Picture yourself at an event and the presenter asks audience members to raise their hands if they believe climate change is a threat that needs to be addressed. In this moment not everyone in the audience raises their hands. But then the presenter asks the crowd to raise their hands if they want to drink clean water, breath clean air, have easy access to physical activities, more affordable healthy food, and improved mental health and less chronic disease: Everyone is hands-up.
Many climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts can protect the health of people and of the planet. These solutions offer health co-benefits: They reduce climate-altering pollution and lower risks associated with climate change impacts while also having direct human health benefits.
A recent analysis by Yale University* and George Mason University researchers of their well-known ‘Six Americas’ findings points to an increasing number of Americans expressing concerns over likely health effects from climate change impacts. Those increasing health-related concerns come amid growing public concern about climate change generally.
In addition, a separate report affirms that between 2014 and 2020, more Americans: 1) have come to recognize harms to human health caused by climate change; 2) have an increased perception of the risks of these health impacts; and 3) believe such negative health consequences will become more common.
Collectively, the findings underscore studies showing that adding a health perspective to the climate dialogue will increase concern and understanding of both the global climate and public health. And also boost support for and engagement in many climate initiatives.
In broadening the climate change narrative to include both the health and environmental impacts of climate change, participants must strive to address the question, “How can we build a healthy planet for healthy people?” Also, by painting that bigger picture, they can achieve a “win-win” solution to increase support and engagement and expand possibilities for important climate solutions. There are many ways society can begin to follow this framework.
Walking and biking reduce traffic congestion and improve health
The transportation sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report by the IPCC found transportation responsible for 23% of global total energy-related CO2 emissions. This percentage is expected to further increase if mitigation efforts are not put in place. Additionally, vehicle emissions are major producers of dangerous pollutants such as fine – and respirable – particulate matter and ozone. These emissions not only contribute to climate change but exacerbate certain medical conditions and lead to thousands of premature deaths each year.
Active transportation is one of many examples of a climate strategy that can both reduce these emissions and offer a chance to build healthier communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, defines active transportation as “any self-propelled, human-powered mode of transportation, such as walking or bicycling.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many cities have begun implementing active transportation plans to help increase space for social distancing and improve opportunities for safer travel. These programs include widening sidewalks, shutting down or limiting vehicle traffic on some streets, and adding new bike lanes. Active transportation essentially involves redesigning roads and streets to provide safer routes to encourage walking or cycling to places of interest, instead of having few options other than driving.
These initiatives fight climate change by reducing transportation emissions and improving air quality. A study led by researchers at the University of Oxford found that choosing an active mode of transport, even by just one trip per day for 200 days a year, decreased an individual’s carbon footprint by 0.5 tons a year. Also, making room for people and reducing the need for vehicle travel helps clean the air by cutting air pollution caused by vehicles.
Slashing emissions and reducing air pollution also contributes to improved public health. For example, reducing air pollution lowers the risk for causing or exacerbating conditions such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory infections. Additionally, by increasing opportunities for walking and cycling, communities can also improve access to physical activity. Achieving daily recommended rates of physical activity can be incorporated into individuals’ everyday activities and travel, helping them maintain a healthy weight and lower their risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. And active transportation infrastructure helps connect people and places, in turn reducing stress and improving social connections and access to resources. Consideration of these activities is likely to be part and parcel of any serious weighing of Biden administration infrastructure initiatives.
Greenspace soaks up carbon pollution, improves mental health, and more
Improving access to urban greenspace is another example of a climate solution with health co-benefits. Urban greenspace can be defined as parks, greenways, forests, street trees, gardens, and green infrastructure. Recently, as much of the world locked down to combat the pandemic, some communities nonetheless sought refuge by reconnecting with their local parks and greenways.
Urban greenspace has many advantages to both climate mitigation and adaptation. Green vegetation such as trees can mitigate emissions by absorbing airborne pollutants and providing shade to help reduce demand for energy. Another example: Communities can adapt to climate change by using greenspace for flood mitigation, and in that way help reduce noise pollution while also providing another source of sustainable food choices.
Urban greenspace climate strategies also provide health co-benefits by offering additional space for physical activity, which reduces morbidity and mortality associated with obesity and other chronic diseases. In addition, that greenspace provides shade to help reduce the effects of heat-related illnesses. Urban greenspace or green infrastructure such as green roofs can be used to build community gardens. These gardens will provide more eco-friendly sustainable food options, while also promoting health by improving access to healthier foods.
Greenspace is also important for mental health: Many studies show that individuals who live near greenspaces and have more opportunities to connect with nature experience less anxiety, stress, and depression, and an improved quality of life generally.
Communities’ co-benefits approaches help show way forward
Those are just some of many examples of climate solutions that provide health co-benefits. As societal norms shift to more plant-based diets to help reduce agricultural industry emissions, individuals can more often eat healthier. As populations adapt to increasing numbers of heatwaves and natural disasters, governments can help reduce weather-related mortality and morbidity by creating resilient infrastructure and early warning systems. And as the climate change dialogue is broadened to focus on both an environmental and health perspective, communities can expand and customize their own region-specific climate solution options.
Communities increasingly are recognizing a need to work toward healthy people and healthy planet solutions, and many are starting to do so. Buenos Aires has become Argentina’s most pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city, having successfully implemented an active transportation plan that widened sidewalks, redesigned intersections, protected bike lanes, and introduced a bike-sharing system. In London, evidence demonstrates that new School Street programs – which prevent motor vehicles from entering roads around schools during drop-off and pick-up times – have reduced pollution and resulted in healthier neighborhoods.
In the U.S., open space and sustainability plans guide Chicago’s move toward green development and healthy places. And in France, Paris is pointing the way for others by prioritizing people and nature through its ambition to create a 15-minute city and become Europe’s greenest city.
A critical component in increasing the opportunities to foster support for collective action toward these health co-benefit solutions lies in further embedding health in global, national, regional, and local climate dialogues…and in learning from the experiences of others already embarking on such efforts.
Maeve Brennan, a recent master’s of public health graduate from the University at Albany School of Public Health, is an aspiring public health professional.
*Editor’s note: The Yale program responsible for this research is the publisher of Yale Climate Connections.