U.S. Emissions Cutbacks Likely to Save 295,000 Lives by 2030

Truck exhaust pipe emits smoke
Researchers predict that reducing the emissions that cause global warming is likely to also prevent premature death from disease related to air pollution for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Mike Blake/Reuters

Last December's Paris climate talks focused on just 2 degrees (Celsius) of separation between best- and worst-case scenarios for the planet. Nearly 200 countries ultimately agreed to curb emissions substantially enough to keep the increase in the global temperature "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, a target that climatologists say will likely enable us to stave off disastrous climate change. Just a couple degrees more, and we can expect severe habitat loss for two-thirds of the world's plant species and one-third of its animal species, according to the Committee on Climate Change, an independent group that advises the United Kingdom's government and Parliament about the risks of climate change.

Those emissions cutbacks will also have a hugely positive side effect: improved human health. Researchers from Duke University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have linked reducing carbon emissions with fewer future lives lost from the leading environmental cause of premature death worldwide: air pollution. Their study, published February 22 in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that reducing U.S. emissions enough to avoid the two-degree Celsius increase in planetary warming could save 295,000 lives by 2030. Climate negotiations have focused largely on reducing emissions of longer-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide generated by motor vehicles and burning fossil fuels in power plants; the study demonstrates these same polluting activities are linked to premature death from diseases like lung cancer and heart disease.

That may help people having difficulty seeing climate change as a problem that needs solving now visualize the impact committing to reducing fossil fuels can have on their lives in the near future. It can be hard to relate to rising sea levels and melting ice, but smog isn't such a foreign concept. "Many people view climate change as a future problem, but our analysis shows that reducing emissions that cause warming—many of which also contribute to air pollution—would benefit public health here and now," said Drew T. Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Shindell's team constructed scenarios wherein the two largest producers of U.S. climate pollutants—transportation and energy—reduced emissions. Then they modeled what impact those reductions would have on climate and human health by 2030 if substantial enough to stay within the two-degree Celsius threshold.

"We created a 'clean transportation' scenario in which surface transport emissions are reduced by 75 percent, and a 'clean energy' scenario in which emissions are reduced by 63 percent," Shindell explained. "These scenarios exceed current U.S. emissions reductions targets but are technically feasible and in accordance with the reductions we pledged to achieve at the COP21 climate conference in Paris last December and in our climate accord with China last year."

The models showed that by 2030, cleaner energy policies could prevent as many as 175,000 premature deaths, and another 22,000 or so deaths each year going forward. Cleaner transportation policies could prevent around 120,000 premature deaths by 2030, and another 14,000 or so deaths in each subsequent year.

Better still: The country stands to realize $250 billion worth of health benefits because of the overall improved public health of its citizens. That means the dollar benefits will likely exceed the cost of implementing clean energy and transportation programs. Factor in both the global health and climate impacts of the reduced emissions, and the value of the accrued long-term benefits equals 5 to 10 times the costs.

"This is doable," Shindell said. "But it's not going to be easy. Pledging to reduce our emissions is one thing; implementing the national policies and binding international agreements needed to overcome these obstacles will be challenging."