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: Friday 8 October 2021
Public Health Article Illustration

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 wrote a paper called ‘Climate change and sustainability: The Health Service and Net Zero’ where we look at the state of play for sustainability in NHS Trusts and Health Boards and suggest steps that can be taken to make the NHS a less carbon intensive system.
  • 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.

 

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.