Climate change action will improve health and save lives now and in the future

14 October 2021

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. 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 11 leading experts 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. 

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.”

The report urges 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 between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths per year in the UK, many of which 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. Continuing to reduce 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 Joanna Haigh CBE FRS, co-Chair of the report, said:

“Climate change poses a catastrophic threat to humanity and the natural systems that underpin our lives. It is obvious that tackling climate change will have a positive impact on human health in the long-term, however our report provides evidence that many of the actions needed for the UK to meet the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will also benefit our health in the near-term. 

“We would like to see the UK government seize the opportunity provided by COP26 to show global leadership and bring health to the forefront of the climate narrative.”

The report noted that while the impact of climate change mitigation strategies was mainly positive, there could also be unintended negative effects on health. Close attention should be paid to international supply chains and economic systems that will underpin the global net zero transition – for example, reliance on batteries for renewable power means more cobalt needs to be mined, which may have health disadvantages for the communities involved. 

The report also asks that climate change initiatives are robustly and consistently monitored for their impacts on health, and that researchers from different disciplines work together to help maximise the health benefits. 

Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“The pandemic has made us think more deeply about the way we work, travel and live. We must use the opportunities of a ‘new normal’ to drive forward greener environments and lifestyles knowing that they will benefit the planet, and in turn our health. However, we live with unacceptable health inequalities in our society. Whilst the actions we can take to mitigate climate change will improve the health of the public, policies must be designed to ensure that healthier and greener options are accessible for all. I look forward to supporting the Academy to contribute further to the climate and health agenda and considering how we can become a better planetary citizen in our own policies and actions.”