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Aggressive Action on CO2 Emissions Could Save Thousands of Lives in U.S. Cities

Maggie Kohn headshotWords by Maggie Kohn
Energy & Environment
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As temperatures continue to heat up across the U.S. this June, a new paper published by U.S. and U.K. scientists says that “immediate and drastic emissions cuts are key to preventing large increases in heat-related deaths in the country” by the end of the century.

Cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Philadelphia could face the highest number of fatalities linked to CO2 emissions, predicts the paper published last week in Science Advances. Its authors say older adults, children and outdoor workers could be most at risk.

The planet will warm by about 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century if the U.S. and other nations meet only their current commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. But if efforts are intensified to meet the Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius thousands of lives could be saved.

The paper is the first of its kind to examine the impact on mortality rates of projected high temperatures associated with extreme heat expected to occur once every 30 years on average in 15 U.S. cities. The paper was led by scientists from the University of Bristol in the U.K., the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

Study says deaths linked to CO2 emissions are preventable

“All heat-related deaths are potentially preventable,” said Kristie L. Ebi, professor and researcher at the University of Washington. “We need urgent investment in heat wave early warning and response systems and other options to protect the most vulnerable as temperatures continue to rise. In the long term, urban planning must prioritize design changes that decrease urban heat islands and ensure our infrastructure is prepared for unprecedented temperatures.”

Climate change is already increasing the severity of extreme heat. If global temperatures reach 3 degrees Celsius, the cities in the study would experience more severe heat waves than if temperature-rise is limited to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. At 3 degrees Celsius, there would be between about 330 and 5,800 heat-related deaths per city for each 1-in-30-year event. Limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius avoids between about 70 and 1,980 extreme heat-related deaths per city. Even more heat related deaths—between about 110 and 2,720—can be avoided by achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold.

The paper’s authors note that the numbers of avoided heat-related deaths in the analysis may be conservative, as they relied on current population data that does not account for an aging population, increases in urbanization, exacerbation of the urban heat island effect, or other demographic factors that could change and contribute to added heat vulnerability.

“This study shows that taking urgent action to reduce carbon pollution will save lives in cities across the United States,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The government also has an obligation to help communities prepare for life in a world that’s heating up. This could include making air conditioning more available especially to those with low or fixed incomes, strengthening our health care system, and increasing awareness of heat-related health risks.” 

Business joins call for government action

Many businesses have long embraced their obligations to reduce emissions. Now they are also calling on governments to do more. Late last year, 50 CEOs urged greater collaboration to accelerate outcomes in the race against climate change. An open letter published by the World Economic Forum on behalf of the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders urged world leaders to:

  • Implement effective carbon pricing mechanisms that drive a meaningful price on carbon across the globe
  • Stimulate low-carbon finance and investments by offering coherent policies that shift financial flows from high-carbon investments to the low-carbon economy, thereby encouraging innovation, as well as adaptation investments
  • Develop policy tools that help educate and positively influence societal demand for low-carbon solutions

“We absolutely cannot pursue a business-as-usual approach. Business and government must forge new partnerships that are able to drive results much more quickly than our current international architecture allows,” said Dominic Waughray, Head of the Centre for Global Public Goods, World Economic Forum.

With temperatures expected to continue to spike in the weeks ahead, we can only hope that world leaders are listening.

Image credit: David Mark/Pixabay

Maggie Kohn headshotMaggie Kohn

Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.

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