What are co-benefits?

Co-benefits are the added benefits we get when we act to control climate change, above and beyond the direct benefits of a more stable climate. They are sometimes referred to as "multiple benefits" or "synergies". They do not include the direct benefits of climate policy arising from a more stable climate.

One of the most obvious examples is cleaner air. There is a big synergy here, because fossil fuels are not only the main source of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, but also the main source of air pollution worldwide. Tackling climate change by burning less coal, oil and gas will have the extra benefit of cutting emissions of soot, acidic gases, ozone-forming gases and toxic compounds that cause heart and lung diseases and cancer, killing millions of people around the world each year.

Co-benefits in detail

Conflicts - the opposite of co-benefits

Although many of the options we have for controlling climate change have co-benefits, there are can also be conflicts or trade-offs between climate policy and other objectives. Examples include the waste disposal problems of nuclear power, and the visual impacts of wind turbines. Often there are ways of minimising these conflicts. The important point is that policy makers need to take into account all the pros and cons of different options, and design policy very carefully to minimise the conflicts and maximise the co-benefits.

Why do co-benefits matter?

Policy makers tend to look at issues such as climate change in isolation. If all the co-benefits are taken into account, there is usually a far stronger case for climate action. For example, the health benefits of cleaner air may exceed the costs of climate action. In developed countries, the health benefits of low-carbon lifestyles (more walking and cycling, less over-consumption of meat and dairy produce) are even greater than the benefits of avoided air pollution.

Co-benefits may help to persuade the general public of the desirability of climate action - especially those who do not accept that climate change is a serious problem. While the benefits of tackling climate change are hard to quantify, and may accrue mainly to people in other countries and to future generations, the benefits of cleaning up the air in your local town are far more immediate.

By looking at the big picture, taking into account all the co-benefits and conflicts, we can design a strategy that will deliver a cleaner, healthier, safer and more prosperous future. For more detail see the links below.