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Speeding up progress on reducing carbon emissions would save millions of lives, mostly in metropolitan areas of Africa and Asia.

To keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world would need to cut the majority of fossil-fuel related carbon emissions this century – and because this would also reduce air pollution locally, it would prevent 150 million premature deaths, according to a paper published in Nature Climate Change.

The researchers found that reducing this century’s expected carbon dioxide emissions by 180 gigatonnes – the amount needed to meet the 1.5 degree target, or keep global warming at 2 degrees without negative emissions– would mean moving to a largely renewables-sourced energy system.

Making this shift sooner rather than later would save an estimated 90 million lives by 2100 due to reduced exposure to fine particles, according to the study. Another 60 million deaths could be prevented because of reduced ozone levels.

“The public health benefits of very low carbon policies are enormous.”

Drew Shindell, Duke University

“The public health benefits of very low carbon policies are enormous,” says Drew Shindell, a climate researcher at Duke University in North Carolina, United States, and co-author of the paper.

Last year saw the first increase in global CO2 emissions in four years, which puts added pressure on governments to live up to their emission reduction targets. While industrialised countries remain the biggest emitters by far, the researchers point out that developing countries avoid slipping down the fossil fuel pathway.

“Developing countries are largely in control of their own fate when it comes to air pollution,” says Shindell. “They'd have to make big changes to get off fossil fuels but they'd reap enormous benefits locally via air quality if they did so.”

Because their pollution levels are already high, Indonesia, China and Nigeria are likely to benefit the most from speeding up emissions reductions. Large urban centres, such as Cairo in Egypt, would also see significant improvements in death rates from pollution, the researchers found.

The first goalpost for global emission reduction targets, as set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is 2030 – by which time many countries are meant to have significant renewable energy capacity in place.

But with financing falling short, the resulting emission reductions – and drop in deaths from pollution – could fail to happen, says Neill Bird, a senior research fellow at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute. “A lack of investment could result in countries sticking closer to a business as usual pathway,” he says.

Many developing countries find it difficult to finance renewable energy projects. A separate study warns that countries in the Global Green Growth Institute, a club of nations with voluntary renewable energy targets, need at least US$260 billion in additional investment if they are to meet their goals. Published in Energy Policy, the study found that with the right investment, GGGI countries such as Uganda, Mexico, the Philippines and Senegal could draw up to 30 per cent of their energy needs from renewables by 2030. But the high upfront cost of installing renewables is an obstacle.

Dereje Senshaw, a Korea-based researcher for the GGGI and co-author of the study, says the best way to find the money is a combination of national and international funds. “Developing countries should not just expect international financial assistance,” he told SciDev.Net. “They should develop their own business models for renewable energy and create favorable market conditions in order to attract private investments.”

Bird says that middle-income countries should target foreign direct investment for their projects, but points out that the poorest nations will probably have to rely on international public funds, such as aid, to up their renewables capacity.  

This article was produced by SciDev.net's Global edition.