Low-carbon Solutions Protect both Climate and Health 6 December in Cancun: Health Day

Monday 6 December was the “Health Day” in Cancun. Leading global medical and health groups launched the "Cancun Climate and Health Statement" statement for delegates. The statement calls on negotiators to consider the "real costs" of climate change and the benefits of strong action by taking the human health dimension into account. Analysis of Russian scientists has shown that reducing CO2 emissions by 3.5 thous. tons saves one human life in Russia per year.

Health Day at COP 16 has been organised to bring the health community together to highlight the benefits for public health of strong climate change agreement to delegates. Doctors and health experts believe that this is a crucial argument for why we need to work towards a global agreement.

Endorsed by global health organisations representing millions of health professionals worldwide, the Cancun Climate and Health Statement calls on the negotiators to "take into account the significant human health dimensions of the climate crisis along with the health benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies."

Clear and convincing evidence exists that reducing greenhouse gases benefits not just health but countries’ economies. These “co-benefits” provide all those attending Cancun with a powerful and unifying new narrative - reducing greenhouse gases is good both for the health, and for the budget. An additional 30.5 billion Euros of public health benefits could be achieved each year by 2020 if the European Union adopted a policy of 30% domestic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (instead of the current 20% target). Put another way, as much as two-thirds of mitigation costs might be offset by healthcare savings. Monetary estimates of public health savings do not just apply to Europe: a recent independent scientific report shows that such health and financial gains apply worldwide, and especially to countries such as India and China.

But negotiators in Cancun are barely mentioning this health dividend to the climate talks. Negotiations seem focused on financial rather than human costs of climate change. However, quite aside from any benefits from averting climate change, strong data show that low-carbon living brings with it enormous benefits to health (less cancer, heart and respiratory disease, dementia, diabetes, depressive illness) and with that comes huge savings in healthcare costs. These health gains could substantially offset the costs of mitigation and urgently need to be factored in.

The Cancun Climate and Health Statement follows other statements and publications of research data. The statement from the Inter-Academy Medical Panel (IAMP), a global network of the world's medical academies, launched on 26 of November, says that health benefits could partly offset the costs of tackling climate change and challenge the belief that policies to tackle climate change will invariably be socially and economically demanding.

The Panel recommends that health ministers and ministries should become actively engaged in promoting mitigation strategies that result in health co-benefits in their own country and should make the case that such strategies to their national climate change negotiators in advance of international meetings. The other policy recommendation is that health policymakers, sciences, health professionals and industry should reach beyond national and disciplinary boundaries to collaborate with each other to study, develop and implement climate change mitigation measures that also benefit health.

The leading medical journal The Lancet says that changes in transport policy and decrease in sedentism required to meet GHG emissions targets can save lives. For example, heart artery disease can fall by 20%, breast cancer by 12% and even dementia by 8%. And rates of respiratory disease (such as asthma) fall as pollution levels decline - a benefit also seen where clean cooking technologies replace primitive stoves in developing regions. Rates of heart illness fall, as do those of osteoporosis (bone thinning), diabetes, obesity and depression. Appropriate trimming of animal meat and fat consumption also reduces heart disease rates by 15%, and would reduce rates of bowel cancer. The Lancet showed that such gains applied worldwide, including the UK, India, and China.

Russian scientists have calculated the medical consequences for two "extreme" scenarios of energy production in Russia. The first scenario describes the decrease of energy consumption in the Russian economy and significant reduction in emissions of CO2. The second one is the business-as usual scenario with the use of old inefficient technologies, increase of energy exports, adverse changes in the energy, in particular, the significant substitution of natural gas with coal. This scenario shows the greatest increase in CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is not harmful to human health in itself, but the more fossil fuel is burned, the more of other pollutants is released into the atmosphere, along with CO2.

Scientists have estimated, for these two scenarios, potential emissions of CO2 and harmful pollutants such as particle matter and sulfur dioxide (SO2). These polluters have the highest risk to public health in Russia. In particular, they impact on mortality from cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer. SO2 emissions affect the occurrence of respiratory symptoms, changes in lung function, and increased mortality from respiratory diseases.

The difference between the "dirty" and "clean" scenarios was approximately 30 additional deaths per 100 thousand population, i. e., the "side" effects of policies to reduce GHG emissions could lead to a reduction of about 35,000 deaths per year for the entire population of Russia. It makes almost 2% of the total mortality of the population. If, however, the "dirty" scenario will be implemented, such a number of extra deaths Russia could pay for the economic development strategy, in which GHG emissions will increase. In other words, the analysis showed that the decrease in CO2 emissions by 3.5 tons saves one human life in Russia per year.