Share on FacebookShare on Twitter+1Pin it on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare via email
Author: F. Armstrong
Date: 23rd June 2015

Tackling climate change is the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century, a team of 60 international experts today declared in a special report for The Lancet medical journal.

The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate report comes six years after the groundbreaking first Commission report – a collaboration between The Lancet and University College London – which described climate change as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.

The latest report shows many mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change can directly reduce the burden of ill health, boost community resilience, and lessen poverty and inequity.

In particular, switching to clean renewable energy sources, energy-efficient buildings and active transport options will reduce air pollution and have flow-on health benefits. This includes reducing rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, mental illness and respiratory disease.

The commission also reveals these health co-benefits associated with emissions reduction strategies offer extraordinary value for money. The financial savings associated with avoided ill-health and productivity gains can outstrip the costs of implementing emissions-reduction strategies – if they are carefully designed.

What if we wait?

The commission makes it plain we cannot afford to wait. There are limits to the level and rate of warming humans and other species can adapt to.

With “just” 0.85°C warming since the pre-industrial era, many predicted health threats around the world have become real. Long, intense heatwaves and other extreme weather events such as storms, floods, fires and drought are having direct health impacts. The impacts on ecosystems affects health indirectly, through agricultural losses, as well as contributing to spread of disease.

What does the future hold?

The report notes that since the first commission six years ago, emissions have risen beyond the “worst case scenario”.

Without mitigation, the authors warn “large-scale disruptions to the climate system” (not currently included in climate modelling and impact assessments) could “trigger a discontinuity in the long-term progression of humanity”.

In lay terms, they mean “wipe us out”.

At the very least, or at least put another way, the authors suggest likely temperature rises may be “incompatible with an organised global community”.

A prescription for action

Cutting emissions, the commission says, will limit health damages, as well as bring important health improvements associated with improved air quality, increased mobility from better public transport, and better physical and mental health from greener spaces and more energy efficient homes.

There is no need to wait. The commission says it is technically feasible to transition to low-carbon infrastructure now. The technologies have been available for at least 40 years, and some since the 19th century.

There is potentially significant economic savings associated with the health benefits of climate policies. One study suggests savings from avoided ill-health arising from the implementation of an emissions trading scheme could return up to ten times the cost of implementation.

Policies to achieve this must include carbon pricing, the commission argues – either carbon taxes or emission trading schemes. Where these are not appropriate, it recommends taxes on energy products. Feed-in tariffs (for electricity fed back to the grid) should drive renewable energy deployment, while perverse subsidies to fossil fuels should be abolished.

A key recommendation is the rapid phase out of coal – part of “an early and decisive policy package” to target emissions from the transport, agriculture and energy sectors.

Timing is everything

In order to have a 66% likelihood of limiting global warming to less than 2°C, the remaining global carbon budget will be used up in the next 13 to 24 years.

As all good health professionals know, treatment is of most value when it addresses the cause – in this case, largely fossil fuels. Scaling of low-carbon technologies policy options is vital.

The commission doesn’t spell this out, but in order for global emissions to begin to fall, we must use our remaining carbon budget to make the switch to low-carbon technologies and resources. Doing so will create many new jobs, and help avoid expensive adaptation costs.

Questions for Australia

The Lancet commission makes a clear case for climate action based on health benefits alone. This raises important questions for the Australian government, which abolished the carbon price, wound back policies to support renewable energy, and committed to supporting coal as an energy source:

Why is it failing to protect the health of Australians from this very serious threat? And why are the health benefits associated with climate policies not being factored into policy decisions, given the billions of dollars in savings for health budgets?

Australians should themselves be asking these questions, but at least now we know the Commission will also be listening for the answers.

Read the article at The Conversation