissions standards and a price on carbon are imposed. Because cutting fossil fuel use would also cut down on pollutants like ozone and particulate matter that contribute to asthma and heart disease, global greenhouse gas standards would also make a significant dent on non-carbon-related pollution. And unlike studies that have attempted to measure the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on public health in the past, the UNC model takes into account how pollutants released in one country might migrate and affect people in another.

In both situations, emissions decrease as the century goes on—researchers assumed that as countries became wealthier, as previous research has shown, they will undertake emissions-cutting regulations of their own. But what differs is the impact and the timeline. Compared to the status quo scenario, emissions standards would prevent 300,000 to 700,000 premature deaths by 2030 and 800,000 to 1.8 million deaths by 2050. By 2100, 1.4 million to 3 million people would live longer, healthier lives.

The researchers came up with the estimates based on a better understanding of the relationship between exposure to pollutants (like particulate matter and ozone) and premature death, largely due to chronic respiratory illness and heart disease. They also took into account air pollution that travels—from China across the Pacific Ocean, for example.

An economic analysis of the benefits of preventing all of those premature deaths would mean that societies should be willing to pay anywhere from $50 to $380 to avoid emitting one ton of CO2 in the future, the authors note.

"You could reach the conclusion that CO2 reductions are justified because of the health benefits that come about because of cleaner air," the study's lead author Jason West says. "I'm not even accounting for other benefits of slowing down climate change, just the improvement in air quality that would occur at the same time."

West says that his research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, could help reframe climate policy as something that can address both short-term global health problems, as well as the climate change long game. After all, it's often a cognitive struggle to make an investment in the future if you don't see results in the present. "In contrast to that, the benefits here are immediate, for the most part," West says.