Measures to tackle climate change could significantly benefit human health in the next few years, as well as in the long term, says a new report.
Released today, the report from the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society calls on the UK government to make sure that the initiatives they establish to tackle climate change are also designed to deliver benefits to health.
The report brought together 11 leading experts, including Emeritus Professor Jo Haigh and Professor Frank Kelly from Imperial College London, to review evidence from a range of sources around the health impacts of initiatives to tackle climate change.
We would like to see the UK government seize the opportunity provided by COP26 to show global leadership and bring health to the forefront of the climate narrative. Professor Joanna Haigh
It concludes that if health is made central to the climate agenda, then actions taken to reach UK net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will have near-term benefits for human health in the UK, as well as helping to reduce the risks to health from global climate change.
Co-chair of the report Professor Joanna Haigh, from the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial, said: “Climate change poses a catastrophic threat to humanity and the natural systems that underpin our lives.
“It is obvious that tackling climate change will have a positive impact on human health in the long term, however our report provides evidence that many of the actions needed for the UK to meet the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will also benefit our health in the near-term.
“We would like to see the UK government seize the opportunity provided by COP26 to show global leadership and bring health to the forefront of the climate narrative.”
Health at the heart of climate change discussions
The report urges UK policymakers and funders to put health benefits at the heart of climate change discussions, debate and action. Key examples of areas where action against climate change impacts positively on health include:
- Phasing out fossil fuels: Switching from fossil fuels to cleaner power generation will reduce air pollution, improve health, and save lives. Air pollution causes between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths per year in the UK, many of which could be prevented by phasing out fossil fuels. The extent of the health benefits from the net-zero transition will depend on the energy mix. For example, the substantial use of biomass to replace fossil fuels will lessen the expected health benefits due to increases in air pollution from fine particle emissions.
- Travel: Domestic transport, mainly from road vehicles, is responsible for 27% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Supporting public transport, increased cycling and walking, as well as switching to electric vehicles, will lead to environmental and health benefits from more physical activity and lower air pollution. Increased daily walking and cycling in urban England and Wales – similar to the levels in Copenhagen – could reduce heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other diseases with potential savings to the NHS of £17 billion over 20 years.
- Food production and diet: Food production accounts for 23% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Continuing to reduce the UK’s red meat consumption while increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetables would significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and avoid or delay deaths from heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Consuming a healthy diet containing reduced red and processed meats and increased fruits and vegetables is projected to increase average life expectancy by about eight months and reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by around 17%.
- Buildings: In 2019, buildings were responsible for 17% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Low temperatures are linked to up to 50,000 deaths a year – so warmer, better insulated homes should prevent some of these premature deaths, as well as cutting fuel bills. Adequate ventilation is also required to ensure indoor air quality and maximise health benefits.
- Healthcare: Healthcare systems worldwide are responsible for 4-5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Last year the NHS was the first national healthcare system to commit to net-zero direct emissions by 2040 and indirect emissions by 2045.
The report noted that while the impact of climate change mitigation strategies was mainly positive, there could also be unintended negative effects on health.
Close attention should be paid to international supply chains and economic systems that will underpin the global net-zero transition – for example, reliance on batteries for renewable power means more cobalt needs to be mined, which may have health disadvantages for the communities involved.
The report also asks that climate change initiatives are robustly and consistently monitored for their impacts on health, and that researchers from different disciplines work together to help maximise the health benefits.
Co-chair of the report Professor Sir Andy Haines said: “Our report gives many ‘win-win’ examples of actions that would have a positive impact on health and the climate. Sectors including transport, food, building and energy should take health into account when implementing climate actions to capitalise on these double benefits.
"Many of the measures, such as improved public transport access and energy-efficient housing, could also help decrease health inequalities.”
Read the full report, 'A healthy future: tackling climate change mitigation and human health together' and a public summary of the findings on the Academy of Medical Sciences website.
Story based on a press release from the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Cycling: Lena Ivanova / Shutterstock
Electric cars: Scharfsinn / Shutterstock
Vegan meal: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock
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