Reducing Climate Pollution Improves Children’s Health Today

The health of all children depends on bold climate action.

Air pollution was recently ranked as the fourth leading risk factor for ill health worldwide.

Guest blog co-authored by Jaron Burke, MPH Student at Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

This month marks five years since the Paris Agreement was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts. The deal aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, while pursuing means to limit the increase even more, to 1.5 degrees. The agreement includes commitments from all major emitting countries to cut their climate-altering pollution and to strengthen those commitments over time.

Action on this threat is urgent, because when it comes to the dangerous impacts of climate change, children are already experiencing negative health effects. A recent study from researchers at Columbia University’s Center for Children's Environmental Health shows that when mothers are exposed to even a small amount of air pollution from greenhouse gas emissions, the odds of a child being born premature or underweight are 9-13% higher. For children who face even one-fifth of that exposure, the odds of later experiencing severe asthma symptoms increases by up to 5%.

These findings provide further practical evidence of what scientists already know—that when mothers and children are exposed to air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, newborns suffer higher rates of adverse birth outcomes, cognitive and behavioral impairment, respiratory illness, and childhood cancer. Small particles of air pollution, known as particulate matter, cause many health problems in children. Once these particles have entered the body, they release toxins that can reach a developing fetus and disrupt the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, often causing damage to DNA and impairing developing organs.

While most of these effects have been studied in the United States and Europe, air pollution from greenhouse gas emissions is also a pressing global health issue.

Air Pollution and Preterm Birth

An estimated 2.7 million preterm births every year globally are linked to air pollution that largely comes from burning fossil fuels. That’s an astounding 18% of the approximately 15 million total preterm births globally each year. If that same percentage held true in the United States, of the roughly 388,000 preterm babies born annually in the United States, 69,840 would be related to air pollution from fossil fuel combustion.

Much like greenhouse gases, other forms of air pollution that affect the health of children come from fossil fuel combustion. In fact, eighty percent of air pollutants are emitted from combustion of coal, oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel, mainly for electricity production, transportation, heating, and industry. In high- and middle-income countries, fossil fuel combustion for electricity production accounts for most air pollution, generating 85% of particulate matter.

Cleaner Energy Sources Improve Air Quality And Public Health

With so much air pollution coming from fossil fuel combustion, it is imperative that countries around the globe begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately to protect the health of children. While the effects of reduced greenhouse gas emissions on global warming may take decades to detect, reducing fossil fuel combustion now will immediately improve the health of children. One study estimating the impact of the Clean Air Act showed that within a ten-year timeframe, the risk of death fell by 27% even for small reductions in air pollution at the city level.

If not solely for the sake of simply improving the health of children, reducing fossil fuel combustion will likely also be a wise financial move for many countries, given the estimated economic benefits from reducing the health problems caused by air pollution. For the United States alone, the economic benefits of following the 2°C pathway spelled out in the 2015 Paris Agreement are estimated at over $700 billion per year over the next 50 years from improved health and labor productivity alone, which is far more than the cost of the transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

Global Youth Shoulder The Climate Burden

Despite making up only 10% of the global population, the World Health Organization has estimated that about 90% of the burden of climate change is borne by children under five. It is the realization of this fact that has motivated young people around the globe to mobilize and demand reduction in fossil fuel combustion.

With an overwhelming body of literature documenting the health and economic benefits of reducing air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, there is no excuse for delaying action. The world must stop using fossil fuels now. The health of children everywhere depends on it.

This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust [Grant #216093/Z/19/Z].

About the Authors

Vijay Limaye

Staff Scientist, Science Center
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