Unlocking the health benefits of mitigating the climate crisis

The climate emergency is a major threat to public health. The systemic changes in ecological conditions and social dynamics will have far-reaching effects on our health and well-being, including through air pollution, heat waves, floods, water shortages, infectious diseases, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, under-nutrition and mental ill-health.

The 2019 The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report demonstrates that the life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by the climate emergency. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives. However, an alternative pathway which limits the global average temperature rise to “well below 2°C” is possible.

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) urges immediate and concerted action. Their landmark publication “European Environment — State and Outlook 2020” makes it is clear that Europe is not making enough progress in addressing environmental challenges. Europe needs to find ways to rethink not just technologies and production processes but also consumption patterns and ways of living.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies “low GHG [greenhouse gas]-intensive food consumption” as a main pathway towards not exceeding a 1.5°C increase in global temperatures. A transition to sustainable and healthy diets can bring significant co-benefits for economy, climate and health. It can also create space to tackle antimicrobial resistance and other food systems challenges. Reducing GHG intensive consumption can contribute to lower agriculture-related air pollution.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) underlined the consequences for health of the link between climate change and air pollution, identifying it as the greatest environmental risk to global health. Despite the EU being the world’s leading region in terms of the climate crisis and air quality legislation, 9 out of 10 Europeans are still exposed to levels of air pollution above WHO guidelines. This is primarily due to widespread non-compliance with EU laws. A first step therefore is to ensure proper enforcement of existing European standards.

Tackling climate crisis and improving air quality in Europe could unlock benefits for both our environment and our health. Synergies can be achieved from integrated prevention strategies, given that the drivers of both climate change and air pollution often overlap. Healthcare costs of transport pollution are another indicator of health co-benefits of climate mitigating measures. A recent EPHA-sponsored report identified concrete policy measures which the EU can promote by legislation, funding and promotion of good practices. The opportunities for climate and health of phasing out coal or using the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to tackle emissions from agriculture are immense. Likewise, mainstreaming climate adaptation into cohesion policy will enable countries to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Europe needs to phase out the sale of diesel and petrol cars by 2028 if it wants to meet its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. Countries resolved to limit the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5°C. In order to have a high (66%) chance of achieving this, the EU will need to end all sales of conventional fossil fuel-powered cars by 2028 and phase out all petrol and diesel cars by 2045.

EPHA policy recommendations

To this end, EPHA has identified 8 recommendations on how the EU could contribute to mitigating the negative public health impacts of the climate crisis. The EU must:

  1. Recognise that the climate crisis has an overarching negative impact on public health which will endanger the health and the future of new generations;
  2. Commit to immediate and concerted action, engaging diverse policy areas and actors across society in enabling systemic change;
  3. Reinforce the rigorous implementation of existing EU policies as regards greenhouse and health pollutant emissions;
  4. Include a climate impact assessment in all future EU policies, plus health and well-being impacts; the Lancet Countdown Climate Change and health indicators provide a good basis from which the EU can draw inspiration;
  5. Add a legally binding target for GHG emission reductions from agriculture because the global food system is responsible for up to 30% of anthropogenic GHG emissions;
  6. Commit to mobilise its resources to invest in walking, cycling and improved public transport infrastructures, to achieve the shift in mobility;
  7. Explore and support with the legal, financial, coordination or promotion tools the development of ambitious policies such as:
  • revision of climate and health harmful air pollutant limits,
  • expand zero emission vehicles,
  • urban policies, e.g. ultra-low emission zones, congestion charging parking policies, tax measures and incentives, encourage car-free days and car sharing;

8. Aim to end all sales of conventional fossil fuel-powered cars by 2028 and phase out all petrol and diesel cars by 2045.

Decisively, tackling climate change by keeping warming below 1.5C is one of the greatest health opportunities of the 21st century. The highest level of ambition in European climate law is needed to ensure climate neutrality before the middle of this century. A transformation towards sustainability of all sectors of Europe’s economy and society, with health at the heart of policy-making, has the potential to improve all our lives, and those of our children.

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