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Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually,Say Scientists

By Countercurrents.org

29 September, 2013

More than 500,000 lives could be saved globally each year by 2030 if the world took action to curb climate change, adding up to massive health benefits that far exceed the costs of forcing a reduction in fossil fuel emissions, says a new study. At the same time, observations by farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America confirm reports of rising temperatures and extreme weather.

Citing a research report published in Nature Climate Change Marianne Lavelle writes in National Geographic Daily News [1]:

The benefits of actions to curb climate change were especially striking for China , with its large population now exposed to some of the worst pollution in the world. The air quality and health benefits in East Asia in 2030 would amount to 10 to 70 times the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers concluded.

The researchers concluded that the average global benefits of avoided mortality from these pollutants would add up to $50 to $380 for every ton of carbon dioxide reduced by 2030, when a half million lives would be saved annually. That far exceeds the projected costs of those reductions, estimated to be from $0 to $33 per ton.

The study calculates the potential health impact based on one potential scenario for GHG mitigation that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses in its latest assessment report made public Friday.

The scenario (known prosaically, in typical IPCC fashion, as "Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5") is one in which nations establish a global price on carbon across all economic sectors through an efficiently functioning market. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would decrease by 2100 from a projected 760 parts per million (ppm) to 525 ppm. (Even though that would be an increase in atmospheric carbon from today's level of about 400 ppm, it would mark a substantial decrease in the current trajectory.)

The study is the latest in a number of studies that have sought to underscore the health impact of climate change. With world leaders stymied on reaching a political agreement to curb fossil fuel emissions, much of this research seeks to quantify and make more tangible the costs of inaction.

The new paper, written by a team led by Jason West, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, turns the equation around slightly: It seeks to quantify the benefits of action. 

"Neglecting the air quality co-benefits misses an important component of the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," West said in an interview. "We show those benefits are large enough that they should be part of the analysis, and it should give extra motivation for people to think about why we should be taking action to slow climate change."

Under such a scenario, fossil fuel use would decrease substantially; it would be replaced with nuclear and renewable energy, primarily wind power. Energy demand also would be curbed, and forest cover would be increased. The scenario assumes that the carbon emissions from nearly all electricity generated by fossil fuels and biofuels would be captured with carbon capture and geologic storage technology by 2100.

West and his team looked closely at just one set of health impacts of such a scenario: the benefits that would result from the substantial reductions in ozone and particulate matter, pollutants for which the link to respiratory disease and deaths is well established. 

Citing the study Marianne writes:

If the world continued on this carbon reduction pathway, the number of lives saved by 2050 would increase to 1.3 million per year, and by 2100, to 2.2 million per year, the researchers projected. The health benefits would clearly exceed the costs in 2030 and in 2050.  Even though the number of lives saved increases dramatically by 2100, it is less clear that the benefits outweigh the costs at that point in the projection. That's because the cost estimates for carbon mitigation become far greater in the distant future, when it assumed that there are no major technology breakthroughs and the cheapest measures—like energy efficiency—have been exhausted. Still, even in 2100, the health benefits calculated by the UNC team fall within the range of the lowest cost estimates for carbon mitigation.

"This is a very important kind of analysis, and I think more and more people are trying to figure out how best to do this," said Dan Greenbaum, president of Boston-based Health Effects Institute, who was not involved in the new study. "The impact of CO2 itself can seem quite abstract to people. This is a much more concrete way of showing what the other benefits are as you move away from coal-fired power plants."

Greenbaum noted that the researchers needed to look far into the future in their analysis, even though there are always uncertainties built into such long-term projections. The assumptions they've made "are not unreasonable ones," he said. Other studies may come up with lower projections on mortality due to air pollution in the distant future because of evidence that the number of deaths increase less rapidly at the higher levels of pollution seen in some Asian countries, he said. This was a key feature of the landmark Global Burden of Disease study published last year in The Lancet, in which Greenbaum participated.

The health benefits of climate mitigation in the UNC study are markedly higher than those calculated in previous studies that have attempted to tackle the issue. That's because the researchers sought to account for a number of influences not included in previous analyses, like the increase in economic activity (and value of life) in the future, the susceptibility to air pollution in certain populations, and the long-range transport of air pollution, affecting the health of people living "downwind."

Farmers' observation

In a report headlined “Is the IPCC right on climate change? Just ask the world's farmers” [2] John Vidal writes:

European development groups have reported that the IPCC's latest scientific assessment of the phenomenon matches the observations and experiences of farming and other groups they partner in Africa, Asia and Latin America .

The IPCC scientists, who acknowledge they often have only sketchy rainfall and temperature data for many areas in developing countries, say global temperatures have risen, extreme weather is more frequent and rainfall less predictable.

"Climate change is a reality here. We can see the impacts everywhere. There are new insects on our crops because of higher temperatures here. We can't produce now without spraying the crops," said a Bolivian farmer, Alivio Aruquipa, who lives in La Granja , near La Paz and works with Christian Aid partner group Agua Sustentable (Care).

"We are the ones who feel the impact of climate change. We have suffered a lot with the lack of water. People feel that they have to leave the country, or leave their homes to look for work and find a way of feeding their families. There are conflicts over water between the different communities because we all need water and there isn't enough for everyone," he said.

"The people we work with are living with the effects of climate change right now. In Niger , farmers are being forced to find new sources of income as climatic changes make rearing livestock impossible. In Peru, highland communities, who have relied on regular water supplies from Andean glaciers for centuries, are having to cope with shifting water availability which is affecting their ability to grow food to feed their families and make a living," said Care's climate change officer, Sven Harmeling.

Nkhuleme Ntambalika, who lives in the Balaka district in Malawi and has been helped by the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, said rainfall patterns had become increasingly erratic, something they attributed to climate change. "We used to have very stable rainfall that was adequate and non-erosive. These days no one knows when to plant crops. When rains come, they are either too little for planting or too heavy, such that fields get waterlogged or eroded. A prolonged dry spell follows and scorches the germinated crops. The seed is lost."

"The latest climate science affirms what small-scale farmers around the world are telling us, that seasons are changing, weather is increasingly extreme and unpredictable making it tougher to feed their families," said Oxfam in a new briefing paper. "It is important to recognize that climate change is happening at the same time as vulnerabilities are changing drastically. Of the 3 billion people who live in rural areas in developing countries, 2.5 billion are involved in agriculture, and 1.5 billion live in small farmer households. Many are perilously exposed to changes in the climate, meaning that too much rain, or too little, can be the difference between having enough food or living in hunger."

Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, said the report confirmed that human activities were responsible for increased climate instability. "But there is also value in what the IPCC report does not say, such as how the climate will change from place to place. Climate models are not yet robust enough to predict impacts at local and regional scales, but it is clear from the experience of the many people with whom we work, who have faced loss and damage this year alone, that everybody is vulnerable in some way. This uncertainty about local impacts, coupled with the certainty that impacts will come, is a stark warning that everyone needs to get ready. Citizens and business leaders worldwide need to press governments to act, both at home and on the international stage."

In a report [3] farmers and fishers from different parts of Bangladesh also reported erratic changes in weather pattern that harms their yield/catch. This report was made a few years ago. They observed: rainless monsoon, cooler summer, etc.


[1] National Geographic , Sept. 26, 2013, “Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually, Study Says”,

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/09/130926-climate-change-action-could-save-lives/ . This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

[2] theguardian.com, Sept. 27, 2013,


[3] Farooque Chowdhury, “Whither Climate in the Land of Six Seasons?”, People's Report 2002-2003, Bangladesh Environment, vol. 1, UNDP, 2004




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