If India reduces air pollution significantly, the savings from health costs would be many times the amount it spends on reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change

The disease burden due to air pollution is quite high in India (Photo by Ankit Chawla)

Savings from reducing diseases caused by air pollution could help India earn economic benefits that would be many times the amount it spends on controlling global warming, according to a new global study in the Lancet Planetary Health journal.

“India is estimated to spend between USD 0.1 trillion and USD 6.5 trillion between 2020 and 2050 on actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the study titled Health co-benefits from air pollution and mitigation costs of the Paris Agreement: a modelling study. “Savings from improved health could be anywhere between USD 5 trillion to USD 30 trillion in the same period.” This amounts to a five-fold benefit.

“Our results show that the co-benefits from air pollution reduction compensate the mitigation cost of reducing greenhouse gases in all the scenarios we have considered,” lead author Anil Markandya of the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3) in Spain told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “This means under all the different criteria for allocating mitigation efforts between rich and poor countries for India, it is desirable for India to participate and reduce emissions, thus helping to meet the (targets of) Paris climate agreement.”

The authors of the study said that there have till now been no comparison of the costs of mitigating global warming and the economic benefits of reducing air pollution. They looked at the costs of restricting global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times agreed upon at the 2015 Paris climate summit as well as the more ambitious 1·5-degree Celsius goal, and the corresponding health benefits.

“The net benefit for India for pursing a 2 degree Celsius scenario is between USD 19-26 trillion and will avoid millions of premature deaths from 2020-2050 (a reduction of 24-32% from the baseline),” co-author Mikel González-Eguino of BC3 told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

India, and to a lesser extent China, are the biggest gainers in both scenarios. The additional cost of trying to pursue the 1·5 degree Celsius target instead of 2 degrees would generate a substantial net benefit in India of USD 3·28–8·4 trillion and China USD 0·27–2·31 trillion, although this positive result was not seen elsewhere in the world. This is because air pollution is very high across India, particularly in the cities.

“It is also quite remarkable that for the case of India, the extra effort of trying to achieve the 1.5 degree target instead of the less ambitious 2 degrees target is also beneficial due to the higher extra damage avoided from air pollution,” Markandya said. “In practical terms, this means for India that low-carbon measures, such as reducing the use of coal and promoting renewables, are good for the climate, but they are even better for the sake of Indian citizens.”

Significant finding

The study has demonstrated that reducing the emission of greenhouse gases has co-benefits in terms of air quality, according to Hem Dholakia of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a New Delhi-based think tank. “When these health impacts of cleaner air are monetised, the benefits outweigh the direct costs of mitigation measures,” Dholakia told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “For India, given the high levels of pollution and significant disease burdens we face, any measure to reduce GHG or air pollution will prove beneficial, regardless of the scenario or value of statistical life. This is a significant finding.”

Since the findings of the study are based on multiple models and includes analysis across scenarios, it has gone further than similar research done earlier, said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, who leads the low-carbon pathways research at CEEW. “The finding is similar to what other studies have said before,” Chaturvedi said. “But it is valuable as it is a more robust analysis with multiple models and scenarios.”

“From the climate perspective, whatever India is doing in terms of climate policy, has it really changed because of the health co-benefit argument?” asked Chaturvedi. “Is our solar ambition because of any health co-benefits? It definitely is going to impact health positively, as coal’s share goes down. Still, health co-benefits are not in the picture while formulating climate policies.”

Note of caution

However, Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver sounded a note of caution. “Health is changing rapidly and dynamically in India so projections to 2050, as in this paper, should be taken very cautiously,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “It may be that other aspects related to health (changes in the age structure of the population, the rate of diseases affected by air pollution, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases) will be much larger and occur faster than would air quality impacts.”

There are many studies that establish the toll of air pollution, according to Chandra Venkataraman of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, who has been involved in the Global Burden of Disease studies for India, which measures health impacts in financial costs and disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

A study by Milind Kandlikar of the University of British Columbia estimates the benefits of replacing kerosene by electricity and using cooking gas in cook stoves instead of polluting fuels. But Venkataraman pointed out that since the latest study examined the costs under India’s Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris agreement, it was “a good spin”.

The current study builds on previous work by Markandya and others, many of which have been published by the Lancet group of journals. In 2009, he was lead author of a study titled Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: low-carbon electricity generation.

The same year, Kirk Smith, now at the University of California in Berkeley, who has studied the health implications of using polluting cook stoves in Indian villages for decades, co-authored a paper dealing with short-lived greenhouse pollutants.

Last year, Andrew Haines published a study titled Health co-benefits of climate action, which cited how the International Energy Agency suggested that a 7% increase in investment to achieve a clean air scenario could result in saving three million premature deaths worldwide in 2040, provide energy access for all, and lead to a peak in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

“The key contribution of this (current) report is that it makes visible the very large, previously hidden health and economic benefits of climate mitigation and shows that these benefits are greater than the costs of climate change prevention,” said Philip Landrigan, an American paediatrician. “Political and economic arguments against climate mitigation and pollution control are typically based on short-sighted, one-sided, and self-serving calculations that consider only the tangible, concrete, and relatively easily counted costs of controlling emissions. This report’s carefully crafted conclusion that the health and economic benefits of climate mitigation significantly outweigh its costs provides a powerful rebuttal to those arguments.”


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