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Labourers work at a coking factory in Changzhi, China.

Enveloped in fumes, laborers work with coal at a coking factory in China's Shanxi province. A new study says the health benefits of action on climate change would far exceed the costs, especially in East Asia.

Photograph from Reuters

Marianne Lavelle

For National Geographic

Published September 26, 2013

More than 500,000 lives could be saved globally each year by 2030 if the world took action to curb climate change, adding up to massive health benefits that far exceed the costs of forcing a reduction in fossil fuel emissions, a new study concludes.

The research, published Sunday in Nature Climate Change, said the benefits were especially striking for China, with its large population now exposed to some of the worst pollution in the world. The air quality and health benefits in East Asia in 2030 would amount to 10 to 70 times the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers concluded. (See related, "Coal-Burning Shortens Lives in China, New Study Shows.")

It is the latest in a number of studies that have sought to underscore the health impact of climate change. With world leaders stymied on reaching a political agreement to curb fossil fuel emissions, much of this research seeks to quantify and make more tangible the costs of inaction. The new paper, written by a team led by Jason West, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, turns the equation around slightly: It seeks to quantify the benefits of action. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)

"Neglecting the air quality co-benefits misses an important component of the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," West said in an interview. "We show those benefits are large enough that they should be part of the analysis, and it should give extra motivation for people to think about why we should be taking action to slow climate change." (See related, "New U.S. Limits on Power Plant Pollution: Five Points.")

Carbon Price, Health Benefits

The study calculates the potential health impact based on one potential scenario for greenhouse gas mitigation that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses in its latest assessment report—essentially, the scientific consensus statement on climate change—which will be made public Friday. The scenario (known prosaically, in typical IPCC fashion, as "Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5") is one in which nations establish a global price on carbon across all economic sectors through an efficiently functioning market. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would decrease by 2100 from a projected 760 parts per million (ppm) to 525 ppm. (Even though that would be an increase in atmospheric carbon from today's level of about 400 ppm, it would mark a substantial decrease in the current trajectory.) (See related, "Climate Milestone: Earth's CO2 Level Passes 400 ppm.")

Under such a scenario, fossil fuel use would decrease substantially; it would be replaced with nuclear and renewable energy, primarily wind power. Energy demand also would be curbed, and forest cover would be increased. The scenario assumes that the carbon emissions from nearly all electricity generated by fossil fuels and biofuels would be captured with carbon capture and geologic storage technology by 2100.

West and his team looked closely at just one set of health impacts of such a scenario: the benefits that would result from the substantial reductions in ozone and particulate matter, pollutants for which the link to respiratory disease and deaths is well established. (See related, "Five Reasons for Obama to Sell Climate Change as a Health Issue.") The researchers concluded that the average global benefits of avoided mortality from these pollutants would add up to $50 to $380 for every ton of carbon dioxide reduced by 2030, when a half million lives would be saved annually. That far exceeds the projected costs of those reductions, estimated to be from $0 to $33 per ton.

Looking Into the Future

If the world continued on this carbon reduction pathway, the number of lives saved by 2050 would increase to 1.3 million per year, and by 2100, to 2.2 million per year, the researchers projected. The health benefits would clearly exceed the costs in 2030 and in 2050.  Even though the number of lives saved increases dramatically by 2100, it is less clear that the benefits outweigh the costs at that point in the projection. That's because the cost estimates for carbon mitigation become far greater in the distant future, when it assumed that there are no major technology breakthroughs and the cheapest measures—like energy efficiency—have been exhausted. Still, even in 2100, the health benefits calculated by the UNC team fall within the range of the lowest cost estimates for carbon mitigation.

"This is a very important kind of analysis, and I think more and more people are trying to figure out how best to do this," said Dan Greenbaum, president of Boston-based Health Effects Institute, who was not involved in the new study. "The impact of CO2 itself can seem quite abstract to people. This is a much more concrete way of showing what the other benefits are as you move away from coal-fired power plants."

Greenbaum noted that the researchers needed to look far into the future in their analysis, even though there are always uncertainties built into such long-term projections. The assumptions they've made "are not unreasonable ones," he said. Other studies may come up with lower projections on mortality due to air pollution in the distant future because of evidence that the number of deaths increase less rapidly at the higher levels of pollution seen in some Asian countries, he said. This was a key feature of the landmark Global Burden of Disease study published last year in The Lancet, in which Greenbaum participated. (See related, "Cookstove Smoke is 'Largest Environmental Threat,' Global Health Study Finds.")

The health benefits of climate mitigation in the UNC study are markedly higher than those calculated in previous studies that have attempted to tackle the issue. That's because the researchers sought to account for a number of influences not included in previous analyses, like the increase in economic activity (and value of life) in the future, the susceptibility to air pollution in certain populations, and the long-range transport of air pollution, affecting the health of people living "downwind." (See related, "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

19 comments
Sunday Zaleng
Sunday Zaleng

Indeed, greater and more constructive action is required on environmental issues to save the world's population.

cyril deons vithali
cyril deons vithali

more focus on conversion of waste into energy is the need of our time.technology transfer and campaign are essential.humanity faces waste disposal as the most worrying issue.converting waste into energy solves two difficult issues at one go.creating energy as well as safe waste disposal.let us aim and start  a practical system in place.

cyril 

Kevin Baliga
Kevin Baliga

I love the environment <3333333333333333333333

Walter Neser
Walter Neser

What an oxymoron. The more people on the planet, the more climate change. The only solution is not to save lives, but to stop reproducing! What a change for the planet if every couple on earth had only one child? We could halve the global population in a generation! No more Climate change and better conditions for all. The time is now, and thats the only solution.

