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Health inequalities and climate change assessed together to inform sixth carbon budget

By agency reporter
November 15, 2020

Inequalities in health and the health of our planet have been assessed together in an independent report, to inform next month’s sixth carbon budget. The UCL Institute of Health Equity (IHE) was commissioned by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to develop recommendations that could both improve the nation’s health, reduce health inequalities and achieve Net-Zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot was asked by the CCC to chair an independent UK Health Expert Advisory Group in January 2020 to advise on the potential health impacts of the government’s carbon reduction targets. Those targets have informed next month’s sixth carbon budget, which will present options for achieving net-zero emissions.

The Advisory Group highlight how the direct and indirect impacts of climate change will likely widen existing health inequalities in the UK. The Group warns if health equity is not considered when developing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is a risk that their benefits to health, such as cleaner air, healthier average diets and lower home energy bills, will be unequally distributed.

The direct impacts of climate change on physical and mental health are created by changing exposure to heat and cold, increased exposure to UV radiation, air pollution, pollen, emerging infections, flooding and associated water-borne diseases, and the impacts of extreme weather events such as storms and floods.

Indirect impacts occur as a result of climate change’s impacts on the livelihoods of individuals, on prices of food, water and domestic energy; on utilities and supply chains that are at risk from extreme weather conditions; on global security – and on the increasingly complex interactions between these factors.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Advisory Group Chair and Director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity said: “When we talk about climate change, health inequalities are often forgotten. Action to improve health equity can be consistent with measures to reduce GHG emissions. But this requires careful consideration of who benefits and who pays for different policy measures: the costs must not be unfairly borne by people on low incomes, who bear least responsibility for the emissions that cause climate change.

"To avoid this, health equity must be an explicit policy goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. If we are to achieve a green recovery we need to take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and switch emphasis from GDP to wellbeing in measuring our country’s economic success.”

The report identified four key areas for action:

Minimising air pollution

  • Reduce dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate transition to clean energy
  • Set target date to eliminate home installation of wood burning and gas stoves in urban areas
  • Upgrade domestic heating systems to electric and/or heat pump technology
  • Invest in re-training and diversify affected economies as fossil fuel industry sites are closed

Building energy efficient homes

  • Establish target to retrofit and upgrade existing homes to be energy efficient
  • Revise building standards to become near-zero or zero-carbon with flexibility to adapt to local environment needs
  • Ensure all homes are designed to reduce exposure to extreme heat without using refrigerants

Promoting sustainable and healthy food

  • Enable powers to transition to healthier and more sustainable diets, to be reflected in UK dietary guidelines
  • Develop labelling system to inform consumers about health and environmental impacts of purchases
  • Support interventions such as changing marketing of food, VAT structures and waste reduction duties

Prioritising active and safe transport

  • Support replacement of old polluting vehicles, expand electric charging network for vehicles and e-bikes and invest in walking/cycling infrastructure
  • Increase availability of affordable and reliable public transport, promote ride-sharing and e-delivery services
  • Optimise flexible speed restrictions/traffic control measures to protect cyclists amd pedestrians, reduce air pollution and GHGs, and increase monitoring amd enforcement

The UK Health Expert Advisory Group, chaired by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, was formed by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in January 2020. The Group was commissioned to produce an independent report to advise on developing an approach to assessing the health impacts of setting the sixth carbon budget covering 2033-2037, which will set a new path towards the target date of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Although first convened prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group largely met remotely during the pandemic, a period which has shown in stark terms how an external shock can amplify health inequalities. The evidence shows climate change will lead to more such systemic shocks, which will become increasingly unpredictable and which will impact population health, well-being and inequalities – both directly and directly.

Communities that are already disadvantaged are among the most vulnerable to the effects of systemic shocks and extreme events and climate change has the potential to widen existing health inequalities in the UK. Some hazards are also unavoidable due to climate change which is already ‘locked-in’ by existing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and therefore adaptation and resilience must be considered in tandem with the mitigation of climate change.

The Sixth Carbon Budget, required under the Climate Change Act, will provide ministers with advice on the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit during the period 2033-2037. It will set the path to the UK’s new net-zero emissions target in 2050, as the first carbon budget to be set into law following that commitment.

* The Climate Change Committee is an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets, and to report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change. https://www.theccc.org.uk/

* The Institute of Health Equity was established in 2011 and is led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot at University College London, with a mission of "nothing less than a fairer, healthier society". http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/

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