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 from the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society, released today [Thursday 14 October].

The report 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 leading experts, including environmental psychologist, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, of the University of Bath, to review evidence from a range of sources around the health impacts of initiatives to tackle climate change. 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.

The authors urge UK policy makers 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 about 30,000 premature deaths per year in the UK, many of these 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. Reducing 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 to 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.

Professor Sir Andy Haines FMedSci, co-Chair of the report, said: “In a world filled with challenges this report brings us some profoundly good news: the choices we make individually and as a society to prevent climate change will also improve our health with the potential to reduce the pressure on our overburdened health services – both now and for future generations.

“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.”

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, who is also Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), explains: “Behaviour change is critical for achieving these health and climate benefits. In fact, most of the measures needed to get to net zero will involve some behaviour change, including changing the way we work and play, what we buy and eat, how we travel, and heat our homes.

“Crucially, though, we need to bring people with us in implementing these changes. We know that people won’t support policies they see as being unfair. So, this means engaging with the public – for example, communities where low-traffic measures are proposed to understand their needs and concerns, and ensure measures are designed to address these.

“Giving people a say like this tends to not only increase acceptability, but also lead to more effective measures – they work better to change behaviour. And they can help avoid unintended consequences – for example, making people of low-incomes worse off. We need to design fair behaviour change measures so that they improve people’s health and wellbeing and tackle climate change.”