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Assessing co-benefits could accelerate action on climate change

People with face masks against air pollution in Beijing, China.

Many measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have other positive effects on other aspects of the economy. Some of these co-benefits can be directly translated into financial terms (e.g. savings from reduced fuel use) but others, like improved health or preserved biodiversity, need to be estimated. Better understanding and assessment of the co-benefits of climate change mitigation could thus greatly help countries around the world adopt bolder mitigation measures. Taking into account such co-benefits can radically change the picture and demonstrate that action can pay off not only in the long term but also in the short to medium term.

The most obvious of these co-benefits will be on public health. Air pollution and climate change are different phenomena, but they are closely linked. The burning of fossil fuels is the major source of both air pollutants and greenhouse gases. Thus, many actions taken to reduce emissions from these sources will help improve air quality and address climate change at the same time.  The WHO estimates the total number of premature deaths due to air pollution to be 7 million per year, with about 5.9 million in Asia. Estimates show that the reduction of GHG emissions by half by 2050 would reduce premature deaths due to air pollution by 20-40%, depending on the country. The mitigation of short-lived climate pollutants would have positive climate effects (such as significantly reducing the rate of sea-level rise by 2050) but would also avoid 2.4 million deaths per year caused by outdoor air pollution.

The health impacts of air pollution were estimated to cost the equivalent of $1.6 trillion in 2010. In almost half of the countries in Europe and North America, air pollution costs represent more than 10% of GDP, several times the annual economic growth in most countries. Reducing air pollution would therefore release important funds. Some researchers state that the health benefit of pollution-reduction could reach $200 per tonne of CO2 reduced. In East Asia, the benefits are expected to be 10-70 times the marginal abatement cost in 2030.

There are also many other co-benefits to reducing GHG emissions in different sectors, in particular energy, transport and agriculture: resource efficiency, economic security, sustainability of ecosystems and protection of biodiversity as well as economic dynamism. A reduced dependence on fossil fuels lessens the risks of disruption for importing countries and lowers the potential economic losses caused by price volatility, while actually saving money from the cutback in fuel use. Moreover, transitioning to a low carbon economy, with all the adaptation measures that it implies would also create new job opportunities and benefit the economy.   

Co-benefits can actually offset the costs of mitigation initiatives, especially for investments in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. In some forest projects, for example, non-climate co-benefits represented 53-92% of total benefits.

The co-benefits and the detrimental effects of mitigation strategies must always be identified, so as to take an integrated approach that fully considers all costs and benefits. For instance, some air pollution-reduction initiatives, such as the increased use of energy from commercial biomass, would effectively reduce GHG emissions but could have a negative impact on biodiversity. This shows the need for a coordination of initiatives that takes into account different interactions.

Member states of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) have been working successfully to gradually reduce and prevent air pollution from the US reaching the EU and Russia, through the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and its Gothenburg protocol, the first legally binding instrument to reduce short-lived climate pollutants. UNECE is also playing a key role in implementing stricter emissions and efficiency standards for all types of motor vehicles through the World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations. In addition, UNECE is working on developing best practices for methane management, on fostering cleaner energy production from wood and is a key player in the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP) alongside the WHO. All of these activities directly contribute to a better understanding and the optimisation of co-benefits of climate change mitigation.

Taking into account co-benefits, it is estimated that up to 90% of the reductions in GHG emissions required to prevent temperatures rising above 2°C could be achieved through measures that are in the direct interest of the countries undertaking them. This creates stronger incentives to take action, at national and international levels.

The European Union has been a key player in climate action since the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol. It has been constantly advocating for more ambitious mitigation measures and taking the lead in setting ambitious targets for emission reductions, even after the lack of international agreement in Copenhagen in 2009.  Ahead of COP 21, it committed to reducing its emissions by at least 40% by 2030. Co-benefits could prove a useful argument in its dialogue with developed and developing countries in favour of decisive action to implement the Paris Agreement and in the foreseen revision of targets every five years.

We should not underestimate the benefits. We should not forget the threats. We must act now.


Christian Friis Bach is Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). He served as Special Advisor to the European Commission for the United Nations Global Sustainability Panel (2010-2011) and as Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation (2011-2013).

This article originally appeared on EurActive. Republished with the author's permission.