Cutting Air Pollution From Fossil Fuels Would Save 50,000 Lives a Year, Study Says

Researchers also determined the cuts would provide more than $600 billion a year in health benefits in the United States.

The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.<br/>
Source: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Eliminating air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and provide more than $600 billion in health benefits in the United States every year, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.

Published in the journal GeoHealth, the study reports the considerable health benefits of removing from the air harmful fine particulates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides produced by electricity generation, transportation, industrial activities, and building functions such as heating and cooking. Highway vehicles make up the largest single share.

These economic activities from coal, oil, and natural gas are also major sources of carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change, so cutting back on their emissions provides additional benefits.

Unlike reports that emphasize the daunting costs of climate action, this one stressed the advantages of taking measures to reduce pollution.

“We are trying to shift mindsets from burdens to benefits,” said Jonathan A. Patz, a professor of health and the environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

“Our work provides a sense of the scale of the air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the US energy system,” said Nicholas A. Mailloux, lead author of the study and a graduate student at the Nelson Institute. “Shifting to clean energy sources can provide enormous benefit for public health in the near term while mitigating climate change in the longer term.”

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