Less ozone and fine particulate pollution from reduced fossil fuel should reduce infant mortality and respiratory disease, and raise productivity at work.
Cutting the use of fossil fuels won’t just help fight climate change — children should also become healthier and more successful in life, thanks to less exposure to pollution associated with burning fossil fuels, according to our calculations.
Burning fossil fuels produces not only carbon dioxide (CO2)—the most important greenhouse gas — but many other air pollutants that affect health. For example, power plants are major sources of CO2, but they also emit high levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which lead to the formation of ozone and fine particulate matter (particles up to 2.5 microns in size, or PM2.5). Therefore, policies that reduce the use of fossil fuels should also lower emissions that affect local air quality. The health effects of using less fossil fuel are called “co-benefits”.
Pollution poses its greatest threat to children
Rapid biological development during childhood suggests that children are particularly sensitive to pollution exposure. They are believed to suffer greater effects from pollution than adults do. Younger children are more affected than older ones, which implies that the same dose of pollution has a greater impact if it occurs earlier in life.
“Our projections suggest that reducing climate change emissions would significantly improve child wellbeing. Infant mortality and respiratory diseases would decrease. More children would experience healthier childhoods, survive into adulthood, build key skills, and become more productive adults.”
How do ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) damage children’s wellbeing? Ozone primarily irritates the lungs. It can cause shortness of breath and coughing; it can inflame and damage the lung lining; and it can aggravate lung diseases such as asthma. Quite low concentrations can cause these symptoms at any time, from within a few hours of exposure to several days later.
PM2.5 penetrates deep into the lungs and passes into the bloodstream, affecting both the lungs and the heart. It can reduce lung function and increase respiratory symptoms such as airway irritation, difficulty breathing, and asthma. It can also induce heart attacks or irregular heartbeat. These respiratory and cardiovascular complications can lead to premature death. As with ozone, the effects can appear either quickly or several days after exposure, and they can arise at quite low concentration levels.
Pollution can damage their life-long prospects
Beyond those immediate effects, childhood exposure to ozone and particulate matter can cause long-term damage to children’s health and reduce their ability to build skills, knowledge and experience that help people to succeed in life. For example, frequent asthma attacks can cut into school attendance and academic performance, ultimately affecting a child’s ability to make a living as an adult.
Moreover, latent effects may appear years after pollution exposure. Evidence increasingly shows that the nine months in the womb and the first few years of life are critical periods for physiological development, when toxic exposures can have lasting impacts. Pollution may permanently alter the way genes function, harming intellectual growth and maturity later in life.
Cuts in pollution emissions would improve children’s wellbeing
Atmospheric concentrations of ozone and particulate matter are linked to heat and other climatic variables in complex ways. It’s not easy to quantify how much a particular policy to cut carbon emissions would affect children’s wellbeing by also reducing ozone and PM2.5. However, we tackled this question for a recent issue of the journal Future of Children. We reviewed researchers’ estimates from models that project how US pollution levels would change over the next few decades under various scenarios for cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change. We then combined the projected pollution changes with estimates from rigorous studies of how childhood pollution exposure affects various outcomes for children, including infant mortality, respiratory diseases and productivity at work.
Our projections suggest that reducing climate change emissions would significantly improve child wellbeing. Infant mortality and respiratory diseases would decrease. More children would experience healthier childhoods, survive into adulthood, build key skills, and become more productive adults. Those projected benefits arise not only when we compare the air quality we would expect to see under policies to reduce emissions with today’s air quality, but also when we compare it with air quality in the future if we make no effort to cut emissions. On the other hand, if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions, we’re unlikely to see much change in children’s wellbeing compared with today’s situation.
Our projections encompass many unknowns, so we should be cautious about accepting them at face value. Projections for future climate are filled with uncertainty, as are projections of the climate’s relationship to emissions. There are also uncertainties about how mitigation policies would affect pollution levels. But, given the need to act in the face of considerable risks, we hope that our calculations serve as a useful starting point.
When deciding about climate change policy, governments should take into account the long-lasting benefits to children from improved air quality that results from reduced fossil fuel use.