The debate over what to do or, as some argue, what not to do when it comes to regulating and reducing emissions has been a heated topic in North Carolina and around the world.

In the Tar Heel state, lawmakers are forcing Duke Energy to stop pollution leaking from all 14 coal ash dumps by 2029, after the state’s years of reliance on burning coal and an ash spill in Eden that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in coal ash.

Meanwhile, as coal production continues to grow in China, a red alert was issued in Beijing, last week, with oppressive air pollution endangering the population, according to associate professor in the department of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC Jason West.

“[Pollution levels were] 20 times the World Health Organization’s suggested levels of maximum exposure to air pollution,” West says.

West says his lab at UNC works to approximate the number of lives that are lost worldwide each year due to air pollution.

“We come up with a number of about two or three million deaths per year that come about prematurely because of exposure to outdoor air pollution,” he says, “and another half a million deaths per year that are associated with exposure to outdoor ozone.”

West says, to put that in perspective, that accounts for about six percent of the deaths around the world each year.

West says regulations being put in place by the United States government have kept air pollution at lower levels than are seen by the Chinese.

“Air pollution in the United States was probably at its worse in the 1980s or so,” West says, “And largely thanks to regulations that control emissions from power plants and from motor vehicles and other things, air pollution has generally gotten better in the United States.”

West says the lower pollution rates directly translate to public health benefits for citizens.

Over the weekend in Paris, representatives from 195 countries agreed to sweeping promises to lower greenhouse gas emissions to help in the fight against climate change. West says this agreement has much more promise than other conversations that have been held in recent years.

“When the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, one of our important rationales was that the Kyoto Protocol didn’t involve China and India,” West says. “But this agreement does in Paris. And there’s a big role that China, in particular, plays as part of this agreement.

“And that’s promising.”

West says the major downside to the agreement is there are no ramifications for a country that falls out of compliance, meaning individual countries will have to take responsibility for reaching the benchmarks that have been laid out.

West adds while there are obvious environmental benefits to this kind of agreement, there are also major economic benefits.

“We found that those benefits outweigh the cost of the greenhouse gas reduction in the first place,” West says. “And in particular in China, where there’s a large population exposed.

“The benefits to the Chinese from taking the actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we estimated, would be at least 10 times greater than the cost of reducing emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants.”