Assessments of mitigation strategies in four domains—household energy, transport, food and agriculture, and electricity generation—suggest an important message: that actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions often, although not always, entail net benefits for health. In some cases, the potential benefits seem to be substantial. This evidence provides an additional and immediate rationale for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions beyond that of climate change mitigation alone.
So says a summary of a new series of reports on climate change mitigation and public health, recently published in the Lancet (full article here). Yet another example of what’s good for the planet is good for people. No coincidence, that.
In terms of strategic choices, the greatest health gains seem likely to result from changes towards active transport, and from diets that are low in animal source foods, at least for adult populations in high-income countries.
Regarding animal source foods, the persistence of meat-based diets in educated and progressive cities like Seattle is a remarkable example of the power of culture. Most of us know that eating less meat makes both us and the planet healthier, and that meat production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet relatively few of us take that information seriously enough to make meaningful changes to our lifestyles.
The term “active transport” is code for walking and biking. Copenhagenize has a good post on the transport piece of the Lancet series, writing:
The report suggests that funds be redirected away from roads in order to make walking and cycling “the most direct, convenient and pleasant options for most urban trips”. Pedestrians and cyclists should also benefit from having a “priority” over cars and trucks at intersections.
And also noting the key point that:
Walking and cycling came out on top even when compared to increased use of low-emission vehicles that are widely sold as “green” solutions.
Because our transportation choices are so dependent on land use patterns, change on this front is a task far more challenging than eating less meat. Nevertheless it is a path that we should pursue, because (1) we need to be working on many strategies in parallel if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change, and (2) because the potential benefits extend beyond climate change mitigation and health.
We already have a proven model for restructuring our built environment to promote active transport: transit-oriented communities (TOC). Futurewise, GGLO, and Transportation Choices Coalition recently published a report on TOC in the context of Seattle and Washington State, summarizing that high-performing TOC have the potential to:
- Promote health by encouraging walking and bicycling, cutting air pollution, and reducing motor vehicle accidents;
- Lower household expenses for both transportation and housing;
- Reduce municipal infrastructure costs;
- Provide a high return on public investment in transit infrastructure;
- Help meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods;
- Curb land consumption and thereby help conserve working farms and forests, and protect natural ecosystems and water quality; and
- Cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with both transportation and the built environment.
We also know that climate change mitigation has the potential to be an economic win: carbon-free prosperity is possible. And we also know that the cost of doing nothing is likely orders of magnitude higher than the cost of mitigation, and will be disproportionally felt by the poor.
How many vital reasons will we need before we get serious?
[ Confused about what this graph from the Lancet summary report is trying to tell us? You're not alone---it's a great example of bad visual communication. My take on it, without bothering to read the details, is that "active transport" and "lower carbon driving" have about the same potential for GHG reductions, but you get more health benefits from active transport. Not surprising. But also: the potential benefits from cleaner electricity generation dwarf transport, even in the EU. ]