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Global Warming Reductions Could Benefit Planet and Public Health

  • Rosanne Skirble

Increased walking and cycling will benefit health and climate more than lower emission vehicles

Increased walking and cycling will benefit health and climate more than lower emission vehicles

Driving less, walking more, reducing household energy use and modifying diets can lessen the impact of global warming and improve our lives. A series of articles published in the British journal The Lancet, highlights the health benefits that derive from cutting carbon emissions in four areas that include household energy use, transportation, electricity generation and agriculture.

Fighting pollution and saving millions of lives

In each case, the articles compare business-as-usual scenarios with those that reach the emissions targets scientists say must be met to avert the devastating impacts of climate change. Research for "The Lancet Health and Climate Change" series was conducted by an international team of scientists led by Andrew Haines, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Cooking over an open fire, a common practice in developing countries, raises the risk of heart and respiratory problems

Cooking over an open fire, a common practice in developing countries, raises the risk of heart and respiratory problems

In the household energy study, for example, the authors predict dramatic health benefits with the introduction of 150 million clean-burning cook stoves in India. Haines says the initiative cuts emissions, lowers health costs and saves lives. "By 2020 we would avoid roughly 30 percent of the deaths from acute respiratory infections and from chronic airways disease and a smaller proportion of deaths from ischemic heart disease," Haines says. He adds the program would avert two million deaths.

Less driving reduces pollution - and heart attacks

In the transportation study, authors focused on London, England and Delhi, India. Both showed substantial health gains from increased walking and cycling and reduced driving. The researchers found the strategy lowered the rate of heart attacks and strokes by 10-20 percent and depression by 5 percent.

The third paper in the series looks at case studies of renewable electric power generation in the European Union, China and India, where Haines says a move to wind power or other alternative sources of energy, would avert 90,000 premature deaths in India, 60,000 in China and 10,000 in European Union nations. "The reason for that is that levels of air pollution in India and China are higher than those in the EU. So, if you reduce the levels of air pollution further, by moving towards these new technologies, then obviously you are going to reduce the deaths further," Haines says.

While the initial costs of these energy initiatives might be high, the authors conclude expenses would be partially offset by health gains and fuel savings.

Study finds dual climate and health benefits for agriculture

The Lancet series also addresses emission reduction strategies in agriculture, which produces 10-12 percent of global warming emissions.

A study of the livestock industries in Brazil and England concludes that a 30 percent reduction in meat animal production that was matched with a 30 percent reduction in consumption of animal products would not only slow climate change but also prevent diet-related deaths. Haines says the study focused on the links between heart disease and diets high in saturated animal fat. "There would be substantial benefits in the UK, perhaps a 15 percent reduction. In Sao Paulo something about the same in the burden of disease, and that would translate into about 18,000 premature deaths averted in the UK and about 1,000 in Sao Palo [each year]." Haines adds that the public health benefits would have been even greater had the authors also included obesity and diet-related cancers.

Author concludes reducing global warming is a good investment

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, says the articles seek to strengthen the case for bold steps to reduce emissions by policy makers and negotiators in Copenhagen. Until now, he says, action on climate change has been stalled because of the perception that such efforts would mean unacceptable loss on many levels. "A loss economically because there has to be so much investment, a loss in freedom in lifestyles that people have grown accustomed to, and a loss for people in low-to-middle income countries because maybe their trajectory for development has to slow or grow in a different direction."

Horton says the way the climate change discussion has been framed politically is wrong. The series seeks to show that aggressively addressing climate change can produce a net gain for individuals, households and families. "Then you can begin to see an incredible political motivation for acting," he says.

This new perspective, Horton adds, can help build public support for the otherwise unpalatable and politically difficult choices necessary to mitigate global climate change.