Unintended Benefits: Air Quality and COP-21

The COP-21 negotiations on climate change will begin shortly. Soon, thousands of people will descend on Paris to begin negotiating global strategies for climate adaptation and mitigation. Few of these strategies are simple and cheap, and most require significant need for global coordination. However, taking up these various strategies can have large local benefits. One of the greatest benefits comes to local air quality, in both the developing and developed world. These local benefits “sweeten the pot” for the upcoming negotiations to take the necessary steps to mitigate climate change.

Every year, 5.5 million people die due to do unclean air. Air pollution is in the top ten leading causes of death worldwide, and is the leading global environmental hazard. The sources of this deadly pollution vary. In Los Angeles, it is related to smog formed from vehicle emissions. In Dhaka, cookstoves in homes are a leading cause of pollution. Across much of Southeast Asia, agricultural burning contributes significantly to the poor air quality. Nearly all of this pollution is caused or made worse by humans, and is often preventable.

The majority of these sources of pollution are also sources of greenhouse gases. These are the exact gases that the COP-21 negotiations are attempting to control. By limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases, pollution could also be limited in two ways. The first is by a straight reduction of use. If fewer forests are burned for agriculture, or cars driven, there will be less of the dangerous pollution emitted in the first place. The second is through technology development. A great example of this is the modern automobile. Modern cars use fuel much more efficiently and emit less CO2 per mile than the cars of 50 years ago. Many of the advances in fuel efficiency, such as higher combustion temperatures, also produced cleaner operating emissions. In these ways, mitigating further climate change can also reduce air pollution.

Reducing air quality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions provides great benefits to both developed and developing nations. Developed nations will potentially benefit significantly through the reductions in ambient concentrations of various pollutants. One of the easiest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is switch away from coal-fired power plants. These power plants emit massive amounts of CO2, as well as air pollutants. These pollutants, like SO2, can lead to particulate matter pollution and acid rain. A shift away from coal and toward other sources of energy, even natural gas, can improve air quality. Additionally, if policy is made to increase the amount of public transportation available, this will reduce the total number of cars driving and emitting. This will help improve air in cities like London, which struggle immensely with automobile air quality issues.

Air quality problems are more significant in the developing world, and so any improvements made will have the largest impact there. The same benefits exist as for the developed countries with a switch from coal to cleaner-burning fuels and reduction in automobile use. The developing world also can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted through cook stoves and agricultural burning, which will drastically improve local air quality.

While many see these COP-21 negotiations as taking on a burden to save the world for future generations, potential changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also provide significant benefits in the short term. The example described here is better air quality, but these benefits extend across most all of the environment. Particular sections of the COP-21 negotiations where this could be very interesting are in the discussions of Mitigation, REDD, and Loss and Damage.