Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Air pollution and infant mortality: evidence from Turkey

The widespread replacement of coal with natural gas as Turkey’s key energy source over the past 25 years has led to much improved air quality. This column reports research showing that the environmental benefits of the transition to natural gas have resulted in a significant reduction in infant mortality.

In a nutshell

Deployment of a nationwide natural gas infrastructure in Turkey led to an improvement in air quality as measured by particulate matter and sulphur dioxide.

A one percentage point increase in the use of natural gas for heating and cooking in a Turkish province leads to a fall in the infant mortality rate of 4%.

That translates into roughly 348 infant lives saved in 2011 alone.

There is little dispute over the harmful effects of coal use on health. Despite this consensus, global coal consumption continues to rise and now presents a significant threat to some of the gains in public health outcomes achieved in developing countries in recent decades.

To complicate matters, there are very few viable policy options or enforcement mechanisms available to developed countries or international environmental organisations that could induce developing countries to take meaningful steps towards addressing environmental problems.

One policy instrument that is commonly used to control air pollution is regulation. But there are severe challenges of implementing regulation successfully, especially in developing countries, due to problems of weak governance and corruption. Furthermore, concerns about global climate change are often side-lined in these countries due to a strong desire to maintain robust economic growth.

Under these circumstances, natural gas is emerging as an increasingly attractive source of fuel and one that could help efforts to limit carbon emissions globally without causing interruptions in the mounting energy needs of these countries in the short run. After all, the combustion of natural gas emits virtually no sulphur oxide, which is a key component of acid rain. Emissions of total particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide are also much lower from burning natural gas compared with coal.

In our research, we assess whether the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas in comparison with coal translate into reduced infant mortality. To test this hypothesis, we consider the gradual displacement of coal by natural gas caused by the deployment of a nationwide natural gas infrastructure in Turkey.

To tease out the effect of switching from coal use to natural gas on infant mortality, we exploit the variation in the deployment of natural gas networks across provinces and over time. We first establish that this development has led to an improvement in air quality as measured by particulate matter and sulphur dioxide.

On establishing this connection between natural gas networks and air quality, we demonstrate that these networks caused a significant decrease in the rate of infant mortality in Turkey.

In particular, we find that a one percentage point increase in the use of natural gas for heating and cooking in a Turkish province leads to a fall in the infant mortality rate of 4%. That translates into roughly 348 infant lives saved in 2011 alone.

Our study represents the first attempt by researchers to examine the effect of a nationwide change in a fuel delivery system on infant health. With the popularity of natural gas gaining momentum thanks to new discoveries of gas fields and technological advances in extraction techniques, our results reveal the big potential environmental and health benefits of making such a change.

Further reading

Cesur, Resul, Erdal Tekin and Aydogan Ulker (2017) ‘Air Pollution and Infant Mortality: Evidence from the Expansion of Natural Gas Infrastructure’, Economic Journal 127(600): 330-62.

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