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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Climate Control and Clean Air

Air Date: Week of November 7, 1997

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions would help control global temperature rise in the long term. A more immediate benefit would be cleaner air - especially with respect to soot and other airborne particles. Steve chats with Dr. Joel Schwartz, an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health about his recent findings on this front.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most of the studies which look at the possible public health effects of climate change consider future problems, like the spread of disease, unstable food supplies, and rising sea levels. But a research team assembled by the World Health Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Resources Institute, has found there would be an immediate and large health benefit to cutting emissions from fossil fuels, especially coal. Along with carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, fossil fuels also produce deadly particulate pollution. Writing in the current issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, the researchers report that proposals by the European Union for the Kyoto negotiations to cut greenhouse gases in industrial countries would save an estimated half million lives in the United States over the next decade. At the same time, the researchers say, a 10% reduction in the growth of fossil fuel use in developing countries could save as many as 7 million lives there in the same period. Dr. Joel Schwartz is an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and is one of the authors of the study.

SCHWARTZ: Forgetting about global warming, if you just look at the strategies on the table to deal with global warming and ask what are the benefits of the pollution reductions in terms of direct health benefits, how big are they and are they worthwhile in and of themselves? And what we found is that the health benefits both in the industrialized nations and in the developing world are tremendous from going forward with these steps.

CURWOOD: Now, the Europeans have proposed cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by the year 2010. If that happened in the industrialized part of the world, how many excess deaths from particulate pollution would be saved, do you think?

SCHWARTZ: Well, we'd be talking about tens of thousands of deaths a year that would be avoided in the United States and similar numbers in Europe from strategies like that.

CURWOOD: This is a crass question, but what are these lives worth, do you think?

SCHWARTZ: Well, in the United States, if you look at how much extra money you have to pay people to work in occupations with a higher risk for accidental death, and you convert that into how many dollars you're paying per life, you get numbers on the order of $4 million a life. So, what we're talking about in the United States alone is tens of billions of dollars a year in economic benefits.

CURWOOD: Now, right now, the developing countries aren't part of the Kyoto arrangement. What are your assumptions there when you say that developing countries could have reduced mortality from cleaning up their air?

SCHWARTZ: They aren't part of the Kyoto agreement and that's in fact one of the problems in coming to an agreement. Basically, any time a country does something to achieve global climate benefits, those benefits accrue to everybody in the world, but you're paying for it. And so each nation says well, we don't want to pay for it. People in the US complain about economic advantages. People in the developing world say well, you know, we haven't had our chance to develop yet. When you start looking at these air pollution benefits, they're local. And that makes a big difference. What you can say to the developing countries is, yes, it's true, you don't use as many tons of CO2 per person as the United States does. But the ones that you're using are killing your citizens, and here's how many lives you could save in your country if you did something about that. And it's worth it to you. So it moves things from being a sort of fight between countries and who's going to pay for a common good to making it clear to these countries that they actually each have it in their own interest to do something.

CURWOOD: How many lives are you talking about saving in the developing world?

SCHWARTZ: When you move to the developing world, we're talking about much bigger numbers, because there's a lot of very dirty coal combustion in places like China and India and it's growing very fast. So you're talking about, you know, numbers up, like, hundreds of thousands of deaths per year that can be avoided.

CURWOOD: What are the big uncertainties about this study?

SCHWARTZ: If you were to take the study as how many people, how many lives will be saved under scenario X, there are big uncertainties because there are uncertainties about what the actual strategies would be to reduce CO2 emissions. There are uncertainties about what the pollution concentrations would be. But if you look at it more broadly, how uncertain is the conclusion that if you did something reasonable to control the use of fossil fuel and the buildup of CO2 emissions, that there would be health benefits that would be commensurate with that? Then I think there's very little uncertainty. You'd really have to think that, you know, the conclusions of WHO and the US government and the British government and all the people who have reviewed these studies linking particulate air pollution to mortality are wrong to come up with a different answer.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

SCHWARTZ: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Dr. Joel Schwartz teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health. He's an epidemiologist and a former official of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.



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