In 2009, the Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health concluded that climate change is the biggest public health threat of the twenty-first century. Over a decade later, calls for the transformative changes needed to address this threat are getting louder and more urgent than ever, as covid-19 has only exacerbated the inequalities, driven by our economic system. As health workers and co-authors of a new Medact report—The Public Health Case for a Green New Deal—we are adding our voice to this growing movement.
The root causes of the climate crisis lie in our economic system, which harms public health in a plethora of direct and indirect ways. Our report outlines why a Green New Deal represents a radical, but realistic programme of socio-economic reforms that would benefit public health in the process of transitioning to a zero-carbon society by 2030.
The Public Health Case for a Green New Deal covers five key policy demands to the UK government, each underpinned by principles of global and social justice. A commitment to global justice means that a Green New Deal in the UK must not be achieved through continued exploitation of the global south. Instead, the UK must pay “climate reparations,” which recognise that the UK bears a disproportionately high responsibility for the climate crisis, particularly through its history of colonialism. A commitment to social justice means simultaneously confronting socio-economic inequality; approaches like community wealth building are essential to include in a Green New Deal.
Decarbonising our energy system
Energy consumption is the primary source of carbon emissions, and the UK remains overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel industry receives £10.5 billion in subsidies from the UK government every year. A Green New Deal would transform our energy system through massive investment in renewables, democratising energy production in the process. The health, climate and social benefits this would far outweigh the financial burden.
Green jobs for all
Carbon-intensive economic growth is predicated on poor quality, precarious and low-paid jobs, creating working conditions that seriously damage the health of workers. Women, ethnic minorities, working class, disabled, and young people are more likely to undertake such work.
A Green New Deal calls for a government-led green jobs scheme to ensure a just transition to a zero-carbon economy by creating well-paid, secure work and retraining people working in high-carbon industries. Research shows that as many as 1.2 million green jobs could be created within a two-year period.
With 7 million deaths attributed to air pollution annually, the link to ill-health is stark. Furthermore, at both the local and global level, exposure to toxic air and its health impacts demonstrate a strong social gradient.
As health professionals, we support a Green New Deal that would reshape the transport sector, which contributes 28% of the UK economy’s greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing traffic in urban areas, and reducing reliance on private vehicles by improving access to public transport, as well as supporting active transport, would have clear climate and health benefits. At the same time, social inequality should be addressed by encouraging public ownership of the transport system.
Quality homes for all
UK homes are some of the worst insulated homes in Western Europe. Two thirds do not meet energy efficiency targets and home energy use contributes 14% of domestic emissions, compounding rising fuel poverty for many low income households.
A Green New Deal would prioritise a nationwide retrofitting scheme, which would reduce CO2 emissions, improve health by reducing exposure to cold and save each home £419 on annual average energy bills. Putting health and sustainability at the heart of housing policy also requires measures to address the crisis of unaffordable housing.
Food and land justice
Billions of people worldwide are malnourished—millions die as a result of nutrient-poor diets whilst a third of our food is thrown away. Agriculture is the biggest driver of land-use change and deforestation, and is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse emissions, whilst destruction of nature increases the risk of pandemics through zoonotic spillover. Even though 70% of the UK is farmland, we import more than half of our food—and yet we still have abhorrent levels of food poverty, with 1.9 million people accessing food banks between 2019 and 2020.
As a medical community, we recognise the importance of both nutritious food to prevent disease and sustainable production to preserve ecosystems. A Green New Deal would mean tranforming our relationship with both land and food, globally and locally. For example, subsidies should be redirected towards sustainable “agro-ecological” farming methods that safeguard biodiversity, cut carbon emissions and meet human needs.
Health workers and students must play their part
With the launch of the Health for a Green New Deal campaign on 17-18 April, the health community is mobilising and can play a critical role in the wider movement for change that spans the country and the globe. We need a transformative Green New Deal, and winning one will require unstoppable social pressure—so everyone’s invited.
Andrew Harmer, senior lecturer in Global Health at Queen Mary University
Rosemary Barker, foundation doctor, South Thames
Monica Sharman, foundation doctor, Yorkshire & Humber @monica_sharman
Fredrika Collins, internal medical trainee, Brighton & Sussex. @fredrikacollins
Ben Eder, climate & health campaign & programme lead at Medact @beneder
Hil Aked, research and policy mnager, Medact @hilary_aked
Competing interests: none declared.