Healthy Planet, Healthy People. How Slowing Climate Change Saves Lives

Just because the United States has re-joined the Paris Agreement doesn’t mean that the world is on a path to a better climate future. The 2015 agreement, in which signatories pledged to collectively cap global warming at “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, is only the first step. Member nations still have to adopt ambitious carbon emission reduction plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and with the current level of commitments the world is on track for a global temperature rise of more than 2.5°C.

However, a study published in a special issue of The Lancet Planetary Health journal may prove to be just the carrot for encouraging reluctant governments to pick up the pace on reducing emissions. New research from The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change shows that millions of lives could be saved annually by 2040 if countries raise their climate ambitions to meet the Paris Agreement targets. By adopting Paris-level climate plans and prioritizing health, the nine nations cited in the survey (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) could save 6.4 million lives due to better diet, 1.6 million lives due to cleaner air, and 2.1 million lives due to increased exercise, every year.

Read more: At Its Five-Year Anniversary, the Paris Deal Remains the Most Influential Global Framework for Addressing Climate Change

Those nine nations are home to half the world’s population and 70% of the world’s emissions; revised commitments could make a huge difference, both for the world, and for their own populations. “Our report focuses on a crucial but often overlooked incentive for tackling climate change,” says lead author Ian Hamilton, Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. “Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year, the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health.”

The survey looked at emissions generated from energy, agriculture and transport sectors, along with annual deaths attributed to air pollution, diet-related risk factors and physical inactivity, then estimated the toll for 2040, based on three different emissions scenarios. The ‘baseline’ scenario used current NDC commitments. The ‘sustainable pathways’ scenario incorporated NDC policies in line with the Paris Agreement, and the third, ‘health in all climate policies,’ scenario included explicit health objectives. Even the Paris Agreement scenario showed a substantial increase in quality of life, with 5.8 million lives a year saved through better diet, 1.2 million lives via cleaner air, and 1.2 million lives due to increased exercise. (Since it’s difficult to isolate the effects of cleaner air from, say, increased exercise, the numbers have to be looked at individually, and can’t just be added together.)

Unsurprisingly, a better diet—with an emphasis on increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes and a decrease in red meat and processed food—is good for both human and planetary health. Industrial meat and dairy production alone accounts for 14.5% of global carbon emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Even a small decrease in global meat consumption could have big pay-outs for climate, and health.

Read more: After the COVID-19 Pandemic We Need to Build More Resilient Countries

The study’s findings come at a vital moment. Paris agreement signatory nations have just a few months before November’s meeting in Glasgow, also known as COP 26, to update and revise their NDC pledges. “The report findings therefore provide an important further incentive not only for the world’s leaders to make good on their climate commitments in new NDCs but also to align environmental and health objectives in Covid-19 recovery plans,” says Margaret Chan, Former Director-General of the World Health Organization, in a Comment article also published in the special issue. “After all, healthier populations will prove more resilient to future health shocks.”

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