Cutting carbon dioxide emissions in China could save lives in the US

Carbon emissions pose significant risk for the planet

China is the most populous country in the world. As such, it emits more CO2 than any other nation. Under the Paris Agreement, China has pledged to limit its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. It turns out, neighboring countries could benefit if China meets its climate objectives.

According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study, if the superpower decreases these harmful emissions, the effects would be felt around the world. Improved air quality could help prevent nearly 2,000 premature deaths in the United States alone. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea will also benefit from the reduction.

Deadly Air Pollutants

The ozone concentration and the amount of particulate air pollution (PM2.5) in the atmosphere can cause adverse health effects when the numbers rise. In very high concentrations, these pollutants can even lead to death.

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PM2.5 are tiny toxic particles that float across the air over the Pacific. Inhaling the pollutants can cause premature death due to ischemic heart disease (IHD), cerebrovascular disease (CEV), acute lower respiratory illness (ALRI), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer (LC).

Unfortunately, both ozone and PM2.5 can travel long distances. Researchers note that reducing atmospheric levels of these toxins in the “origin country,” in this case China, offers health benefits for it and three nations downwind.

An astonishing 60 percent of premature deaths noted in the study were due to inhaling PM2.5. The other 40 percent occurred after subjects inhaled ozone. According to the EPA, inhaling ozone can damage the lungs and cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and other respiratory issues. It can also restrict the body’s ability to stave off a respiratory infection.

Furthermore, the MIT study explains how other air pollutants such as “sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, black carbon, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds react with each other and sunlight to create the deadly drift of PM2.5 and ozone.”

Ultimately, finding a way to curb airborne contaminants across the globe can save thousands of lives.

Paying the Positive Impact Forward

First and foremost, implementing climate policies that restrict CO2 emissions can make a significant impact in China. In reaching its Paris Agreement targets, the nation can reportedly prevent up to 94,000 premature deaths by 2030.

Researchers published the study in the Environmental Research Letters journal. The team used computer modeling that “couples an energy-economic model with an atmospheric chemistry model.” Results indicate that, if the country sticks to its 2030 CO2 pledge, “atmospheric ozone concentrations would fall by 1.6 parts per billion” that year domestically.

In other words, the more stringent the climate policy, the more significant the decline in Chinese air pollutants. However, improved air quality and its subsequent health benefits could also pay China’s positive impact forward.

Beyond saving thousands of American lives, cleaner air in the Sino nation could prevent 1,200 premature deaths in South Korea and 3,500 fatalities in Japan.

Noelle Eckley Selin, study co-leader and associate professor at MIT, addressed the mutual benefits revealed by the results. “The results show that climate policy in China can influence air quality even as far away as the U.S. This shows that policy action on climate is indeed in everyone’s interest, in the near term as well as in the longer term.”

Achieving or Beating Climate Policy Goals

Selin is right. Combating climate change remains a pressing global issue. China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Therefore, its actions play a critical role in protecting the Earth for future generations.

To achieve its goals, China must decrease its consumption of coal and other fossil fuels. Notably, the country used a whopping 51 percent of the global coal energy supply in 2016.

Fortunately, research published in Nature Sustainability suggests that China could reach its peak emissions target 10 years earlier than outlined in its Paris Agreement pledge. Opinions on whether the superpower will beat its projections vary. Jennifer Tollmann, a policy advisor from environmental think tank E3G, responded to the Nature Sustainability study in an interview with Carbon Brief:

“Studies like this show that for China, higher emissions reduction targets are absolutely achievable,” Tollmann said. “With the UN secretary general’s Climate Action Summit just around the corner, this should give China even more confidence in its ability to do more, faster.”

Tollmann also thinks that the country should put a cap on a new coal infrastructure built after 2020. Making this move will help China best its 2030 pledge date.

Indeed, the nation seems intent on achieving its climate policy goals or exceeding them. At the G20 summit in June, China issued a joint statement with France and UN Chief António Guterres noting that, “They reaffirmed their commitment to update their nationally determined contributions in a manner representing a progression beyond the current one and reflecting their highest possible ambition.”

Overall, regardless of when China meets its greenhouse gas emissions objectives, cutting back on them could save thousands of lives.