Today is World Health Day, a day about more than just sanitation, access to healthcare and nutrition. It’s a day about making sure everyone across the world has everything they need to live a just, sustainable and healthy life. The pandemic has highlighted many things, and inequality is certainly one of them. We have been able to see clearly who is affected most by health crises, and we’ve unsurprisingly found that it’s been those who are also impacted most by climate change.
When we used to think about health, many of us in the UK would probably think of our Wednesday night boot camp sessions in the local park, the avocado toast we had last Sunday, or maybe even our overly ambitious daily goal of 30,000 steps a day #HealthIsWealth.
After the extraordinary year we’ve had, our perception of health has likely changed quite a bit. Watching our leaders explain infection rates with daily graphs on our TV has become the new normal. Viruses and how they spread is common knowledge across British households and the rest of the world. We wear masks, sanitise our hands constantly, and spend the entirety of our weekly shops simply trying to avoid walking into someone’s invisible 2m safety bubble.
The idea of risking our health by simply going to the supermarket seems like a new concept, but in reality, we’ve been exposing ourselves to health risks long before the pandemic. The environmental determinants of health such as clean air, safe drinking water, secure shelter and access to nutritious food have all been put at risk due to climate change. And it’s getting worse for us here in the UK.
While the current health narrative in the media is dominated by updates on Covid-19, and the mental health crisis, it’s clear to see that although the connection is rarely made, there is a strong relationship between climate change and the UK’s public health.
But how exactly is our planet’s poor health determining the decline of our own?
You’re probably relatively aware of pollution if you spend any amount of time in our cities, it’s hard to forget that feeling of glorious fresh air as you step off the train, or out of your car into our rural countryside. It also brings with it a very real risk to our health, and in 2018 an estimated 17,700 deaths occurred because of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5), with 3,100 of these down solely to the burning of coal. This pollution doesn’t just cost lives, it costs our NHS too, with coal air pollution costing an estimated 3.1 billion pounds in healthcare.
For some UK residents, facing the realities of life during a pandemic was not their only concern. In February, certain areas of the UK received a whopping months worth of rainfall in just 26 hours. Homeowners were not only tackling the devastating economic and health impacts of Covid-19, but they were also facing the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.
The effects of flooding on public health are wide-ranging, it brings with it breeding grounds for diseases, as well as mental health challenges such as trauma, disruption and displacement. Across the UK 1.8 million people live in areas that face a significant risk of flooding, and this number is expected to grow to 2.6 million by 2050, making it the UK’s number one climate change risk.
In England, we love to christen the first day of summer with a cold beverage gathered around a BBQ with friends, as we recharge our batteries after the seemingly eternal British winter. Yet the increasingly common 35ºC sunshine brings with it a much more sinister undertone. Not only is it a reminder of our changing climate, but the UK is also considered to be one of the most vulnerable countries globally to the health effects of heat, with deaths expected to rise from 2,500 in 2020 to 5,000 by 2050. And the danger isn’t just from hotter days, we’re also seeing an increase in particularly harmful “tropical nights”, where temperatures remain above 20ºC.
Fundamentally, to make a significant difference much of the change needs to come from large businesses and government, and the issue needs to be addressed on a global scale. Air pollution and global warming are not restricted by borders, and as the richest 10% continue to emit around half of the global fossil fuel emissions, countries with fewer resources will continue to pay the greatest price to their health and economy.
These statistics can be overwhelming... it’s pretty terrifying to hear the effects that climate change is having on our health. but we have the solutions to tackle this crisis. We know we need to drastically reduce our greenhouse emissions, and ultimately accomplish a net-zero economy.
There's also a lot we can do as individuals...
If just 25% of us in England chose cycling over cars, we could decrease total deaths (from any cause) by 11%, and when 56% of the journeys we take by car are under 5 miles, this seems like a pretty achievable goal.
Green spaces are also an extremely valuable solution to many of our problems, they save the NHS £111 million through health and wellbeing benefits. Simply by getting out into our local nature patch, we can help the NHS, improve our wellbeing, and by engaging more with nature we can help the planet too. It doesn’t get easier than that.
There are many more ways in which we can do our bit for the planet that ultimately support our health too, like installing efficient insulation into our homes, changing energy provider to a renewable energy source, switching to a sustainable bank that doesn't invest in fossil fuels, or getting involved in local environmental groups to put pressure on our government.
The options are endless, and any kind of change is great, no matter how small. As we work towards tackling climate change, we can also in turn improve our health and wellbeing. It's a win-win.