Climate Action

China could save 94,000 lives and $339 billion by sticking to climate goals

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital not only to avoid dangerous climate change, but if we also want to build cleaner, more prosperous societies

  • 25 April 2018
  • Adam Wentworth

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital not only to avoid dangerous climate change, but if we also want to build cleaner, more prosperous societies.

It has long been known, for example, that tackling climate change can help avoid premature deaths caused by related air pollution.

These so-called “co-benefits” are much discussed within policy and academic circles, highlighting the compelling case to transition to low-carbon and clean economies.

The latest contribution to research on this issue has come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which modelled the impact of China’s climate policies in the future.

The researchers used an innovative model to measure the impact of different climate scenarios in China, including the country’s own pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 4 percent per year before 2030.

The framework looked at how combatting climate change at a provincial level would affect energy usage, the level of air pollutants, emissions and economic activity.

These possible scenarios were mapped with levels of particulate matter and the main population centres within the country. This helped calculate the amount of pollution which is likely to be inhaled given the stringency of each scenario: one that has no climate policy, versus ones which take climate action.

The amount of economic activity was partly estimated on the basis of deaths avoided.

They found that if China sticks to its pledges under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by 4 percent it would save an estimated 94,000 lives. And saving these lives would help contribute $339 billion to the economy. These savings are about four times what it would cost to meet China’s climate goals.

“The country could actually come out net positive, just based on the health co-benefits associated with air quality improvements, relative to the cost of a climate policy,” says study co-author Noelle Eckley Selin, an associate professor at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This is a motivating factor for countries to engage in global climate policy.”

China is heavily reliant on coal-fired power plants to drive its economy and meet its enormous energy demand. Replacing these plants with cleaner alternatives, such as renewables, is seen as the low-hanging fruit to reduce emissions and save lives.

“This is really a sustainability story,” Selin says. “We have all these policy goals for a transition toward a more sustainable society. Mitigating air pollution, a leading cause of death, is one of them, and avoiding dangerous climate change is another. Thinking about how we might inform policy to address these objectives simultaneously, when they actually interact economically and atmospherically, is important to sort out from a science perspective.”