What Breaking Records Really Means For Human Health

Monash University

By Professor Jonathan Patz

Both expected and shocking was last month’s announcement by the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organisation of record-breaking increases last year in greenhouse gases, land and water temperatures and melting of glaciers and sea-ice.

What this dire warning doesn’t include however is the huge impact this human-driven climate change has on the health of the human population.

More than 20 million people die prematurely each year from fossil fuels. According to a recent study in the British Medical Journal, more than 8 million people die from particulate pollutants in the air every year. Over 5 million of these deaths arise from the direct burning of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel combustion is the primary source of air pollution that directly harms human health. While the urgent need to decarbonise energy systems to stabilise the world’s climate is clear, a low-carbon economy also will have immediate benefits by improving air quality, preventing an epidemic of premature deaths, particularly in marginalised communities.

But a low carbon economy is more than just finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels for energy – there are other ways departing from a fossil fuel-dependent economy can be of enormous benefit to public health worldwide.

If we look at what we eat – globally – we simply eat too much red meat. This is unhealthy not only because a steak can raise your cholesterol levels, but because producing meat and dairy requires farming practices that use enormous amounts of energy and also – as in South America – the removal of forests for grazing land, leading to a reduction in global carbon sinks.

A 2019 report in The Lancet found that – if as predicted the global population expands to around 10 billion by 2050, “the global burden of non-communicable diseases is predicted to worsen and the effects of food production on greenhouse-gas emissions, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use will reduce the stability of the Earth system,” with an additional 10-11+ million deaths per year, if we don’t adopt a healthier plant based diet and a more environmentally sustainable food production system.

The third thing that needs to change – globally – if we are to reverse this record-breaking heating of the planet is to reduce fossil fuel emissions by making all of us, and every city and town we live in, less reliant on gasoline powered cars and trucks.

Having now been here for around six weeks, I see two Melbournes: one forward-thinking, complete with electric trams and protected bicycle paths plus designated “bicycle boulevards” and one hamstrung by far too many cars and paralysing traffic. We know more active travel – cycling and walking – lowers our risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression and helps our respiratory health. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 5 million deaths per year could be averted if the global population was more active. Yet – in Australia and America – we espouse “walking cities” but petrol-guzzling cars still rule in far too many towns and cities.

Surprisingly to many, the US has initiated one of the world’s most advanced efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Last year, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest single legislative step taken by the US Congress to address climate change. Of the $US670 billion allocated over 10 years, nearly $400 billion is designated to end our dependence on fossil fuels and ensure a fair and equitable clean energy transition. At the heart of this Act are financial incentives to get companies and private citizens to transition away from fossil fuels.

Government investments and incentives are key to temper global warming – with incentives versus an expectation that individuals will sacrifice lifestyle for the planet – the right choice becomes the easy choice. On the flip side, we also need financial penalties levied on companies if they continue to burn coal, oil or gas that pollute the air.

I take hope from a group of students in Montana who sued the state government arguing it failed to protect their right to a clean and healthy environment by continuing to promote expanded development of fossil fuel projects with no consideration of the climate crisis. The youths’ success has led to a conga-line of other states facing similar lawsuits.

Maybe the fact that 20 million people a year die prematurely because of fossil fuel usage – plus the cost of those deaths to the economy – may make countries like Australia (one of the world’s greatest exporters of coal) start to make changes.

Significant ones. We have run out of time.

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