Retiring specific power stations around the world could save six million lives over the next 30 years, according to a team of researchers from Tsinghua University in China.
In a study published in Nature Climate Change, the researchers examined the health effects of individual power plants around the world – in regard to heat-related deaths from climate change, and from air particle pollution.
The researchers used computer modelling to predict different emissions, warming and policy scenarios between 2010 and 2050.
They found that the most ambitious emissions-reduction policies, combined with strategic shutdowns and replacements of the highest-polluting power plants, would avoid six million deaths, as well as prevent 43 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
The researchers also point out that these power stations, and deaths from pollution and global warming, are not distributed equally around the world. Between 2010 and 2018, the models indicate that around 92% of deaths related to power-plant emissions happened in low-income and emerging economies, including China, India and countries in Southeast Asia.
It’s well established that climate change and air pollution are both detrimental to human health, and low- and middle-income countries are often the worst affected. Closing fossil-fuel-burning power stations is therefore going to have global health benefits.
But the researchers say their modelling shows these benefits won’t necessarily be maximised or reaped evenly, depending on which power stations are closed first and which are allowed to burn for longer.
“Air-pollution deaths are not an automatic and fixed co-benefit of all climate mitigation,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“Rather, pollution controls and strategic retirements of the most-polluting and harmful power plants may ultimately determine the extent to which health co-benefits are realized.
“[…] Our results add important nuance to policy-relevant discussions of health co-benefits of climate change mitigation by showing that realizing such benefits often depends on supplementary programmes to deploy pollution control technologies and to target super-polluting units for retirement and replacement, especially for coal power elimination.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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