The Climate Bonus

Photo: Keoki Seu/ / CC BY-NC-SA

Cleaner air, better health and a more efficient economy are some of the many co-benefits that we will get from investing in climate mitigation, writes Alison Smith, author of a newly published book: “The Climate Bonus”.

Too often climate change is presented simply as a ‘bad news’ story, in which dire warnings about floods and famine compete with fears over the high cost of action. The public can become weary of all this ‘doom and gloom’, and that can undermine political support for climate policy, as we saw with the deafening silence over climate change during the recent presidential campaign in the USA.  Yet climate policy should not be seen as a costly burden on society. If designed well, it can deliver huge co-benefits for health and the economy: improved air quality, enhanced biodiversity, more sustainable agriculture, safer and more secure energy, more efficient use of resources, new jobs, stronger economies and healthier lifestyles. Even without the threat of climate change, many low-carbon policies can be justified in their own right. 

My forthcoming book, ‘The Climate Bonus: co-benefits of climate policy’, presents a positive vision of how low-carbon lifestyles can lead to a cleaner, healthier, safer and more prosperous society. The co-benefits can be grouped into five areas, as outlined below.

Cleaner Air. Fossil fuels are the main source of both greenhouse gases and air pollution, so the synergy here is obvious. If global greenhouse gas emissions were halved from 2005 to 2050, premature deaths from exposure to particle pollution would be reduced by 42 per cent compared to the business-as-usual case, avoiding more than 5 million early deaths per year by 2050. An integrated strategy tackling climate change and air pollution together would be even more effective, achieving a 67-per-cent reduction in premature deaths.  Benefits are highest in developing countries with low levels of pollution control: meeting a 2°C target by 2050 would save 29 million life years in China and 44 million in India. Health benefits would be worth over €6 trillion per year in Europe, China and India (using the same figure for the value of a life year in all countries). In Europe, the benefits would be worth €24 per tonne of CO2 abated.  

Further co-benefits can be gained by controlling methane, black carbon and ozone, which contribute to both climate change and loss of air quality. Fast action to control these pollutants could avoid 2.4 million premature deaths from outdoor air pollution and save 32–52 million tonnes in crop yields per year.  Key actions included reducing soot emissions from cooking stoves and diesel vehicles, and stopping methane leaks from landfill sites, coal mines and oil and gas infrastructure.  

Forests, food and farming. Protecting the ‘green carbon’ stored in soil and vegetation (three times more than is in the air) provides numerous co-benefits. Climate policy aimed at preventing deforestation, such as through ‘REDD’ forest carbon payment schemes, can protect biodiversity, prevent floods and soil erosion, safeguard water supplies and preserve the livelihoods of forest-dependent people. The synergies are strong: tropical forests, which are most at risk from deforestation, are high in both carbon and biodiversity. Climate-smart farming policies also have co-benefits: reducing the over-application of nitrogen fertilisers can cut air and water pollution and save money for farmers; adding organic matter to the soil can increase soil carbon levels as well as improving soil fertility and water retention; and planting fruit or fuelwood trees on farms can diversify and improve farm incomes and reduce soil erosion.

Safer and more secure energy. Oil prices are going up, as high-quality reserves are exploited and we are forced to turn to more expensive, dirty and risky options such as deep water and Arctic oil, tar sands and oil shale, and to rely more on imports. The current glut of shale gas may be driving down gas prices in the US, but a dash for gas cannot meet climate targets, and there may well be opposition to drilling hundreds of wells in densely populated parts of Europe.

Climate policy based on energy efficiency and home-produced renewable energy can help to provide secure, affordable energy supplies in the long term, and cut the risk of accidents such as oil spills and coal mine disasters. 

A strong, efficient economy. Climate policy is often portrayed as a burden on the economy, but most modelling studies conclude that new jobs in renewable energy, recycling and other low-carbon industries will exceed the jobs lost in high-carbon activities. Investments in low-carbon infrastructure will be far outweighed by savings in fuel and resource costs and health benefits. An energy-efficient zero-waste economy will be more prosperous, competitive and innovative, especially as metals, minerals, fossil fuel, water and fertile land become increasingly scarce and expensive. 

Lifestyle benefits. Low-carbon lifestyles can give surprisingly large benefits for health and well-being – even outweighing the substantial benefits from reduced air pollution. Two-thirds of all attributable deaths – 21 million deaths globally – are due to lack of exercise or unhealthy diet, and the problem is growing. Walking and cycling instead of driving, and eating less meat and dairy produce, can dramatically improve health and fitness, reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancer. More controversially, a low-consumption ‘buy less, work less’ lifestyle can promote well-being by reducing stress levels and giving more time for family, friends, leisure and community activities.

Looking for ‘win-win’ options. Of course, not all climate policies have co-benefits, and there can be conflicts or trade-offs between different objectives. Conflicts include hotly debated issues such as the visual impacts of wind turbines, the environmental and food security impacts of biofuels, the impact of increased energy prices on fuel poverty and the accident risks of nuclear power. These are very interesting from the policy point of view, as they highlight the areas where careful analysis and well-informed decisions are most needed. 

Policy makers need to look at the ‘big picture’, taking all the pros and cons of each technology or policy into account, rather than simply choosing options with the highest carbon reductions or the lowest costs. Geo-engineering through spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere or dumping iron particles in the ocean, for example, not only fails to capture any co-benefits but also has potentially risky side-effects. Carbon capture and storage has some air quality benefits, but increases fuel consumption by around 25 per cent, which makes it costly and bad for energy security. Resource efficiency, however, has no conflicts and many co-benefits, provided that policies such as emission caps are in place to prevent resource savings being eroded through the ‘rebound effect’ where efficiency stimulates more economic growth, more consumption and more emissions.

Integrated policies can optimise the co-benefits and minimise any conflicts. For example, forest carbon schemes such as REDD require safeguards to prevent replacement of natural forests with biofuel plantations, and to stop ‘land grabs’ where forests are seized from local people. Objections to wind farms can be reduced with sensitive planning guidelines and by giving local people a stake in the project. Workers need retraining to enable them to move from high-carbon to low-carbon jobs, and low-income households need protection from fuel poverty.

The big advantage of looking at co-benefits is that they can mostly be achieved ‘here and now’, so that they can provide a far stronger incentive for action than hard-to-quantify climate benefits that may largely affect distant countries and future generations. By looking at the big picture, seizing the opportunities to tackle multiple problems at once and avoiding false solutions, we can deliver the Climate Bonus.

Alison Smith

Alison Smith is the author of  The Climate Bonus: Co-benefits of climate policy, published by Routledge in December 2012.

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