Climate change and air pollution

In the coming decades Climate Change and Air Pollution will be the two of the biggest global public health challenges. Tackling them will be vital to the safeguarding of public and planetary health. 

Location: UK
Audience: All doctors
Updated: Thursday 7 December 2023
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The Government must address the climate emergency. The BMA's calls for government action on climate change. Our concerns are highlighted in a UK policy brief published by the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change.

The World Health Organisation estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will be responsible for around 250,000 additional deaths a year.

Air Pollution alone is already responsible for an estimated 40,000 excess deaths a year in the UK.

Some of the potential public health impacts of climate change are as follows:

  • increased frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods will harm millions both directly and indirectly by damaging the infrastructure and resources we need to survive, for example impacting the world’s supply of medical equipment
  • rising sea levels will damage crops and lead to malnutrition and famine
  • the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue to new locations
  • the displacement of millions will see violence and unrest and will greatly heighten the risk of communicable disease spread
  • environmental damage will see a rise in acute mental health conditions; it is a documented fact that the prevalence of mental health issues rise in the wake of extreme weather events.


What we are doing

  • In 2019 the BMA officially declared a climate emergency. We support the NHS and the UK achieving Net Zero carbon emissions in the shortest possible amount of time.
  • Professor Dame Parveen Kumar joined Nick Watts, NHS chief sustainability officer, to analyse the broad issue of climate change and how the public can help tackle it. Listen to the podcast​.
  • In 2020 we published two reports looking into making the health service a greener and more sustainable system.
  • The BMA’s General Practitioner’s committee wrote a report called ‘Sustainable and environmentally friendly general practice’ on sustainability practices within GP surgeries and way in which this can be developed and improved.
  • We are asking for UK governments to increase their support in helping NHS organisations achieve sustainability goals and reduce their carbon footprint.
  • The BMA is also founding member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, a coalition of health professionals advocating to protect the public’s health in response to these health threats.
  • Working in coalition to call on government to set appropriate clean air targets. We supported UKHACC and the Royal College of Physicians recommendations for government to commit to reducing pollution from the toxic fine particulate matter PM2.5 to 10μg m-3 by 2030.
  • We have called on the UK Government to take a number of steps to address climate change. This includes reducing fossil fuel usage, managing high temperatures through access to green and blue space and promoting sustainable farming practices and plant based diets to protect health in a UK policy brief published by the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. For this we worked in coalition with other health organisations such as UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, and Royal College of GPs. This extends our calls to action outlined in our 2022 UK policy brief.

What policy makers can do

Tackling climate change will require a mainstreaming of sustainable and environmental policies across Government.

Reaching Net Zero by 2050 requires us to reduce carbon emissions by 15Mt year on year (3% of 2018 emissions), while a sizeable challenge there is already an understanding of the kind policies that need to be introduced in order to achieve this:

  • decarbonisation of the energy sector, this will involve completely phasing out coal by 2025 at the latest and supporting a significant uptake in renewable energy sources
  • decarbonisation of transport, this includes phasing out petrol and diesel cars as soon as possible with an accompanying uptake in electric
  • equally there should be a reduction in the number of total journeys taken by motor vehicle, a policy priority should be improving public transport and encouraging active travel
  • making new housing carbon neutral and introducing funding to help retrofit older housing
  • support consumers in making choices that reduce their carbon footprint
  • large campaign supporting reforestation and rewilding to support natural carbon capture, equally there should be funding introduced to support research into different modes of carbon capture.


The role of the NHS

The NHS has an important role to play in the fight against climate change.

Firstly, its sheer size means that it has one of the largest carbon profiles in the country and bringing this down will be crucial to meeting national targets.

Secondly, given the grave public health dimension of climate change, it is the NHS’s responsibility to advocate for the kind of change that will safeguard public health now and for generations to come.

As the NHS is one of the UK’s most energy-intensive organisations, NHS Trusts and Health Boards should be supported in becoming more energy-efficient. Trusts and Health Boards should continue to switch to clean energy providers and adopt on-site renewables where possible.

The NHS should explore low or zero carbon transport options. Decarbonising the fleet is a long-term project but needs to be considered seriously as moving away from the overwhelmingly petrol and diesel-based fleet will not only reduce emissions but alleviate air pollution on the estate.

Active travel options ought to be closely looked at as it is not only a zero-carbon mode of transport but comes with major associated benefits for staff and patient physical and mental wellbeing.

Air pollution associated with NHS procurement should be monitored regularly. NHS trusts should have to report this data and their progress on air pollution against their Sustainable Development Management Plans.


What doctors can do

As well as supporting patients directly, doctors can play a key role in advocating about the health risks of climate change and air pollution

They can advocate about this in an accessible way, to policymakers and the public – to encourage subsequent pressure on the Government.