A layer of smog covers the city of Brussels, March, 2014
Photo: Geert Vanden Wijngaert (AP Photo)

Everyone does it: whether it’s paying your bills, turning in an assignment or emailing your mom back, we’re all guilty of pushing the problem for another day. And this is exactly what we’ve been doing with climate change for the past 50 years - kicking the can down the road and hoping that somewhere somehow someone else will find a solution. But this sort of thinking has some pretty serious consequences. A new study led by Duke University found that over 150 million lives could be saved over the next 80 years if we aggressively cut our carbon emissions now, rather than cramming the bulk of emissions reductions later in the century. The study, which combined climate models and public health data on air-pollution related deaths, forecasted the millions of premature deaths linked to air pollution that could be avoided in cities across the world, if only we stopped procrastinating.

“Since air pollution is something we understand very well and have extensive historical data on, we can say with relatively high certainty how many people will die in a given city under each [emissions reductions] scenario,” said the paper’s lead author, Drew Shindell, Professor of Earth Sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Hopefully, this information will help policymakers and the public grasp the benefits of accelerating carbon reductions in the near term, in a way that really hits home.”

Graphic: Nature Climate Change, 2018. Quantified, Localized Health Benefits of Accelerated Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The study is the first of its kind, forecasting the number of lives that could be saved in 154 of the world’s largest urban areas. Cities in every continent stand to benefit from cleaner air, with the largest impact being felt in Asia and Africa. 15 cities in these regions, including Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore and Dongguan could each avoid more than one million premature deaths. In the U.S., the largest gains would be felt by the people of Los Angeles and New York, with over 120,000 premature deaths being avoided in each city.

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Under the Paris Agreement, the world agreed to act collectively on global warming and cap rising temperatures “well below two degrees Celsius.” The bulk of these reductions come in the form of voluntary emissions reductions from each country, which are called “ Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs). The combined pledges under the NDCs aren’t actually enough to keep warming below two degrees Celsius, but many conservationists are hopeful that countries will ramp up their pledges in the coming decades, overcoming the emissions gap. The problem, as Shindell points out, is that as countries take a low-cost approach to emissions reductions (keeping emissions of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants high in the short-term in the hopes that they can be offset by negative emissions in the distant future), they put human lives at risk.

“The lowest-cost approach only looks at how much it will cost to transform the energy sector. It ignores the human cost of more than 150 million lost lives, or the fact that slashing emissions in the near term will reduce long-term climate risk and avoid the need to rely on future carbon dioxide removal,” he said. “That’s a very risky strategy, like buying something on credit and assuming you’ll someday have a big enough income to pay it all back.”

Climate change isn’t an easy problem to get a handle of – the earth is warming, but we can’t feel the heat, and so we need to rely on scientists and data to tell us that it is. And even once the consequences are explained to us, they’re so far in the future that it’s easier to just ignore them (it’s hard enough for us to even think about what we’re going to do next week, forget about planning for the next few decades). This is what makes implementing climate change policy so hard - it’s asking people to change their habits now to save the world of the future. And it’s also what makes studies like this one so important; linking environmental policy to 150 million human lives might help us take the problem more seriously. So, take a breath of fresh air and stop procrastinating.