Take Colombia: In its capital Bogotá, around 5400 people died prematurely in 2020 because of air pollution, according to a Greenpeace study . Black carbon is one component of particulate matter air pollution that contributes the most to air pollution’s health impacts.

Colombia has set a GHG emission reduction target of 51% by 2030 in its updated NDC and a “vision” for full decarbonization for 2050. It has also set a target of reducing black carbon by 40% compared to 2014 levels. That could transform the air quality in Bogotá, Medellín and other cities. Because major sources of black carbon also emit a range of other health-damaging air pollutants, these can be reduced simultaneously when authorities implement measures to reduce black carbon, further increasing health benefits.

Importantly, actions to achieve the black carbon reduction target stated in Colombia’s NDC are on top of what the country is already doing to reduce GHG emissions. Stricter vehicle emissions and off-road machinery standards and measures on clean cookstoves will be put in place in addition to what the country will do on GHGs.

View over Medellín, Colombia, located in a valley between mountains, smog over downtown area

The Colombian city of Medellín is used to smog over its downtown area. Photo: Rasmus Lawall / Getty Images .

Colombia is the third country to set a target for black carbon in their NDC, after Mexico committed to reduce black carbon emissions by 51% in 2030 in their 2015 NDC and Chile, which committed to a 25% reduction in black carbon emissions compared to 2016 levels in its 2020 NDC update.

Other countries across the globe are going down similar paths and we as researchers in SEI’s Initiative for Integrated Climate and Development Planning have supported many of them. Since 2015, when countries put forward their initial commitments before the Paris Agreement was signed, there has been a global step forward in how countries address health in their NDCs, including in major developed countries such as the UK and US, as well as low- and middle-income countries where, in many cases, health burdens that can be reduced through climate action are most severe.

Reduce emissions, maximize health benefits

Actions that reduce GHG emissions reduce other health risk aside from air pollution. Expanding public transport, walking and cycling can improve road safety and health benefits from physical activity, while expanding access to improved wastewater systems that also capture methane can reduce health impacts from water and sanitation. Action on food consumption can also yield simultaneous health and climate benefits.

One example here is the switch from eating beef to eating chicken that Ethiopia’s government incentivizes. That is one way in which the government intends to reduce emissions from the livestock sector, as per the updated NDC submitted in July 2021. Because of the health risks associated with eating chicken are fewer than those associated with eating beef, this will also mean fewer Ethiopians will suffer from cardiovascular diseases or diabetes type 2.

Ethiopia and Colombia are only two examples of how NDCs submitted in 2020 and 2021 are much clearer and richer in detail than the NDCs submitted in 2015. Many countries are now substantially clearer on what their targets are when it comes to reducing emissions and what they want to do to achieve these goals. They detail policies that range from implementing clean cooking to reducing waste burning to putting in place clean vehicle emission standards to increasing the number of electric vehicles.

These details matter because how countries reduce emissions matter in terms of whether these reductions result in health benefits. Detailing the specific measures to achieve NDC targets determines the health benefits countries can get from reducing emissions.

Global health benefits hinge on what China and India do to reduce emissions and air pollution

The potential to achieve globally what we know is possible from integrated action on climate change and human health lies disproportionately in what actions are taken in China and India. Both have a population of over 1 billion people, both have extremely polluted air, and both are among the world’s top five emitters, with China in the lead.

Because of these three factors, the ability to maximize the global health benefits from implementing NDCs rests substantially on China’s and India’s commitments. A global study in 2018  looking at the health benefits that could be achieved from countries implementing their 2015 NDCs found that 400 000 premature deaths from air pollution could be avoided by 2050. As many as 1 million premature deaths could be avoided and even more if countries took measures to limit warming to 2°C, with a larger health dividend expected from achieving 1.5° temperature limit. The majority of these health benefits would occur in India and China, so it is difficult to understate the importance of what China and India commit to doing in their yet-to-be updated NDCs, both in terms of reducing GHG emissions and achieving global health benefits from doing so.

China has recently submitted its updated NDC , which commits to peaking emissions before 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Regarding air pollution and health, it also, encouragingly states that

“the synergistic control of air pollutants and GHG emissions will be deepened by building a coordinated control system and a coordinated monitoring and statistical reporting system with respect to basic data, in a bid to peak carbon emissions and meet air quality standards.”

The GHG emission reductions pledged in China’s NDC are not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. But integrating monitoring on GHG emissions and air quality goals could demonstrate how implementing the NDC is achieving tangible health benefits within China, This could in turn accelerate decarbonization.

A man stands on a balcony as buildings stand shrouded in haze in Beijing, China

Air pollution in Beijing often exceeds limits that the World Health Organization sees as acceptable. Photo: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg Creative Photos / Getty Images .

What the next round of NDCs needs to deliver

Looking ahead at the next round of NDCs in 2025, these plans will have to do three things: detail the progress made so far towards achieving the 2030 target, restate or ideally set forth a more ambitious 2030 target and set a quantitative long-term target.

What countries need first and foremost to be able to put together such NDCs is finance. Many actions that developing countries commit to in their 2020 NDCs to maximize health benefits are conditional on international financial support. Only if countries feel confident about the actions already taken will they feel they can increase their ambition and maximize health benefits in 2025.

Countries also need better tools. Improving monitoring mechanisms is needed so that they go beyond tracking progress on commitments and start integrating analyses of what progress has been made on development and health. If countries are able to show the health benefits they have achieved by implementing climate action, that will be a powerful argument for increasing climate ambition. Examples abound of how countries have achieved benefits from tackling open waste burning. These best practices need to be shared and the stories heard loud and wide.

Long-term targets bring moment of truth for many economies

Addressing the third area of setting long-term targets will likely be the hardest part for many countries because it is past 2030 that the systemic challenges of different economies become blatant. Nigeria can set a 2030 target that includes reducing fugitive emissions from oil and gas. Beyond 2030, the question becomes how Nigeria can sustain itself without oil and gas entirely.

As the recent Production Gap Report 2021 pointed out, even countries that have set themselves net-zero emission targets “have not explicitly recognized or planned for the rapid reduction in fossil fuel production that these targets will require.” For countries like Nigeria, setting a net-zero target for 2050 will require a step change in thinking about the systemic challenges their economies face when reducing emissions to zero.

Addressing the immediate problem of air pollution can help drive more ambitious climate action

From a health perspective, people in countries that have high health burdens from air pollution should not have to wait for their governments to set and start working towards achieving long term emission reduction targets. They should not accept 20 or 30 more years of people dying prematurely from air pollution with the promise of air quality being good in 30 years.

Integrating health into NDCs can provide a compelling reason as to why actions that simultaneously improve health and reduce GHG emissions should be implemented as quickly as possible. One goal to aspire to achieve between now and 2025 is that more countries track their air polluting emissions and quantify them within their GHG emissions inventories and show progress on implementing actions that have reduced them as a result of their NDC implementation. As countries then consider what their NDC updates are going to be for 2025, they need to integrate a broad range of actors into that process to discuss how long they want to put up with the negative health impacts of air pollution and when they want to take action on that.

The hope is that in this way, there will be a broad consensus that the problem of emitting things to the atmosphere is something very immediate and needs to be solved now. Action on air pollution can be the driver for more ambitious climate change commitments.