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Low-Carbon Cities Are Better for Your Health Than Any Superfood

Ambitious action to reduce urban greenhouse gas emissions would not only help avoid damages, but address a whole range of other risks, from traffic accidents to air pollution. Photo by Katie Wheeler/Flickr

Climate change is already harming people’s health. In August last year, over 45 million people in India, Bangladesh and Nepal were affected by unprecedented monsoon flooding, while last year’s Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest on record. The scale of both disasters can be partially attributed to rising global temperatures.

The good news, though, is that efforts to tackle climate change could make people healthier. Bold action to reduce greenhouse gases from buildings, transport and waste could improve physical and psychological wellbeing right here, right now.

This is the finding of a new paper published by the Coalition for Urban Transitions on the benefits of low-carbon cities. The authors reviewed over 700 papers to understand the social and economic impacts of measures to reduce carbon emissions in urban buildings, transportation and waste. They conclusively find that climate action can improve people’s health by reducing the incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, injuries and infections.

Safer Transport

Outdoor air pollution is a global killer, leading to the premature deaths of around 4.2 million people each year. Another 1.25 million people are killed in road crashes every year. In China alone, shifting people out of cars and on to buses or bikes could avoid over half a million preventable deaths annually.

Many people choose not to walk or cycle because of the risk: half of the global road fatalities occur among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Segregated bike lanes and sidewalks can protect these vulnerable commuters, encouraging more people to cycle and walk. The resulting shift out of cars is not only good for people’s physical fitness, but also for the climate.

Some researchers have estimated the monetary value of these health benefits. A commuter who switches from driving to cycling for five kilometers each way, five days a week, would experience health benefits worth about $1,900 per year.

Better Buildings

Globally, 450 million people suffer from mental disorders, placing those troubles as one of the leading causes of ill-health and disability. Investing in buildings with natural light, pleasant temperatures and green space could improve the wellbeing of occupants immensely.

The evidence shows that improving the energy efficiency in commercial buildings reduces the number of work days lost due to respiratory illnesses, allergies, flu, depression and stress. When workers moved from conventional to green office buildings, their absences due to illnesses and stress fall especially fast.

The health benefits of energy efficiency are even more pronounced in people’s homes. In Ireland, insulating homes yields has led to fewer sick days and reduced hospital admissions. These health improvements could be worth nearly twice as much as the savings from reduced energy consumption.

Seizing the Health Opportunity

Cycling to your sustainable office and back to your well-insulated house would benefit the environment. But to those for whom that may not be enough, this new evidence on the scale of the health benefits may help. It is clear that ambitious climate action in cities can provide multiple tangible benefits for people.

Governments have many options to both improve health and cut emissions. They can introduce building codes that require landlords and homeowners to improve building efficiency. They can establish mandatory performance standards for light bulbs, appliances and vehicles. And they can design taxes, fees and charges to incentivize people to behave in more sustainable ways. Congestion pricing, for instance, along with road design changes can help deter people from driving and encourage them to take up other modes of transport.

These may seem like costs, but in fact, when weighed against the catastrophic impacts of climate change, that can be better understood as investments. Ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in cities would not only help avoid damages, but address a whole range of other risks, from traffic accidents to air pollution to inequality. Climate action, in short, can help create healthier cities for all.

Catlyne Haddaoui is a Research Analyst at the Coalition for Urban Transitions.