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The reality of excess deaths from carbon emissions

Carbon emissions are directly correlated with global warming, and without urgent and widespread mitigation measures, there will be a shocking increase in the number of excess deaths related to climate change.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute have attempted to quantify how many lives will be lost if global carbon emissions continue to increase.

Study lead author R. Daniel Bresslerr aimed to fill a significant gap in the estimates of mortality rates associated with rising carbon emissions. The currently available projection models are majorly outdated.

“Based on the decisions made by individuals, businesses or governments, this tells you how many lives will be lost, or saved,” said Bressler. “It brings this question down to a more personal, understandable level.”

Ultimately, the new projections can be illustrated as one additional death for every 4,434 metric tons of CO2 added to annual emissions. This quantity is equivalent to the lifetime emissions of just 3.5 Americans. 

A total of one million additional metric tons (equivalent to just 35 commercial airliners or 0.24 coal-fired power plants) would kill 226 people.

The study is specifically focused on temperature-related mortality, leaving out potential deaths from natural disasters, infection diseases, and crop failures. This is because these events are hard to quantify. With this in mind, Bressler says that his estimate could be a vast underestimate.

Based on our current emissions path, the study assumes that average global temperatures will surpass 2.1°C above preindustrial times by 2050. This temperature represents a devastating threshold, at which point detrimental effects would become increasingly damaging. 

Temperatures are projected to reach 4.1°C higher by 2100, which will cause around 84 million cumulative excess deaths. Bressler states that the majority of these excess deaths would be in the hottest and poorest regions, such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Research from William Nordhaus in the 90’s used the “DICE” model to place a monetary figure on the social cost of carbon. Originally, this model puts the figure at $37 per metric ton, suggesting we need not cut carbon emissions until 2050. However, Bressler’s adaptation on the model puts the figure at $258 per metric ton, stating that we must reach carbon-neutral emissions by 2050 to prevent reach of the threshold of 2.1°C and thus save 74 million lives. 

In order to reach such a goal, Bressler states that governments must issue “large-scale policies such as carbon pricing, cap and trade, and investments in low-carbon technologies and energy storage.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Calum Vaughan, Staff Writer

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