Tackling climate change is the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century, a team of 60 international experts today declared in a special report for The Lancet medical journal.
The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate report comes six years after the groundbreaking first Commission report – a collaboration between The Lancet and University College London – which described climate change as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.
The latest report shows many mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change can directly reduce the burden of ill health, boost community resilience, and lessen poverty and inequity.
In particular, switching to clean renewable energy sources, energy-efficient buildings and active transport options will reduce air pollution and have flow-on health benefits. This includes reducing rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, mental illness and respiratory disease.
The commission also reveals these health co-benefits associated with emissions reduction strategies offer extraordinary value for money. The financial savings associated with avoided ill-health and productivity gains can outstrip the costs of implementing emissions-reduction strategies – if they are carefully designed.
What if we wait?
The commission makes it plain we cannot afford to wait. There are limits to the level and rate of warming humans and other species can adapt to.
With “just” 0.85°C warming since the pre-industrial era, many predicted health threats around the world have become real. Long, intense heatwaves and other extreme weather events such as storms, floods, fires and drought are having direct health impacts. The impacts on ecosystems affects health indirectly, through agricultural losses, as well as contributing to spread of disease.
Climate change is affecting economies and social structures, which also cause health impacts, particularly when associated with forced migration and conflict. Given the risks of climate change-induced “regional collapse, famine and war”, the commission notes mitigation-focused investment “would seem to be the prudent priority at a global level”.
How does this affect Australians?
Climate change is driving record temperatures in Australia, with heatwaves now hotter, longer and more frequent. People die from heat exposure during these events. Many others seek medical attention, leading to massive surges in demand for ambulances, emergency services, and health-care services. Deaths from heatwaves in Australian cities are expected to double in the next 40 years.
Hotter summers are leading to more bush fires, which cause injuries and fatalities. People lose their homes and businesses. Communities lose schools and health care. After bush fires, communities also face a higher rate of general illness, increased in alcohol and drug abuse, and more mental illness.
Extreme rainfall and cyclones cause direct fatalities and injuries. Floods and cyclones can severely affect health care services. In 2011, floods in Queensland caused the cancellation of 1,396 surgical cases, increasing waiting times for vital procedures by 73%.
Rising temperatures are leading to increases in deadly foodborne illnesses, disruptions to food production and water security, and worsening air quality, increasing respiratory illnesses.
What does the future hold?
The report notes that since the first commission six years ago, emissions have risen beyond the “worst case scenario”.
Without mitigation, the authors warn “large-scale disruptions to the climate system” (not currently included in climate modelling and impact assessments) could “trigger a discontinuity in the long-term progression of humanity”.
In lay terms, they mean “wipe us out”.
At the very least, or at least put another way, the authors suggest likely temperature rises may be “incompatible with an organised global community”.
A prescription for action
Cutting emissions, the commission says, will limit health damages, as well as bring important health improvements associated with improved air quality, increased mobility from better public transport, and better physical and mental health from greener spaces and more energy efficient homes.
There is no need to wait. The commission says it is technically feasible to transition to low-carbon infrastructure now. The technologies have been available for at least 40 years, and some since the 19th century.
There is potentially significant economic savings associated with the health benefits of climate policies. One study suggests savings from avoided ill-health arising from the implementation of an emissions trading scheme could return up to ten times the cost of implementation.
Policies to achieve this must include carbon pricing, the commission argues – either carbon taxes or emission trading schemes. Where these are not appropriate, it recommends taxes on energy products. Feed-in tariffs (for electricity fed back to the grid) should drive renewable energy deployment, while perverse subsidies to fossil fuels should be abolished.
A key recommendation is the rapid phase out of coal – part of “an early and decisive policy package” to target emissions from the transport, agriculture and energy sectors.
Timing is everything
In order to have a 66% likelihood of limiting global warming to less than 2°C, the remaining global carbon budget will be used up in the next 13 to 24 years.
As all good health professionals know, treatment is of most value when it addresses the cause – in this case, largely fossil fuels. Scaling of low-carbon technologies policy options is vital.
The commission doesn’t spell this out, but in order for global emissions to begin to fall, we must use our remaining carbon budget to make the switch to low-carbon technologies and resources. Doing so will create many new jobs, and help avoid expensive adaptation costs.
Questions for Australia
The Lancet commission makes a clear case for climate action based on health benefits alone. This raises important questions for the Australian government, which abolished the carbon price, wound back policies to support renewable energy, and committed to supporting coal as an energy source:
Why is it failing to protect the health of Australians from this very serious threat? And why are the health benefits associated with climate policies not being factored into policy decisions, given the billions of dollars in savings for health budgets?
Australians should themselves be asking these questions, but at least now we know the Commission will also be listening for the answers.
