Just in time for the opening of the United National Climate Change conference in Copenhagen next week, the London-based medical journal The Lancet has published the findings of a number of studies that examine the links between climate change and public health.
There are six separate reports in the series. They explore the public health benefits linked to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in a number of areas, including sources of energy within residences, urban land transport, low-carbon power generation, and food and agriculture.
As a whole, the studies make a case for health professionals to become advocates for mitigating climate change and for “aligning climate change and public health policies.”
An important finding, reports the journal, is that reducing the incidence of sickness linked to climate change will also reduce the costs of dealing with climate change.
In examining the health impacts of household energy sources, the direst problems are, not surprisingly, in developing countries where emissions from solid fuel stoves inside dwellings result in respiratory and heart problems. One study considered the improvements that a 10-year program to bring 150 low-emission cook stoves (burning local biomass) to India would have on public health there. It estimates that such a program would decrease the burden of acute respiratory tract infections, chronic respiratory and heart disease by about a sixth—equivalent to removing “nearly half the country’s entire cancer burden.”
When it comes to urban transportation infrastructure, a study found that encouraging the use of hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles won’t do enough to improve public health. Rather, infrastructure changes that improve foot- and pedal-powered mobility are more important. The authors expect that the specific health benefits resulting from this change would include decreased cardiovascular disease (up to a 20 percent reduction in London would be possible) as well as reduced cases of depression, diabetes and dementia, and suggest that policy makers should invest in pedestrian infrastructure rather than building more roads.
Improvements in air quality borne through a transition away from burning fossil fuels and toward increase renewable energy production, such as wind power, would “reduce costs of death from pollution, especially in China and India,” and these saving would offset the costs of deploying a renewable energy infrastructure.
When it comes to food and agriculture, a study found that while changes being made to the way food is raised—programs such as carbon capture, improved management of manure and less dependence on fossil fuels—are helping decrease agriculture’s contribution to climate change, they alone will not be enough to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the UK. The study found that, in tandem with those efforts, livestock production should be cut by 30 percent. This would not only make a substantial dent in ag’s greenhouse gas emissions, it would also improve health.
According to The Lancet’s summary: “A 30% fall in the adult consumption of saturated fat from animal sources would reduce heart disease in the population by around 15% in the UK and by 16% in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. If the study had used additional health outcomes such as obesity and diet-related cancers, the health gains might have been even more substantial.”
The Lancet concludes: “Recognition that mitigation strategies can have substantial benefits for both health and climate protection offers the possibility of policy choices that are potentially both more cost effective and socially attractive than are those that address these priorities independently.”