Towards the end of last year, the largest gathering of world leaders ever seen set the stage for the Paris climate conference. After two weeks of talks, the 195 nations present finally signed an agreement to try and limit the warming of the planet to under 2°C (3.2°F), the first time that such a consensus had been reached in history. Yet it seems that was the easy part, as now individual countries have to pass their climate change plans and actually implement them, sometimes facing tough domestic opposition.
Nowhere has this antagonism been seen so starkly than in the United States, with many vociferously pushing back against the climate action plan. But a new study, published in Nature Climate Change, shows that if the U.S. was to enact the climate pledges made in Paris, it could prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, and as a result save the nation billions of dollars in the process. On the flip side, however, the study also notes that the current proposed cuts simply do not go far enough, and that to realize these benefits, the U.S. will need to reduce its emissions to a much greater degree.
The two largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are from electricity production (31 percent) and transportation (27 percent). These activities don’t just pump out carbon dioxide and other gasses that contribute to the world heating up, but also tiny particles of solid and liquid matter known as particulates. Inhaling these little fragments can cause serious health problems, from lung cancer to cardiovascular disease, and have been shown to cause millions of premature deaths globally.
If America is to stick to playing its part in keeping the warming of the planet below the agreed 2°C, then by 2030 it will need to cut the emissions from transport by 75 percent, and from electricity production by 63 percent. Under this scenario, the authors predict that around 295,000 premature deaths will be prevented, which could save the economy $1.2 trillion, outweighing the cost of implementing the ambitious policies by a factor of ten. And this was just looking into premature deaths. The financial gain is expected to be much greater if the prevention of 29,000 asthma attacks in children, and 15 million lost working days due to ill health a year, were also taken into account.
The study found, however, that the current plans suggested by the U.S. in reducing its carbon emissions don't go far enough to meet its commitment to playing its part in keeping warming to below 2°C. These net economical benefits will only be realized if the country commits to larger and broader cuts in their emissions. With such vocal and vehement opposition already taking place, it unfortunately seems unlikely that the suggestion to cut deeper and further is going to get very far, even if it will in the near to long term offer financial benefits around 5-10 times the implementation cost.