Air pollution now contributes to more deaths than cigarettes, accounting for nearly 9 million premature deaths every single year. However, according to new research, the overwhelming majority of health impacts caused by burning fossil fields in the energy sector could be avoided if we switch to renewable energy.
A new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, has explored the range of benefits of decarbonizing the power sector, currently a major contributor to carbon emissions and a powerful driver of air pollution. Above all, their models suggest that ditching fossil fuels could cut the health impacts of air pollution from power generation by as much as 80 percent by mid-century. However, the switch to decarbonized power does have some drawbacks in the small print.
"A main winner of decarbonization is human health: switching to renewables-based electricity production could cut negative health impacts by up to 80 percent,” Gunnar Luderer, lead study author from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a statement.
“This is mainly due to a reduction of air pollution from combusting fuels. What is more, the supply chains for wind and solar energy are much cleaner than the extraction of fossil fuels or bioenergy production."
The current scientific consensus states that the world must limit global warming to well below 2°C, ideally less than 1.5°C, and reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Plenty of countries have loosely agreed to this target, but there’s less of an idea of how to achieve it.
As this new study shows, however, severing our deep ties to fossil fuels wouldn’t just address our planet’s mounting climate crisis, it would also bring a range of positives for our health and the environment. That said, the study does highlight several challenges that come with decarbonizing the power sector.
The research used climate and energy efficiency models to detail three different paths of decarbonizing the power sector by 2050. The first focused on solar and wind power, a second relied on carbon capture and storage in combination with biomass and fossils, and a third route involved “a mixed technology portfolio.”
The scenarios involving a leap towards renewable energy have some positives: cleaner air, less polluted water, and healthier soils. In turn, this holds benefits for human health and biodiversity.
However, it isn't all clear skies. In all three scenarios explored, energy production would require dramatically more land, a contentious resource that’s coming increasingly scarce. Equally, shifting from fossil fuels would require more mineral resources, involving the mining of common metals, as well as obscure metals like neodymium (used in certain wind turbines) or tellurium (used in photovoltaic cells). Again, this could have the potential to cause conflict.
"Our study delivers even more very good arguments for a rapid transition towards renewable energy production. However, we need to be aware that this essentially means shifting from a fossil resource base to a power industry that requires more land and mineral resources," adds Luderer. "Smart choices are key to limiting the impact of these new demands on other societal objectives, such as nature conservancy, food security, or even geopolitics."