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News Article

Climate change detrimental to air quality and health

Study looks at levels of ozone and particulate matter linked to premature death 

Last month, the most comprehensive study yet on the link between climate change, air quality and premature deaths was published in Nature Climate Change.  It found that future climate change, if left unaddressed, would be expected to cause around 60,000 deaths globally in the year 2030, rising to 260,000 deaths by the end of the century, due to its effect on air pollution, particularly levels of ozone and particulate matter.  The research, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, adds to the growing evidence that the overall health effects of the changing climate are likely to be considerably negative.

While previous studies of the air quality related health impacts of climate change used single atmospheric models, the latest research used a number of global chemistry–climate models.  For each model, the researchers assessed the projected changes in ground-level air pollution that could be a result of future climate change.  These changes were then overlaid spatially across the global population and accounted for both population growth and changes in the susceptibility to air pollution.

“As climate change affects air pollutant concentrations, it can have a significant impact on health worldwide, adding to the millions of people who die from air pollution each year, " said study co-author Jason West.

Increasing temperatures speed up the chemical reactions that create air pollutants such as ozone and fine particulate matter, which adversely affect public health since they are linked to premature death by heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.  The researchers found that some areas that get drier could see a significant rise in air pollution, due to less removal by rain, combined with an increased potential for fires and windblown dust.   Also, trees could emit more organic pollutants as they respond to higher temperatures.

The researchers found that climate change is expected to increase air pollution related deaths globally and in all regions around the world, except for Africa.  Five out of the eight models predicted an increase in premature deaths in 2030, with seven out of nine models in 2100.

“Our finding that most models show a likely increase in deaths is the clearest signal yet that climate change will be detrimental to air quality and health,” said West. "We also collaborated with some of the world's top climate modeling groups in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan and New Zealand, making this study the most comprehensive yet on the issue."

As well as increasing premature deaths caused by air pollution, climate change is also expected to affect public health through malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress.  Further information on this is available on the World Health Organization website.

Over 340 records on this topic are available on the Environmental Impact database, by using the search string "climate change" AND "public health" AND "air pollution".  A number of papers look at the policies that are currently in place to tackle air pollution. Slovic et al. (2016) provides an overview of local air pollution control policies that aim to reduce pollution levels in megacities, arguing that they are important for adapting to and mitigating against global climate change.  A paper by Wang et al. (2016) evaluates the effectiveness of air quality strategies relating to air pollution control in Europe. It found that few studies considered implications for health equity and no consistent results were found indicating that these strategies could reduce health inequity associated with air pollution. The health benefits of reducing short-lived greenhouse pollutants is explored in a CAB Reviews paper by Robinson (2014), suggesting that increased awareness of these benefits could encourage governments to fund greenhouse reduction and adaptation strategies, thereby reducing health costs.

Journal Reference

Raquel A. Silva, J. Jason West, Jean-François Lamarque, Drew T. Shindell, William J. Collins, Greg Faluvegi, Gerd A. Folberth, Larry W. Horowitz, Tatsuya Nagashima, Vaishali Naik, Steven T. Rumbold, Kengo Sudo, Toshihiko Takemura, Daniel Bergmann, Philip Cameron-Smith, Ruth M. Doherty, Beatrice Josse, Ian A. MacKenzie, David S. Stevenson, Guang Zeng. Future global mortality from changes in air pollution attributable to climate changeNature Climate Change, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate3354

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Stephanie Cole
  • Date
  • 29 August 2017
  • Source
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Subject(s)
  • Climate Change
  • Pollution