How can actions against climate change be public health opportunities?

Peter Byass, Umeå Centre for Global Health Research, Sweden

A lot of the possible personal and collective actions that help to minimise the extent and consequences of climate change seem to be – let’s be honest – quite boring! We can all fly less, drive less, eat differently, buy less goodies, and so on. But, humans being what we are, these options don’t seem fantastically exciting prospects to most people.

On the other hand, an alien visiting Earth might observe that the plethora of advertising that bombards us to fly more, drive more luxuriously, eat more than we need and buy as many things as possible also includes a significant component of sales talk about staying healthy or becoming healthier. So our alien might conclude that we all care a lot about our health.

Therefore it makes sense to join the dots between actions that are good for the planet and good for our individual health. In the recent Lancet Commission on Climate and Health, we highlighted the importance of these so-called ‘health co-benefits’. One obvious example is someone who has a choice between driving to work or going by bike. While recognising it is not necessarily the best option for everyone, the cycling option brings joint benefits – it reduces carbon emissions and leads to health advantages.

There will never be global one-size-fits-all solutions to climate change, and that is also true of health co-benefits. In an accompanying comment from Ethiopia, energy development and security is highlighted as the way to bring health co-benefits. Traditionally Ethiopian households burnt biomass fuels indoors (usually without the benefit of chimneys) for cooking. That brought the co-hazards of carbon emissions and respiratory disease associated with the indoor smoke exposure. There has also been increasing electrification in many communities – but that raises the question of how the electricity is sourced! Now Ethiopia is on a pathway towards becoming a middle-income green economy – with massive investment in hydro-electricity, solar and wind farms. Another health co-benefit will result, as levels of indoor air pollution and associated disease fall.

In another comment from the World Health Organization, Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan also picked up on the health co-benefits that follow from using sustainable energy. WHO has estimated that 7 million deaths every year are attributable to air pollution, with 88 per cent of the world’s people breathing air that does not meet WHO air quality guidelines. Imagine how many lives could be transformed by transitioning to clean renewable energy sources for producing electricity, cooking, heating and transportation.

Many actions that need to be taken to mitigate the climate change process (and safeguard the health of the planet) therefore also offer direct benefits to personal health. There is therefore a real sense that, if the global community succeeds in coming to agreement on a climate strategy at the Paris COP21 meeting, the world will also gain a major step forward in terms of public health. Let us hope so – for the future of the planet and her people!


Professor Peter Byass is the Director of Umeå Centre for Global Health Research, Sweden. Twitter: @UCGHR

MORE INFO The full paper ‘Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health’ can be seen in the Lancet Commission on Climate and Health:

Photo: DFID