Combating the effects of climate change with new green policies like reducing meat consumption and encouraging people to walk more could prevent tens of thousands of deaths and save the NHS £ 17 billion over 20 years.
A new report from the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society has modeled some of the health benefits for the UK from a greener environment that would help save the planet as well as improve life and general health.
They say their report should inspire the government to push for ambitious climate targets at the upcoming Cop26 gathering of world leaders in Glasgow later this month.
Among their key findings, the experts include that replacing half of UK meat and milk consumption with fruits, vegetables and grains would mean avoiding 37,000 deaths a year from heart disease, stroke and diet-related cancers.
The NHS could save £ 17 billion in 20 years if city dwellers in England and Wales walk an average of 1 km more and cycle an average of 3 km each day. They said the number of patients suffering from heart disease, stroke and diabetes due to inactivity would be drastically reduced.
This would ease pressure on the health system, save it the projected £ 17 billion while reducing pollution as more people choose to walk rather than drive.
The report also cites the example of reducing deaths from air pollution, which currently causes up to 36,000 premature deaths per year, as a health problem that would benefit from lower fossil fuel burning.
Better insulation in homes would also prevent low temperature-related deaths – which causes up to 50,000 deaths annually, the authors said.
Professor Joanna Haigh said at a press conference on Wednesday that she hoped the report they jointly co-chaired would provide “significant motivation for government action against climate change.”
Prof. Haigh said: “The Cop26 presidency offers the UK a tremendous opportunity not only to stimulate action against climate change, but also to make measurable improvements in public health.
“The health benefits outlined in our report should be a major motivation for government action against climate change, and such incentives also have the potential to increase public support for policy and strengthen public action against climate change.
“Another incentive is the cost savings from improving the health of the population.
“These can make a significant contribution to offsetting the reduction costs.”
The director of the Center for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, added that “social change” is also needed.
She told the press conference: “We need a significant change in behavior, we need a social change, and that is one of the topics in our report.
“We realized that we have to bring people with us, that this will bring about a significant change in behavior.
“While some of it is known, I don’t think it pervades any of the highest levels of politics.
“That would be one of the things that would be highlighted in Cop26.”
Professor Sir Andy Haines, who also co-chaired the report, said tackling climate change is likely to reduce health inequalities.
He said: “Our report contains many ‘win-win’ examples of actions that would have a positive impact on health and the climate.
“Many of the measures, such as improved access to public transport and energy-efficient housing, could also help reduce health inequalities.”