Reducing Emissions In The US Now Could Save Hundreds Of Thousands Of Lives By 2030

There's downtown Los Angeles behing the smog. Image Credit: Dogora Sun/Shutterstock

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not just save lives in the long term. Its benefits can be quantified already in just a few years. By meeting the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 2°C ( 3.6 °F) by the end of the century, researchers estimate that the number of premature deaths from air pollution could be cut by 40 percent in just a decade in the US. That’s over a hundred thousand lives saved.

The 2°C goal is not even the most ambitious goal from the Paris Agreement, ideally it is 1.5°C, but the benefit is shown to be enormous. A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that globally if the 2°C goal was met, over the next 50 years in the US 4.5 million premature deaths could be prevented, there would be 1.4 million fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and 300 million fewer lost workdays due to heat exposure or pollution-related respiratory illnesses. It would prevent 440 million tons of crop losses. The study also found that if only the US were to cut emissions to meet that goal, it would still deliver about two-thirds of those benefits.

"These benefits outweigh the costs of transitioning toward a completely net zero carbon economy, even in the very first decade," lead author Professor Drew Shindell from Duke University said in a statement.

The projections were constructed on a climate model developed by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies that simulated air pollution and heat exposure under different warming scenarios. They are also based on modeled demographic and economic changes around the world such as population growth and urbanization.

The unfolding climate crisis is putting people's lives at risk everywhere in the world and has already claimed too many, from extreme weather events to air pollution. The Paris Agreement has been in place since 2016, but current data suggests that not one of the world's major emitters of greenhouses gases are on target to meet its goal. 

One of the reasons why this has not happened yet, Shindell argues, is because governments worldwide think it is too expensive in the short term. Whether it's pressure from lobbyists or facing public opinion in upcoming elections, many leaders in positions of power are remaining complacent, putting off difficult decisions to be dealt with by their successors. This study shows that while the climate benefits will unfold over the long term, health benefits will become apparent in a matter of years, which should be enough of an incentive for those in power.

"Transitioning your economy to renewable energy and your cars to electric vehicles—all these kinds of things—requires spending a lot of money. It will save you money in the long run by reducing the disastrous effects of climate change, but in the near term, it doesn't really give you climate benefits that compensate for the cost because climate is slow, it just doesn't respond that quickly," Shindell explained. "The benefits of cleaner air, on the other hand, occur very quickly. Just look at how noticeably air quality improved after just a few months of reduced emissions during the COVID lockdowns."

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