Climate change mitigation should bring large, direct health benefits

In May, the front cover of The Lancet stated that “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century“.

The current front cover makes more encouraging reading.  “This series makes clear that health co-benefits can accrue as a direct result of many mitigation activities for greenhouse-gas emissions.  If societies change their energy systems, change their methods of transport, and modify intensive food production practices and consumer choices, then many positive health consequences will result“.

This special issue includes a series of studies by a group of leading public health researchers, on the likely health implications of policies in a range of sectors, that would be necessary to reach ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation targets.  They conclude that more sustainable and lower-carbon choices in all of these sectors would bring substantial benefits to public health.  In India, for example, a proposed programme to introduce 150 million low-emission cooking stoves would reduce both the warming effect of black carbon, and indoor air pollution.  It would therefore be expected to gain approximately 12 500 years of healthy life per million population by the year 2020 – roughly equivalent to eliminating half of the total cancer burden in the country.  In the United Kingdom, for example, introduction of selected policies aimed at reducing transport emissions by 60% by the year 2030, would be expected to bring major health gains: 10–20% reductions in heart disease and stroke, 12–13% in breast cancer; 8% in dementia, and 5% in depression.

These health gains are more local and immediate than the long-term and globally distributed benefits of reduced damage to the global climate, and should therefore be of direct interest to policy makers and the general public.  The study also shows that putting an economic value on the health benefits, even in the sector that gives the lowest health returns (electricity generation), would be large enough to cover the cost of mitigation in some large rapidly developing countries.  This supports the conclusion of the last IPCC report, that  the costs of many mitigation interventions would be partly or wholly compensated for by health benefits.  This strongly indicates that these health benefits should be included in any cost-benefit analysis of new technologies or policies relating to energy use.

This is, of course, far from the end of the story.  Although the analysis is the best possible given current data, the authors document a series of research questions that should improve future estimates.  More fundamentally, while the work describes the very large pay-offs from greener practices, it does not directly address what policy measures could bring about these changes.  Promoting new technologies, or getting people to change their behaviour is never going to be easy.  Barriers include the large vested interest in current ways of doing things, and the fact that the potentially large health benefits are largely “off the balance sheet” for the relevant sectoral decisions.

These new studies show, however, that doing things differently would be very good for health, as well as for the environment.

An Executive Summary, the full papers, and accompanying editorials, are available for download from The Lancet.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these posts are those of the staff members working most closely on the relevant issues, but are not necessarily formal positions of WHO.

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