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Global health benefits to offset high costs of changing climate policies

Climate change

9 May 2019

The trillions made annually from improving human health as a result of changing climate policy could offset initial high costs to government, business and industry, a new study has found.
Tiffany Hionas

An international team of researchers has shown that the negative impacts to human health caused by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change can act as a strong incentive for policymakers and may even be economically beneficial short-term.

While our personal health may seemingly be linked to factors such as local environmental exposures, occupation, behaviour and healthcare access, sustained population health requires reducing global emissions. According to WHO, 4.2m deaths occur every year globally as a result of exposure to air pollution, therefore interventions to reduce exposure are vital in order to lower the number of deaths from air pollution.

The team found that adding air pollution to global climate models would produce immediate net benefits globally, as the health benefits could reach trillions in value annually. However, this is subjective to the quality policies that nations adopt.

‘By making smart investments in climate action, we can save lives now through improved air quality and health,’ said Mark Budolfson, co-lead author from the University of Vermont, US, implying that immediate investments will benefit the current generation of citizens and also address climate change for future generations.

The new modelling framework for analysing CO2 policy considers the costs and benefits of air pollutant emissions, which produces aerosols. Aerosol pollution is damaging to human health but acts to cool the earth, counterbalancing some of the warming generated by greenhouse gases.

However, with the reduction of air pollutant emissions, the beneficial effect would be lost. The team have included both of the opposing effects in their framework.

The potential health benefits of climate policy have traditionally not been factored into cost-benefit models. These models estimate how much investment should be made to reduce emissions and the team are supporting the health benefits from reduced air pollution, claiming that with the cost of reducing emissions, there would be immediate global net benefits.

‘Accounting for the human health dimension alleviates many of these difficulties: Health benefits begin immediately (and) occur near where emissions are reduced,’ said Marc Fleurbaeu from Princeton University, US.

The group support the findings that health benefits resulting from air pollution reductions outweigh the near-term costs, specifically in developing regions where there has been a reluctance to invest in emission cuts.

Currently, China and India face the highest death rates from air pollution and therefore they would gain most from associated health benefits, which could encourage them to adopt stronger climate policies.

DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-09499-x

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