Retiring the world's worst power stations could save six million lives. 

A new study finds that strategically retiring power plants that generate the world’s most air pollution could save millions of lives on the path to fully renewable energy in 2050.

Researchers at China’s Tsinghua University looked at various climate mitigation scenarios that would keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, and examined how many air pollution deaths would be caused by individual power stations between 2010 and 2050 under each scenario. 

The climate and public health benefits of reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuel- and biomass-fired power plants are well known, and these result from reductions in air pollution. 

However, less is known about how differences in the way that individual power plants are managed could impact public health.

The researchers say that from 2010 to 2018, the majority of air pollution deaths occurred in emerging economies like China, India and Southeast Asia, and these deaths will increase as the planet warms. 

The researchers say targeting specific, high pollution power plants in these regions for retirement alongside serious climate mitigation strategies could reduce these deaths and prevent 43 billion tonnes of future CO2 emissions.

Their most ambitious model assumed the success of climate-energy policies in avoiding global warming of 1.5 degrees C.

In this example, the authors found that the strategic retirement of the most polluting and harmful power plants could cumulatively avoid 18 per cent (43 billion tonnes) of future CO2 emissions and six million of the predicted deaths between 2010 and 2050 as compared to implementing climate-energy policies alone.

The authors conclude that their findings underscore how climate mitigation does not necessarily guarantee improvements in air quality and reductions in air pollution-related deaths. 

Instead, they state that pollution controls and strategic power plant retirement may determine the extent to which the health benefits of mitigation policies are realised.

The study is accessible here.