Air pollution in China poses a health concern to many of the nation’s almost 1.4 billion people. Ozone pollution is of particular concern and scientists estimate that in 2015, it caused an estimated 67,000 premature deaths. Now new research shows that reducing ozone pollution in China could save hundreds of thousands of lives. The study comes from researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and was published recently in Environmental Research Letters.
But wait, you say, isn’t ozone a good thing? Well, you’re right, in a sense. The ozone layer is what helps protect us from the sun’s UV rays, but it isn’t something that you want to breath in. Ozone turns into a pollutant when it mixes with sunlight and nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which come from motor vehicles, power plants, factories and other human-made sources. When we’re exposed to those pollutants, it can result in premature death from cardiovascular disease, stroke and respiratory problems. So no, not good.
In conducting the study, the researchers modeled three distinct emissions scenarios for China in order to show the public health consequences under each. In the first scenario, the researchers assume that China's air pollution levels stay as is but the climate continues to warm; under the second model, the climate warms and there’s a 10% increase in ozone pollution emissions; the third scenario assumes climate change but with a 60% reduction of China's ozone-forming emissions.
Now, ready for some numbers? Under Scenario 1, China can expect an 11% increase in ozone pollution, representing an extra 62,000 premature deaths by 2050. In Scenario 2, that number spikes to 80,000 more premature deaths. However, if China can figure out how to manifest Scenario 3, the nation could be capable of preventing 330,000 premature deaths.
“I would hope that policymakers in China will take results like this and see that if you were to aggressively reduce emissions, you would reap the benefits in a pretty significant way," says lead author Daniel Westervelt. "It's worth it to address these emissions now, so that you don't have to deal with all the health problems in the future. You could save 330,000 over the next few decades. That's a lot of lives."
Now maybe you’ve noted the connection between climate change and ozone pollution – yeah, they’re definitely related. That’s because warmer temperatures hasten the reactions that produce ozone and exacerbate conditions that make it accumulate near the surface.
"Air pollution is a major problem in China right now," said Westervelt, who is an associate research scientist at Lamont-Doherty. "It's a very serious health risk. So, it's important to think about what changes can be made to make progress on this problem.” Westervelt added that, “The issues of climate change and air quality go hand-in-hand, so it makes sense to tackle both things simultaneously."