Health Benefits of Climate Policy

Health Benefits of Climate Policy

Laser Talk

Question:  How does reducing the use of fossil fuels benefit health?

Answer:  Climate change and fossil fuel air pollution are intimately linked. Burning fossil fuels harms our health directly by generating pollutants, and indirectly through release of greenhouse gases. Both the direct and indirect costs are often paid for by taxpayers. Cutting back on fossil fuels improves public health in a couple different ways.

Cutting fossil fuel use reduces air pollutants that impact our health. The greatest benefit comes from cutting back on coal, which even under stringent pollution rules still emits lung-damaging fine particulates, sulfur gases, and nitrogen oxides (NOx)[1,2] as well as mercury, a neurotoxin. [3] Motor fuels also emit particulates, smog-promoting hydrocarbons, and NOx. Natural gas burns cleaner – no particulates, sulfur, or mercury – but still emits NOx and, of course, CO2. [4]

Reducing fossil fuel use also reduces greenhouse gases. Although CO2 is not inherently toxic, it is the major cause of climate change, which has its own slate of public health impacts. These include heat stress, more powerful storms, extremes of drought and flooding, spread of infectious disease, and even nutritional deficiency. That’s why the EPA found in 2009 that CO2 from burning fossil fuels is dangerous to human health, and that determination was upheld by the Supreme Court. The impacts of climate change have been acknowledged as the major public health challenge of the century. [5] All fossil fuels contribute to global warming if we discharge their emissions into the atmosphere.

Air pollution can be reduced with various kinds of scrubbers and catalysts on smokestacks and tailpipes, [6] but most of those treatments don’t reduce CO2. Curtailing the use of fossil fuels can benefit our health by reducing both air pollution and the worldwide effects of climate change.

In a Nutshell: Any policy that curtails the use of fossil fuels will benefit our health by reducing both local air pollution and the worldwide effects of climate change. Recent research tells us that cutting carbon emissions could save 4.5 million American lives by 2050.

  1. “Criteria Air Pollutants.” U.S Environmental Protection Agency (accessed 1 Feb 2018).
  2. “NAAQS Table.” U.S Environmental Protection Agency (accessed 1 Feb 2018).
  3. “Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury.” U.S Environmental Protection Agency (accessed 1 Feb 2018).
  4. Deru, M. and P. Torcellini. “Source Energy and Emission Factors for Energy Use in Buildings.” NREL Technical Report NREL/TP-550-38617, Tables 8-11 (Jun 2007).
  5. Watts, N., et al. “The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: from 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health.” The Lancet 391 10120, 581-630 (10 Feb 2018).
  6. “Emission control technologies.” EPA Base Case v410 Documentation, Chap. 5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Jul 2015).

This page was last updated on 05/04/21 at 22:40 CDT.