UK action on climate pledges could add at least two million years to people’s lives

There are significant health benefits to enacting green policies, says new study

A demonstrator holds a banner during a climate protest in London. Reuters
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Enacting net-zero policies would substantially reduce the death rate in England and Wales by 2050, according to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

If all the policies were actioned, at least two million additional years would be lived across the country’s population by 2050.

As well as driving down mortality, evidence from other research suggests that net-zero policies may also result in people living with fewer health conditions.

The UK has committed to reaching net zero by 2050 as part of the Paris Agreement.

As part of this, the UK Climate Change Committee has laid out carbon-reduction policies across six sectors to indicate how it will achieve this target.

Many of the proposed policies reduce harmful environmental exposures, such as air pollution, and encourage healthy behaviour, such as diet and exercise, but this latest study is the first to comprehensively research how these policies could affect the population's general health.

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“Our modelling confirms that there are significant health benefits to implementing net-zero policies,” said James Milner, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Not only are these policies essential for mitigating climate change, they also make us healthier.

“If we move faster in adopting more environmentally friendly diets and active ways of travelling, the health benefits will be even greater.”

The study looked at six net-zero policies across the electricity supply, transport, housing and food sectors.

Researchers used modelling to estimate how these policies would affect health, taking into account how much they reduce air pollution, make diets healthier and increase exercise.

The study considered two different scenarios, including a “balanced pathway”, in which emissions were reduced by 60 per cent by 2035 and a “widespread engagement pathway” in which consumer behaviour around diet and travel choices changed more rapidly.

It measured the policies’ impact on health by looking at the number of additional years people would live across the whole population.

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The results suggested that, under the balanced pathway, retrofitting homes with insulation resulted in 836,000 years gained by 2050, driving the largest benefit to health.

This was followed by switching to renewable energy to power homes and reducing red meat consumption — which resulted in 657,000 and 412,000 years gained, respectively.

Subsequently, replacing car journeys with walking or cycling resulted in 125,000 years gained, while switching to renewable energy for electricity generation resulted in 46,000 years gained. Finally, switching to renewable energy for transport led to 30,000 years gained.

In total, the balanced pathway led to two million additional years lived across the population of England and Wales by 2050.

The health benefits were greater under the widespread engagement pathway, amounting to nearly two and a half million years gained by 2050.

However, the death rate may be reduced more among some sections of the population than others, say researchers.

For example, men are more likely to use active modes of transport and younger people and women are more likely to reduce red meat intake in favour of a more plant-based diet.

Researchers did note some limitations of their study.

The accuracy of the estimates could be questionable as modelling is inevitably based on various assumptions. However, the authors believe their study is likely to underestimate the health benefits of net-zero policies, as they were unable to model all the potential health benefits.

In addition, they were unable to capture the benefits of other countries enacting their net-zero policies, which are likely to reduce the air pollution travelling to England and Wales from continental Europe.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 11:56 PM