Eliminating air pollution emissions from energy-related activities in the United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths each year and provide more than $600 billion in benefits each year from avoided illness and death, according to a new study.
16 May 2022
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Contact information for the researchers:
Nick Mailloux, University of Wisconsin-Madison, [email protected] (UTC-5 hours)
Jonathan Patz, University of Wisconsin-Madison, [email protected] (UTC-5 hours)
WASHINGTON—Eliminating air pollution emissions from energy-related activities in the United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths each year and provide more than $600 billion in benefits each year from avoided illness and death, according to a new study.
Published today in the AGU journal GeoHealth, the study estimated the health benefits of removing dangerous, fine particulate matter released into the air by burning fossil fuels for electricity generation, transportation, industrial activities and building functions such as heating and cooking. These activities are also major sources of carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change.
“Our work provides a sense of the scale of the air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the U.S. energy system,” said Nick Mailloux, lead author of the study and a graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment in UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “Shifting to clean energy sources can provide enormous benefit for public health in the near term while mitigating climate change in the longer term.”
Working with scientists specializing in air quality and public health, Mailloux and colleagues used a model from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine the health benefits from a complete reduction in emissions of fine particulate matter. They also included sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which can form particulate matter once released into the atmosphere.
These pollutants contribute to health problems such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and lower respiratory infections that can dramatically shorten lifespans. Doing away with these pollutants would save about 53,200 lives each year in the US, providing about $608 billion in benefits from avoided healthcare costs and loss of life, according to the researchers’ analysis.
The researchers also studied the health effects if regions of the country were to act independently to reduce emissions instead of as part of a concerted nationwide effort. The effects can differ widely in different parts of the US, in part because of regional variations in energy production and use, atmospheric patterns and population.
The Southwest, a region comprising Arizona, California and Nevada, would retain 95 percent of the benefits of reduced loss-of-life if the region moved alone to eliminate fine particle emissions.
“In the Mountain region, though, most of the benefit of emissions removal is felt somewhere else,” Mailloux said. “Just 32 percent of the benefit remains in states in the Mountain region. This is partly because there are large population centers downwind of the Mountain region that would also benefit.”
Every region of the country would benefit more substantially from nationwide action than from separated regional efforts to reduce emissions, according to the study.
“The Great Plains, for example, gets more than twice as much benefit from nationwide efforts as it does from acting alone,” said Mailloux. “The more that states and regions can coordinate their emissions reductions efforts, the greater the benefit they can provide to us all.”
The researchers hope that by describing the near-term payoffs on top of the threats of more distant climate impacts, the new study motivates more urgent action on climate change.
“Our analysis is timely, following last month’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that called for urgent action to transform the world’s energy economy,” said Jonathan Patz, senior author of the study and a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Population Health Sciences. “My hope is that our research findings might spur decision-makers grappling with the necessary move away from fossil fuels, to shift their thinking from burdens to benefits.”
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Notes for Journalists:
This research study is published with open access and is freely available. Download a PDF copy of the paper here. Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.
“Nationwide and Regional PM2.5-Related Air Quality Health Benefits from the Removal of Energy-Related Emissions in the United States”
- Nicholas Mailloux (corresponding author), David Abel, Center for Sustainability and Global Environment, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
- Tracey Holloway, Center for Sustainability and Global Environment, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
- Jonathan Patz, Center for Sustainability and Global Environment, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and Department of Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
Joint Release with UW-Madison