Switching to clean energy sources and reducing air pollution emissions would save 50,000 American lives, or $600 billion a year

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 disease and deaths averted, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Published today in the journal GeoHealth, the study reports the health benefits of removing hazardous fine particles released into the air from power generation, transportation, industrial activities and building functions such as heating and cooking – also major sources of carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change, as they rely primarily on burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

“Our work provides insight into the magnitude of air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the U.S. energy system,” says Nick Mailloux, lead author of the study and graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. “Switching to clean energy sources can bring huge short-term public health benefits while mitigating longer-term climate change.”

Working with scientists specializing in air quality and public health, Mailloux used a model from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to determine the health benefits of completely reducing fine particulate emissions and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. These compounds can form particulates when released into the atmosphere.

These pollutants contribute to health problems such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and lower respiratory tract infections which can dramatically shorten life expectancy. Removing these pollutants would save about 53,200 lives each year in the United States, delivering about $608 billion in benefits in terms of avoided health costs and deaths, 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 being part of a concerted national effort. Effects can differ significantly in different parts of the United States due to regional variations in energy consumption and population.

The Southwest, a region comprising Arizona, California and Nevada, would retain 95% of the benefits if it moved on its own to eliminate fine particulate emissions.

“In the Montagnes region, however, most of the benefits of eliminating emissions are felt elsewhere,” says Mailloux. “Only 32% of the profits stay in the highland states. This is partly because there are large population centers downwind of the mountain region that would also benefit.

Each region of the country benefits more from national action than from individual action to reduce emissions.

“The Great Plains, for example, benefits more than twice as much from national efforts than from acting alone,” says Mailloux. “The more states and regions can coordinate their efforts to reduce emissions, the greater the benefits they can bring to all of us.”

The researchers hope that by describing short-term benefits in addition to threats of more distant climate impacts, the new study will motivate more action against climate change.

“Our analysis is timely, following last month’s report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which called for urgent action to transform the global energy economy,” says lead author Jonathan Patz. of study and professor at UW-Madison at the Nelson Institute. and Department of Population Health Sciences. “I hope the results of our research will inspire policy makers grappling with the necessary shift away from fossil fuels, to shift their thinking from burdens to benefits.”


Publication referenced in the article:

Nicholas A. Mailloux, David W. Abel, Tracey Holloway, Jonathan A. Patz. National and Regional PM 2.5 – Air Quality Health Benefits of Eliminating Energy-Related Emissions in the United States. GeoHealth, 2022; 6 (5) DOIs: 10.1029/2022GH000603


This article was written by the team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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