Laurie Laybourn-Langton: Leadership on climate change is leadership on health

The UK must commit to full decarbonisation to realise the health benefits of acting on climate change

The Millennial generation will be the first to grapple with the full force of climate change. Until now, the outcomes of human damage to the environment have largely been associated with the distant future—the burden of generations yet unborn—and the far away, impacting low lying island states, if anyone at all. By October, these views shall become increasingly inappropriate with the publication of a UN report likely confirming that the world will, by the 2040s, have warmed by 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Any absence of urgency must now end. Decades (or even hundreds of years) of warnings from the scientific community are being grimly vindicated as the impacts of climate change—the litany of floods, hurricanes, and droughts that batter television screens and agitate the conscience—multiply at home and abroad. Crucially, these climate “disruptions” pose an unacceptable risk to the health of populations in the UK and around the world, undermining the environmental and social determinants of good health. This can occur directly, through physical and mental harm arising from extreme weather events, or indirectly, as the foundations for good health are eroded, including reductions in our capacity to grow nutritious food and supply safe water. As such, climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, as the World Health Organisation and others have concluded.

This means that actions to limit climate change offer some of the most powerful tools to improve social and economic outcomes. The UK provides a good example. Nearly ten years ago, in 2008, the UK led the world by passing the Climate Change Act, a piece of legislation that requires the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. Since then, the UK has made much progress in reducing its emissions and, in the process, has shown that the economy can grow as greenhouse gases fall.

Nowhere are the “co-benefits” of climate action more apparent than in the case of health. A recent study published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal shows that meeting the Climate Change Act commitments could significantly improve public health. This would primarily result from a reduction in dirty vehicles and other sources of air pollution, which is attributable to around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. By 2050, decarbonisation could reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution by over 50% and nearly halve fine particulate matter in urban areas. In turn, millions of life-years could be saved up to and beyond 2050, improving the health of current and future generations. Therefore, the UK’s Climate Change Act is one of the most significant pieces of health legislation available to the government because it drives health improvements. Leadership on climate change is leadership on health.

Climate action must be complemented with supporting policies to ensure potential health benefits are realised in full. Take transport. The number of vehicles and their use is expected to grow over the coming years. Even if all vehicles become electric, eradicating pollution from exhaust pipes, poor air quality will still be a problem, as breaking, tyre wear-and-tear and resuspension of dust off roads all increase particulate matter. This is a lost opportunity for health. As is the fact that socio-economically deprived groups are and will remain at greatest risk of the health impacts of air pollution exposure, as pointed out by the Chief Medical Officer’s 2017 annual report. Reducing overall vehicle use and switching to cycling and walking not only reduces air pollution and its health burden, but improves health in general through increases in physical activity. These benefits have repercussions through a health system that must help people live better as well as longer. Climate change mitigation confers upon us the opportunity to realise a better world.

In all, the UK’s Climate Change Act is one of the most ambitious legislative instruments driving climate change mitigation anywhere in the world. Reaching its targets will likely improve air quality and, with it, health. For a younger generation, of which I am one, our future health and that of the planet are more intimately intertwined than ever. This is a certainty that no generation can ignore. In Britain, in these times of febrile uncertainty, we should celebrate our leadership on climate change. Ten years after the Climate Change Act was passed, there would be no better way of doing so than amending the Act to require full decarbonisation by 2050. Only then can we guarantee successive generations freedom from fear and the joy of a healthy, happy life.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which advocates for better responses to air pollution and climate change, representing over 600,000 health professionals in the UK. He writes in a personal capacity and tweets @Laurie_L_L

Competing interests: the author is 29 years old.