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The climate emergency is threatening our health and costing lives – we must act now

(Alamy)

4 min read

Our precious NHS is at crisis point. Ambulance response times are soaring; A&E waiting times are at record levels; hospitals are overflowing.

The current situation is simply unsustainable. So the great challenge for our NHS moving forward is: how do we make it sustainable, well into the future? 

When the founding principles of our most treasured public service are under attack and government spending falls far short of what’s needed, we must defend its ability to deliver universally, for free. When we’re struggling to recruit and retain staff, we must maintain a sufficient workforce to keep the service running in the long term. When, according to an updated Marmot review, “the last decade has been marked by deteriorating health and widening health inequalities”, we must do all we can to close that inequality gap. And when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finds 20 per cent of healthcare delivered does not in fact have a beneficial impact on human health, we must focus resources where they can really improve lives. 

Acting now to address the climate emergency will help our NHS to adapt and survive for decades to come

If these are just some of the challenges facing the NHS in order to become sustainable, there is another major threat to public health which receives a lot less attention – the climate emergency. 

New experimental data released by the ONS last year revealed a link between higher temperatures and increased hospital admissions. And last summer’s extreme heat threw that into sharp relief, with all 10 ambulance trusts in England put on “black alert” and the public urged to call 999 only in serious emergencies. 

Figures released by the UK Health Security Agency showed that in England there were more than 2,800 excess deaths of people aged over 65 during last summer’s heatwave – each one of which is a personal tragedy.  

And it’s not just extreme heat. The climate emergency is also resulting in toxic air pollution – notably resulting in tragic deaths like that of nine-year-old Ella Roberta Adoo Kissi-Debrah, the first person to have air pollution listed on her death certificate. It’s leading to worse water quality, and worse food security too – all of which has disastrous knock-on effects for our health service. 

It is in this context that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, which I chair, hosted a briefing for MPs this week – led by Professor Sir Gregor Smith, the chief medical officer for Scotland, representing CMOs from all four nations of the United Kingdom – on the impact that the climate emergency has on our health. 

Quite simply, the climate emergency is threatening our health and costing lives now. But, as the CMO made clear, that threat also represents an opportunity. 

This means tackling the climate emergency at source – including by addressing our society’s use of fossil fuels and reducing our high agriculture emissions. Indeed, reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 could lead to an extra two million years of life and substantial reductions to mortality, according to a brand-new study

But it also means adapting to the changing world around us.Climate adaptation can no longer be “under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored”, the “Cinderella of climate change” as the Climate Change Committee have lamented. Instead we need homes, buildings, transport infrastructure and food systems that are able to withstand increased exposure to heat, flooding and other climate impacts.  

One of the many outcomes of acting now to address the climate emergency will be helping our NHS to adapt and survive for decades to come – but it also comes with a vast array of health benefits for people across the country, relieving pressure on our health service when it’s at its most stretched.  

Making our homes more comfortable, warm and energy efficient will help tackle the scandal of fuel poverty. Poor-quality housing in England alone is estimated to cost the NHS more than £1bn a year and in December, shockingly, 1,000 people in England died prematurely due to living in cold homes. A street-by-street, local authority-led, mass home insulation programme is the cheapest and quickest way to bring down energy bills and get off gas for the long term.  

But there are so many other health benefits to taking climate action now: cleaner air, lifting the pollution which chokes our cities; fitter and more connected communities, thanks to active travel; a restored natural world for us all to enjoy, calming minds and lifting spirits.   

Tackling the climate emergency is not only essential for our planet’s health, but also for our own health – and in doing so, reducing pressure on the NHS and helping to protect it well into the future. There is a real opportunity to create a fairer, healthier, and greener society. It’s time to seize it. 

 

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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