In place of the “bleak minimalism often associated with a low-carbon future,” climate campaigners should play up “a health benefit equivalent to quitting tobacco, alcohol, and fast food” when coal plants are shut down, argues Dr. Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a recent Guardian op ed.
The burning of “fossil fuels, especially coal, accounted for 78% of the total increase in [atmospheric] carbon dioxide between 1970 and 2010,” Patz writes. But “burning coal also releases pollutants such as fine particulates which are deadly to human health.”
Eliminating the coal-burning as a strategy to stabilize the climate in decades ahead “could, more immediately, save an estimated one to four million lives annually from improved air quality,” he notes.
“Health benefits could far outweigh the cost of clean energy investments,” he argues. “For example, in the United States, monetized health benefits associated with improved air quality can offset between 26% and 1,050% of the cost of U.S. low-carbon policies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates a US$30 return for every dollar invested in reducing air pollution through the Clean Air Act.”
Additional “major health co-benefits accrue” to the extent that climate policies also encourage urban walking and cycling, the physician writes. “Active commuting in Shanghai, China was associated with a reduction in colon cancer of 48% in men and 44% in women. Bicycling commuters in Copenhagen have a 39% reduction in mortality rate compared with non-cycling commuters.”
Air pollution kills 3.3 million people a year around the globe, Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of public health, environmental and social determinants of health, told the Guardian last year, overwhelming some nations’ health systems. The International Institute for Sustainable Development estimates that such pollution cost the Canadian economy alone C$36 billion in 2015.