Climate action is good for health Opinion Article

Aug 14, 2012 - 1:00am

This was originally published in The Canberra Times on 14 August 2012.

By Fiona Armstrong, Convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance and John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute

Don’t tell ‘em it’s good for ‘em or they’ll eat it by the boxful. While our politicians remain embroiled in a toxic battle over carbon laws, the health and productivity benefits of climate actions have been ignored. Yet research from around the world strongly suggests that billions of dollars and thousands of lives can be saved with actions that also just happen to cut the risk of climate change.

Consider, for starters, that air pollution in this country kills more people every year than the road toll. The annual health bill from our addiction to coal-fired power costs us $2.6 billion and $3.3 billion from trucks and cars.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently reviewed dozens of studies of the money saved by improvements in air quality. The average benefit was around A$46 for every tonne of carbon dioxide avoided. This makes Australia’s starting carbon price of $23 per tonne look a bargain.

In a recent issue of the British Medical Journal, Professor Andy Haines from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Dr Carlos Dora from the World Health Organization link the current explosion in non-communicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, chronic pulmonary diseases, and obesity) to environmental conditions. These include as exposure to air pollution and urban forms that create and reinforce sedentary lifestyles. They go further:

“These drivers are in many cases related to processes that emit greenhouse gases to power economies and produce food.”

In other words, Haines and Dora are saying that the high-emissions lifestyles driving climate change are also driving a global epidemic of ill health. They argue for a suite of strategies to reduce emissions that carefully targeted, can significantly improve health and help reduce the pressures on the natural world.

Health and medical researchers decry the parlous state of climate politics. The growing risk of climate change for human health and security, together with the sheer economic weight of the benefits from reducing pollution should impel policy makers to act.

Around the world, there is rising tide of health practitioners and researchers calling to be heard in the climate policy debate. Health and medical leaders from around the world gathered in Durban last December, issuing a Declaration that called for governments to:

“Recognise the health benefits of climate mitigation and take bold and substantive action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect and promote public health.”

In a 2009 special issue of the esteemed medical journal The Lancet, a number of leading researchers looked at the opportunities to improve health through strategies to cut emissions in the energy, transport, built environment, and food and agriculture sectors. This and subsequent work has demonstrated that there are clear economic as well as substantial health gains to be had from strategies to cut emissions.

The gains revealed in this research range from reductions in common chronic illnesses through productivity improvements to overall improvements in health and life expectancy.

Contrary to what many media reports would have us believe, Australia is not going it alone; there are plenty of countries that have already implemented such strategies, and so researchers have a swag of data with which to work.

Mitigating the risks of climate change is fast-becoming a core issue in health care. Conversely, an appreciation of the health ‘co-benefits’ of reducing pollution, changing the way we move, and clearing the air should help to build public support for climate-related actions. Health consistently ranks as an issue of high importance to Australians, as does how their politicians spend their tax dollars. Saving the climate saves money. But the best allocation of public monies will only come with a truly joined-up approach to policy-making articulated in a national climate and health strategy.

The global pile of research in support of these points is steadily growing, as detailed in a joint report released by our organisations today, Our Uncashed Divided: The health benefits of climate action. The report has the support of the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association and the Public Health Association of Australia.

One important lesson to emerge from our research is that the productivity and health savings, not to mention the climate benefits, start to dwindle with delay. Taking action is just what the doctor ordered!



John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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