As you might recall, at last fall's COP21 climate change conference in Paris, world governments hammered out an agreement to work to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over the next century, and aim for an increase of just 1.5 C (2.7 degrees F). The idea is to stave off a dramatic rise in sea levels, decreased agricultural productivity that could cause food shortages in countries, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and other potentially catastrophic effects.
If all that seems too abstract, here's a clearer, simpler cost-benefit. A recently-published study by Duke University researchers and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies concludes that limiting carbon emissions even just enough to meet the 2-degree threshold could save 175,000 lives in the U.S. alone by 2030, and provide benefits, such as reduced healthcare costs, that would be worth $250 billion annually.
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The study appears in the journal Nature Climate Change. One of its authors, Duke Professor of Climate Sciences Drew Shindell, argues in a companion essay for The Conversation that the economic benefits of cutting carbon emissions by converting our transportation and energy-generation systems to cleaner renewable sources would exceed the costs.
"Focusing on the immediate health benefits of moving to cleaner energy has the potential to change the way people view climate change," Shindell writes.
According to Shindell, reducing carbon output would have major health benefits, because pollution from power plants and cars not only raises carbon dioxide levels, but puts harmful pollution into the atmosphere as well. "Medical studies show unequivocally that inhaled air pollution leads to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases," he writes.
"Our work demonstrates that the benefits of clean energy and transportation policies in the U.S. are so large that these policies are in our own national interest even without considering the effects of climate change over the long term," Shindell writes.
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Other research suggests that the estimate by Shindell and his colleagues might actually err on the side of being conservative. A 2013 study by MIT researchers found air pollution causes around 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year.
The EPA has estimated that reducing carbon emissions would cause consumers' electricity bills to rise until 2020, but that energy costs would begin to decline after that.