Climate Change Solutions Affect Public Health
How Reducing Greenhouse/Carbon Emissions can Improve Our Health
Recently, 192 countries met in Copenhagen in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert the adverse effects of climate change. Such effects include: species loss, disruption of ecosystems, population displacement, damaged livelihoods, altered agricultural productivity and economic imbalance on regional and local levels. Health professionals may be burdened with the fallout from increased frequency and intensity of heat waves, reduction in cold-related deaths, increased floods and droughts, changes of distribution in vector-borne diseases, changes in the risk of disasters and malnutrition. Logically then, mitigation strategies to reduce emissions should also have benefits on global public health. Unfortunately, these benefits have not received significant attention in international negotiations. This article intends to give a concise overview on the connection of several strategies with public health and to strengthen the case for mitigation.
Low Carbon Power Generation
A term that describes the use of zero carbon sources like wind, solar and geothermal, low carbon sources such as nuclear and natural gas, as well as carbon-limiting innovations such as carbon capture and storage.
If emissions are reduced, it is predicted that there would be a reduction in particulate air pollution and consequently, mortality. The largest effect would be in India, where particulate air pollution is the greatest, and the smallest in the EU, where electricity production from fossil fuels is quite clean. Studies predict significant reductions in mortality from acute lower respiratory tract infections (ALRI), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and ischemic heart disease (IHD). Costs of implementing low emission electricity production would be substantially offset by reduced pollution-related mortality, especially in China and India.
Efficient Household Energy
Residential energy use makes up a large part of our carbon emissions. High per head emissions countries like the UK and low per head emissions countries like India require different approaches. In the UK, focus would be on changes to insulation, ventilation control, fuel use, and occupant behaviors, whereas in India, where stoves are used for everything, a national program to introduce 150 million low-emission cookstoves would be appropriate.
Household energy interventions have greater potential to improve public health in low-income settings. If India’s cookstove program were completed, 87% of households would have clean combustion leading to less particulate air pollution and a reduction in mortality from ALRI, COPD and IHD. Benefits for ALRI’s in children would be immediate on introduction of the stoves whereas the benefits for IHD and COPD would only be seen later.
Alternative Urban Transport
Transport accounts for a quarter of global CO2 emissions and three quarters of that is from road traffic. Strategies include introduction of low-emission motor vehicles, increasing active transport (walking, cycling etc) and the creation of safe urban environments that facilitate active transport.
Lower-emission motor vehicles would reduce the health burden from urban outdoor air pollution, but a reduction in the distance travelled by motor vehicles could have a greater effect. Increase in the distances walked and cycled would lead to large health benefits. Largest gains would be from reductions in the prevalence of IHD, cerebrovascular disease (CVD), depression, dementia, and diabetes.
Reduced Livestock Production and Consumption
The agriculture sector contributes 10—12% of total greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. Four fifths of these emissions come from livestock. A combination of technological improvements and reduction in production of foods from animal sources could provide an effective contribution to meet targets to reduce emissions.
A reduction in the intake of saturated fat from animal sources could lead to a reduction in IHD and CVD.
Efforts to mitigate climate change and reduce emissions can also have benefits towards public health. With low carbon power generation, more efficient household energy, alternative urban transport and a reduction in livestock production, reductions in the incidences of common diseases such as ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are possible.