Thu 26 Apr 2018
We should account for the costs of disease and death from fossil fuel pollution in climate change policies
While the climate policy world is littered with numbers, three of them have dominated recent discourse: 2, 1000, and 66.
At the 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris, world leaders agreed to limit global warming below 2°C to avoid catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate change. The science consequently dictates that, for a 50% chance of staying below 2°C, around 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (or 300 billion tonnes of carbon) can be emitted between now and 2050, and close to zero thereafter. We’re currently emitting 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. However, the potential greenhouse gas emissions contained in known, extractable fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this carbon budget, meaning that 66% must be kept in the ground.
The debate du jour thus centers on which emissions reduction pathway is most optimal for staying below 2°C. The calculus of many policymakers, economists, fossil fuel companies, and indeed scientists, is that the most economical way to stay below 2°C is to delay most emissions reductions for decades to come, and then to play catch up by relying heavily on as-yet technically and economically unviable negative-emissions technologies. However, a crucial number has been neglected in this mainstream calculation: 6.1 million.
Each year, 6.1 million lives are lost prematurely due to air pollution. Though most acutely and visibly hampering megacities of the developing world, air pollution is a growing public health emergency that affects almost all of us in our daily lives, whether or not we are aware of it. The Health Effects Institute estimates that only 5% of the global population are lucky enough to live in areas with air pollution levels below safe guidelines. Though recent studies suggest there may in fact be no risk-free level of air pollution.