Mick Fischback
Mick Fischback

China and India are where the U.S. and Britain were a few generations ago.  People dying right and left from widespread industrial pollution, non-existant safety standards.  Those who weren't effected saw it as the price of prosperity. 

Ending some of the horific pollution there will have the same effect it had here.  The Ohio river no longer catches on fire, hundreds aren't killed or have their lungs permanently damaged due to a bad week of smog in London.  Life will get better and lives will be saved.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

Saving 500k lives is not an argument that's going to help with a crowd that believes the Earth is flat and that cavemen hunted dinosaurs 6000 years ago.

David Sailer
David Sailer

I love fairy tales. Always trauma followed by a happy ending.  The bulk of the "studies" done by these researchers cannot be corroborated by any independent source.  This is all just a lead up to the "green" political aims of controlling the world's capital markets with carbon credits.  All this does is transfer wealth and deters companies from making sound business decisions.

Keisha Jackson
Keisha Jackson

"Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually, Study Says"

OR Climate Change Action Could DESTROY 500,000 Lives Annually! 

See how this works?  Stoke up the fear, death, and trembling -- wrap it in a could/should/may/might package -- and then sit back and try to inflict the latest government "solution" on the unquestioning sheep.  

Oh yeah, and there must be ZERO responsibility or accountability for the hoax-peddling-scam-artists when the apocalyptic visions of the future never come to pass. That's really important too.

Elp Tique
Elp Tique

What has Nuclear energy to do with clean energy??? Uranium must be mined, transported, controlled. The plants are awefully expensive and most of all you MUST deal with waste that is radioactive for thousands of years. Our legacy to future generations??!!

Solar, Wind to create Hydrogen. Hydrogen to power the world. THAT SIMPLE! DO IT! NOW!

Terry Conklin
Terry Conklin

The title kills the credibility of this article.

Karen Austin
Karen Austin

So we are currently living in an overpopulated planet with no end to our reproducing in huge numbers in site and we are worried about cleaning up the environment so we can save more human lives...seems a real catch 22 to me...until someone gets serious about there being too many humans on the planet...all of the political moves in the world are not going to fix this problem....global warming aside (if indeed there even is global warming). 

John Sorriano
John Sorriano

Except for the fact that the science community and NASA satellite data shows that "global warming" has ended and we are entering a mini ice age this winter. Ooops.   

tom roelke
tom roelke

The estimated annual number of abortions in Asia is 25 million,  the majority of these abortions occurred in South Central Asia which includes India, and, Eastern Asia which includes China. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/IB_AWW-Asia.pdf


That's around 70,000 per day so I suspect they are clearly not too worried about climate change

Paul M.
Paul M.

Former climate blame believers are better planet lovers.


Science never agreed it WILL be a crisis so why are YOU saying it believer? 
There wasn't ever any consensus, it was just an unsustainable consensus of nothing because for 30 years they have never agreed on anything beyond "could be" and have never said or agreed it WILL be an inevitable crisis like they love to say comet hits are. A climate crisis IS a comet hit.What has to happen now for science to end this costly debate and give us a real warning for a real crisis by agreeing it WILL happen not just might happen? Don't scientists have doomed kids as well?

Science gave us pesticides!

Bruce Bodner
Bruce Bodner

@Elp Tique Yes, Germany is trying to do that now, they have seen their electric bills double, and set to double again and again. You just don't get enough energy out of solar to power everything, especially when you convert it to hydrogen. Wind also is problematic, it often doesn't blow, it doesnt create much energy, its loud and people don't like the windmills, it kills a lot of birds, etc. Its so easy to say "convert to renewables" but so far it does not work, except to maybe elect politicians who pander to the public who does not know the truth.

E. Springford
E. Springford

@Karen Austin From memory, population growth is slowing down even in 'developing' countries. 

Yes let's ensure there is universal access to safe birth control measures that we all have choice around the world.

Yes a mother on the slums of New Mexico might have more children than me, but each of my children and their peers in 'developed' countries will have an emissions footprint that's fifty times as big as each of her New Mexico children. 

Actually I hope my children are at least halving their emissions footprint along with us but that's another story...

And I will continue to lobby our country to stop exporting unhealthy coal to China. We need to support China as the world leader in renewable energy

Walter Neser
Walter Neser

@Paul M. Seriously? Consensus was reached a long time ago, just cause some 'scientists' disagree does not mean there is no consensus and always remember who pays these naysayers salaries...

E. Springford
E. Springford

@Bruce Bodner @Elp Tique Last year, global investment in renewable energy was more than the alternative fossil fuels and nuclear combined. 

Look at Eric Martinot's work and google REN21. We can do this - and we are doing this!

Part of the solution is demanding that any investments made on our behalf are not in fossil fuels. No sense in saving for our future with retirement funds that are destroying our future.

Fossil fuels are being described as the new sub-prime financial risk - so get out of those now and invest in smarter renewables.

Renewables aren't just about substituting for fossil fuels, with a centralised homogenous supply, but rather demand management and localised grids and supply. 

The next steps are about policy and markets, the technical aspects are already mostly sorted.

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