Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Climate change policies 'improve health'

Taxi and bicycle
Scientists advocate a switch to people powered transport for health and climate

Cutting emissions to mitigate climate change will also make people healthier, according to research.

A special series of articles, published in medical journal, the Lancet, outlines how such policies could have a direct impact on global health.

The series has been released ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

World Health Organization (WHO) director, Margaret Chan, said health protection should be a criterion by which mitigation measures were judged.

Dr Chan was just one of the key figures in global health research who wrote a comment article that was published alongside the Lancet reports.

Another was Professor Sir Andrew Haines, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is chair of the international task force of scientists that wrote the series.


Food: High-producing countries should reduce livestock production by 30%. If this translated into reduced meat consumption, the amount of saturated fat consumed would drop sharply, which could reduce heart disease
Transport: Cutting emissions through walking and cycling and reducing use of motor vehicles would bring health benefits including reduced cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia
Household: In low-income countries, solid fuel stoves create indoor air pollution. National programmes to introduce low-emission stoves could avert millions of premature deaths and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Pollution: Short-lived pollutants including ozone and black carbon contribute to climate change and damage health. Reducing emissions of these would offer immediate benefits
Energy: Decreasing the proportion of carbon-based electricity generation would give health benefits worldwide, particularly in middle-income countries such as India and China

He said that the public health benefits of mitigation policies had not had "sufficient prominence" in international negotiations.

Dr Chan commented: "As this series shows, cutting greenhouse gas emissions can represent a mutually reinforcing opportunity to reduce climate change and improve public health."

Some of the key findings presented in the reports included evidence that moving towards low carbon transport systems could reduce the health impacts of urban air pollution and physical inactivity.

Researchers also found that changes in farming practice to reduce livestock and meat consumption could improve health by lowering the intake of saturated fat.

And in poor countries, reducing the need to burn solid fuel indoors could have a significant impact on child and maternal health by cutting indoor air pollution.

Dr Chan pointed out that the poorest countries were the most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change.

Cleaner energy

In one of the articles, scientists from the Basque Centre for Climate Change in Bilbao, Spain, showed how decreasing fossil-fuel-dependent electricity generation could have significant health benefits worldwide.

The researchers said that the middle-income countries such as India and China would benefit most. A reduction in pollution there could prevent many of the premature deaths that are associated with heart and lung damage caused by inhaling the polluting particles.

But the researchers also examined the health impacts in wealthier countries.

One group of researchers described the results of an 18-year study of the long-term health effects of pollution in the US.

The team, led by Professor Kirk Smith from the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, US, pointed out that "short-lived" greenhouse pollutants, such as particles of black carbon and ozone, can directly damage the heart and lungs.

They said that "separate climate change agreements" might be needed for these pollutants.

In another paper, scientists quantified changes that were needed in the agricultural sector, which contributes 10-12% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

They wrote that "high-producing countries" should reduce livestock production by 30% to slow climate change. Should this translate into a reduction in the consumption of meat, the scientists say that it could also reduce heart disease.

Researchers called for health and climate change scientists to work together and for more funding for such interdisciplinary projects.

Copenhagen hope

The editor of the Lancet, Dr Richard Horton cautioned against putting too much pressure on the Copenhagen meeting.

He said: "By suggesting that Copenhagen is the 'last chance' for a binding international climate change agreement, anything less will seem a failure.

"Copenhagen is a beginning, not the end."

Professor Haines said: "The Copenhagen conference presents an important opportunity to choose those policies that can not only achieve needed reductions in greenhouse gases, but also move toward development and health goals."

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