The Australian government appears to be intent on scaling back wind farms in Australia. A Senate inquiry has recommended increasing regulation for wind farms in response to health concerns, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently commented to radio host Alan Jones that his government has managed to reduce the number of “these things” [wind turbines], but he personally would have preferred “to have reduced the number a whole lot more”.
But there’s another solution that would continue to build the capacity of wind energy while removing possible impacts on land-holders: put wind farms out to sea.
The primary drivers for the government’s hostility to wind farms centre around the alleged socio-cultural and health impacts of wind turbines.
In the view of opponents, wind turbines represent an unsightly blight upon the landscape and cause intolerable noise pollution.
Concerns over their potential impacts on human health have also been raised although here it can be observed that the National Health and Medical Research Council recently stated that there is no direct evidence that turbines affect physical or mental health.
The Australian government’s stance is, however, increasingly out of step with the international community – both economically and morally.
In recent weeks the G7 group of nations announced their commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 40-70% below current levels by 2050, and to eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether by 2100. As a renewable energy source, wind farms can help to displace the use of fossil fuel generation in the electricity network.
And last week Pope Francis and his 183-page encyclical made a radical call to decarbonise and address climate change as a major existential issue.
The government-led attack on wind farms is therefore at odds with a global shift in the development of renewable energy with wind a leading technology in the renewable picture.
One approach that would serve to sidestep the problems of terrestrial wind farms (real or perceived) is to send the turbines offshore. Marine renewable energy, whether from wind, wave or tidal sources, is set to become a major supplier to global energy needs.
Among the differing technologies, offshore wind is emerging as the most efficient and competitive player with significant expansion in Europe and Asia.
In Europe more than 2,080 offshore turbines have been installed and connected to the grid in 11 European countries with a cumulative total of 6,562 megawatts (6.562 gigawatts, or GW) in 69 wind farms. Wind energy (both offshore and terrestrial) is a small but growing part of renewables produciton in the EU, consisting of 10.5 % of the EU-28’s renewable energy produced in 2013. The United Kingdom is the leading producer of offshore wind energy, with installed capacity of 4.5 GW, a further 12.6 GW in construction or approval, and 5.2 GW in planning.
Ambitious future forecasts include 40 GW of European offshore wind by 2020, meeting 4% of the EU’s electricity demand with a further 110GW to be installed between 2020 and 2030 that would meet 14% of EU demand.
In China 0.67 GW of offshore wind capacity is installed, with more on the way as renewable energy is increasingly recognised as an important and growing element of China’s energy mix. China produced 450 GW of renewable energy in 2014.
Meanwhile South Korea is forecast to become a major strategic player with numerous offshore wind farm sites in the planning phase, investing US$9 billion into a massive 2.5 GW wind power development led by Korea Electric, one of the world’s leaders in tidal energy production.
Small-scale but growing
In terms of the overall energy picture the amount of installed capacity from marine sources – wind, wave and tidal – is presently small. Of the 369 GW of global wind production, only 8.7 GW (2.3%) is from offshore wind.
Total ocean renewable energy as a proportion of the global renewable capacity (which includes hydropower and onshore wind) is also tiny, currently just 0.5%.
This situation is expected to substantially shift in coming years as terrestrial systems reach capacity in terms of competition for space, social opposition or in limits to generative capacity and the concept of the blue economy gains momentum in coastal states and regional clusters such as the European Union and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries.
Opportunities and challenges
Australia has a long coastline and abundant offshore wind, wave and tidal energy resources at its disposal. Pushing wind farms offshore would seem to circumvent the main objections to wind turbines on land whilst enabling the renewable energy sector an opportunity to grow.
Providing such an avenue for the renewable energy sector would grow the innovation and manufacturing base providing an avenue for a high skilled and technical workforce and giving Australia a stake in a growing global market.
Emerging technologies such as wave and tidal, while presently small, have been recently supported by coalition ministers including a recent world-first connection of a wave hub in Western Australia.
Arguably moving wind turbines offshore merely transfers the burden of their visual impacts to sea. Crucially though, few people (indeed, vocal voters) live where such turbines might be located.
Offshore wind turbines represent proven technology but are likely to be more expensive both to build and maintain, but recent estimates highlight that costs are falling, and are potentially cheaper than gas fired or nuclear options.
It can also be anticipated that existing marine users such as fishermen, are unlikely to welcome such a “new” and potentially competing offshore activity. That said, there are ways and means to overcome such apparently conflicting uses, for instance through processes of marine spatial planning that are emerging worldwide.
While implementation challenges exist for offshore wind energy developments, this option offers a pathway for Australia to stay in the renewable energy game, reduce our carbon emissions and develop innovative new industries.