UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on its release last year, as “Code Red for humanity.” A previous IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C showed just how quickly societies must cut carbon dioxide emissions to avoid “dangerous” climate disruption: a daunting 45% by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050. That’s a very rapid departure from fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate chaos.
Some positive trends are emerging. For the first time ever — assuming a level playing field without government subsidies — renewable energy is now the cheapest way to generate electricity compared to coal, oil, or natural gas options. The economics of cleaner, low-carbon energy are no longer a barrier nor an excuse. What’s lacking is political will.
Regardless of our political party, we all care about our health. Since health is a core issue for both climate risks and climate action opportunities, the health benefits of a low-carbon society need to be amplified in debates about addressing the climate crisis.
The many actions needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the face of the looming climate crisis have the potential to simultaneously promote our health, yielding enormous benefits.
Studies have shown that burning fossil fuels accounts for approximately 65% of excess mortality due to air pollution, and phasing out fossil fuels could save 3.6 million lives per year. Another study analyzed Paris Agreement commitments, particularly for the nine countries currently emitting half of the world’s greenhouse gas. If these countries met their commitments to reduce emissions, over 1 million air-pollution-related deaths could be avoided. Additionally, almost 6 million diet-related deaths and over 1 million deaths due to physical inactivity could be avoided every year.
These substantial health benefits arise from just three sectors: electric power generation, food systems and transportation. Yet there are even more health benefits across numerous sectors where greenhouse gas reductions can be realized. My colleagues and I have shown more potential benefits from a multitude of climate actions across even more sectors. We collaborated with Project Drawdown, a non-governmental organization, to evaluate potential health benefits from their more than 80 climate mitigation measures. These cut across six major sectors: 1. electricity production; 2. food, agriculture, and land use; 3. industry; 4. transportation; 5. buildings; and 6. other sources.
Our study shows multiple potential benefits from these climate change mitigation actions. They include improved air quality, increased physical fitness, improved nutrition and food security, reduced risk of emerging infectious diseases (like COVID-19), reduced exposure to climatic extremes, improved water quality, improved mental health, improved reproductive health, and universal education.
In summary, the many actions needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the face of the looming climate crisis have the potential to simultaneously promote our health, yielding enormous benefits. I firmly believe that inserting this health rationale into the public discourse on climate change can add impetus to move policies and actions that much faster and further.
Illustration via Getty Images