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Climate action improves air quality, preventing deaths and helping us grow more food

Climate commitments could raise crop yields by 0.2% for rice, 0.5% for wheat and maize, and 1% for soy by 2030.
Climate commitments could raise crop yields by 0.2% for rice, 0.5% for wheat and maize, and 1% for soy by 2030.
Nov 22 2018

A new study finds that the air quality improvements stemming from currently pledged energy and climate policies can prevent more than 71k premature deaths annually by 2030 and significantly increase agricultural crop yields.

Air pollution has a severe impact on health.

Around 90% of city dwellers in Europe, and over 90% of the world's population are exposed to particulate matter levels that are above the World Health Organization's air quality guidelines.

This exposure can lead to premature death, birth defects, asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

At the same time, air pollution in the form of ground-level ozone has a negative impact on plant growth and agricultural productivity.

While climate action is primarily aimed at limiting global warming, JRC scientists find that there are also considerable benefits from CO2 mitigation policies to air quality and human health.

The study combines climate, energy, atmospheric chemistry, and economic models to quantify these impacts in line with the climate change mitigation policy proposals put forward in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) pledged in the run-up to the Paris Agreement.

The results have been published in a Nature Communications report, "Air quality co-benefits for human health and agriculture counterbalance costs to meet Paris Agreement pledges" .

Raising ambition means cleaner air and better health

By reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and substituting them with, on average, cleaner and low carbon fuels, the NDCs lower the concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground-level ozone, and could prevent between 71k and 99k premature deaths due to air pollution in 2030, compared to a reference case that only includes energy and climate policies that are already implemented today.

By reducing ozone precursor emissions, these same commitments could raise crop yields by 0.2% for rice, 0.5% for wheat and maize, and 1% for soy by 2030.

Ramping up action - to aim for warming below 2°C - raises the number of annual avoided premature deaths to 178k-346k annually in 2030, and 0.7-1.5 million in the year 2050.

The study highlights that an integrated policy perspective is needed to maximize benefits for climate, energy and health. Exploiting the synergies between these policies can unlock the potential to reach multiple Sustainable Development Goals.

Co-benefits with high value

The study also finds that global air quality co-benefits of climate and energy policy - on lost work days through illness, premature mortality, and agriculture - offset the economic cost of climate policy for many regions in the world.

This is particularly true for heavily polluted countries such as India and China. These local air quality co-benefits can help spur support for ambitious climate action and enable progress on related Sustainable Development Goals of Good health (SDG3), Clean energy (SDG7), and Zero hunger (SDG2).

Background

The study was presented at the yearly IAMC conference and at the WHO's First Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, where academics and policymakers met to discuss approaches to tackle the challenge of air pollution head-on. The Geneva Action Agenda was put forward, which aims at reducing the number of deaths from air pollution by two thirds by 2030.

As countries get together in Katowice for the UNFCCC's COP24 in December, looking for synergies across policy domains and positive spill-overs across borders can provide a promising channel to ratchet up ambition levels to limit global warming to well below 2°C.

The analysis underlying this publication combines several JRC models:

  • the world energy system model POLES-JRC is used for energy sector and greenhouse gas emissions projections;
  • the atmospheric chemistry model TM5-FASST maps air pollutant emissions to globally gridded concentrations of PM2.5 and tropospheric ozone;
  • the Computable General Equilibrium model JRC-GEM-E3 is used for assessing both the costs and the market co-benefits of climate change mitigation pathways.

In addition to these JRC-developed models, the health impact analysis has also benefited from the external expertise of climate consultants Joseph V. Spadaro and Mike Holland.

This paper builds on the evidence presented in the JRC's Global Energy and Climate Outlook (GECO) for 2017. The GECO reports explore topics at the heart of the energy and climate policy discussions, with a specific focus each year. The 2016 edition and corresponding academic paper revealed the implications of the Paris pledges for greenhouse gases, while the 2018 edition will provide the international context for a long-term European strategy for decarbonisation.