Smaller carbon footprint improves global health and economy

The global community is showing little interest in limiting carbon emissions, as evidenced by the comment of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres after the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Madrid. He said, “The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation, and finance to tackle the climate crisis.” A viewpoint published in the journal JAMA February 28, 2020, discusses how a low-carbon future could improve global health and provide economic benefit.

Image Credit: Aapsky / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Aapsky / Shutterstock

Repeated warnings have come from scientific communities that fossil fuel burning and the loss of forest cover over billions of hectares is leading to unprecedented greenhouse gas emissions, causing the global temperature to rise by about 2°F since the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, time trends show that 2019 was the second warmest year since annual recordings started.

The risks of climate change are too numerous to recount in any single article. Beginning with health risks, it ranges through geological change, economic disaster, and food shortages. Health issues include smog, ozone and pollen leading to increased asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases, heatwaves resulting in higher death rates, wildfires with associated stress and physical harm, spread of infections such as the  West Nile virus and dengue, floods causing injuries, crop loss, property damage and death, and food shortages due to poor harvests.

It was after the 2005 Paris Agreement that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set various goals, for instance, keeping warming to a maximum of 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) compared to before industrialization, keeping down emissions to 55% of their 2005 levels, to become zero by 2050. This requires radical steps, for which political will is lacking.

Improvements offer hope

Clean energy has developed to the point where solar energy costs only a hundredth of 1970 levels, making up to 80% of solar projects that became operational in 2020 cheaper than the most cost-effective thermal plant.  It is now possible to present climate change action as being required to avert global ill health at about 1.5 to 2 times lower cost than the least expensive intervention. This addresses three critical areas, namely, transport systems, food, and energy.

Concerning fossil fuel, reducing carbon emissions can help millions of people across the world who are now inhaling polluted air not conforming to global standards, and are likely to develop lung and heart ailments. For instance, in 2016, over 64 000 people died earlier than expected because of health issues related to fine particulate matter, including disproportionate impacts among the minority communities and more impoverished people.

Taking more rapid action on CO2 emission standards includes evolving policies that will force power plants to generate renewable power from solar or wind energy. Already 29 states of the US have laws in place to use renewable energy, with each ton less of CO2 in 2030 offering accompanying benefits to health in the shape of fewer earlier deaths as a result of air pollution reduction in 6 separate categories – summing up to $94 per ton.

As was contained in the Clean Power Plan, an earlier program for reducing CO2 emissions, using strict emission standards help boost air quality by reducing the amount of power generated from fossil fuel burning, offering incentives for the use of natural gas rather than coal, and making it more worthwhile to operate an industry in an energy-efficient manner.

Preventing ill health

However, there is more. Not only does the rate of sickness and death as a result of low air quality go down, saving billions of dollars in health care, but there are fewer emergency room visits and hospital admissions because of air pollution. The costs of complying with energy norms are much less than those of caring for these patients, and the cost-benefit ratio agrees with the 1 to 30 ratio proposed by the Clean Air Act.                                      

Optimizing food availability

Another way in which human health will benefit is by increased food production. Currently, global agriculture is non-sustainable, based on the loss of biodiversity and forest habitat, the occurrence of air pollution, and eutrophication of water as a result of excessive washout of artificial nutrients.

Moreover, despite the unparalleled crop yield, there are about 820 billion people who remain undernourished, compared to 2 billion with overweight or obese body weights. Almost one-third of the food produced is wasted anywhere along its journey from field to mouth. Moreover, harvests are becoming more and more difficult as global climate changes set in.

To tackle food waste, the food production, distribution, and marketing system must change from the ground roots onward, using culturally appropriate motifs.

Increased food production will be required to meet the needs of a burgeoning world population. At current trends, the greenhouse gas emissions from food will increase by 50% to 80% between the years 2020 and 2050. This is larger than the sum of all transport-related emissions the world over, which comes to about 14% of all greenhouse gases. Moreover, emission-related deaths makeup about 14% of deaths, and required $1 trillion to treat.

Plant vs. animal-based diets

With people preferring a higher-calorie diet rich in animal-based foods, which cost much more in terms of resources, healthcare expenses will also mount due to the higher prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, and other lifestyle-linked conditions. Shifting to a plant-based diet not only mitigates climate change but is a health-promoting measure, as well as saving plenty of money and increasing life expectancy. The animal-based food with the lowest carbon footprint still costs the planet’s environment significantly more than any vegetable.  Adopting this kind of diet could prevent up to 12 million deaths a year as well.

Exercise also reduces body weight, stimulates cell processes that prevent lifestyle diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cancer, and enhance immune function.

Overall, scientists the world over must be proactive in demanding changes in the law that will reduce the carbon footprint of modern society, given the close relationship between health and climate change.

Journal reference:

Patz, J., Stull, V. J., and Limaye, V. S. A low-carbon future could improve global health and achieve economic benefits. JAMA February 28, 2020, doi:10.1001/jama.2020.1313

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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