The Climate and Health Alliance is currently developing a series of Policy Papers.

Two Briefing Papers have been produced and appear below:

Briefing Paper No. 1 - November 2010

Climate change is a health issue

The international medical journal The Lancet in May 2009 described climate change as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Climate change poses serious immediate and long term threats to the health and wellbeing of the Australian and global population. The World Health Organisation estimates that even the modest warming that has occurred since the 1970s to 2004 was responsible for more than 140,000 extra deaths each year. By 2009 climate change was responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people each year. There is however strong evidence that action on climate change can improve, even promote health. When presented in a health context, climate change is more likely to be considered an issue of personal significance.

Health effects of climate change: Climate change poses serious health risks to Australians. More frequent and more severe extreme weather events, including heatwaves, floods, fires and storms will increase illness, injury and death. Other effects include an increased incidence of infectious diseases, vector borne diseases, air pollution, mental illness, poor water quality and food insecurity.4 Children, the elderly, Indigenous Australians, people with chronic illnesses, and those in coastal as well as rural, remote and regional communities are being disproportionately affected and are expected to continue to be severely impacted. Ongoing drought and water insecurity is expected to reduce health outcomes and increase morbidity and mortality for the seven million Australians in rural and remote areas as unemployment and economic insecurity contributes to a range of subsequent health issues.

Health care services in Australia are already experiencing the health effects from climate change with increases in service demand from heatwave related illnesses and deaths.5 A single heatwave in the state of Victoria in January 2009 saw a 62% increase in mortality, from both direct heat related illnesses and associated exacerbations of chronic medical conditions. The Victorian Department of Human Services reported that during this five day event, ambulances had a 46% increase in demand; emergency departments experienced an eight-fold increase in heat related presentations; a 2.8 fold increase in cardiac arrests; and a threefold increase in patients dead on arrival.

As bushfires increase, more deaths, injuries and burns are likely, as well as increased incidence of respiratory disease. Extreme weather events associated with flooding and heavy rains will cause loss of home and livelihood, fatalities, traumatic injuries and post traumatic stress disorders.

Temperature rises are contributing to an increased incidence of food or water borne infectious diseases. Asthma, allergies, and respiratory diseases are increasing as a result of rising temperatures and higher CO2 concentrations. The mental health consequences of living with climate change are expected to increase in incidence and severity.
Other impacts include effects on our food and water supply as decreasing productivity of land leads to declines in production volumes and nutritional value.

Health benefits of emission reductions: There are considerable health and economic benefits associated with action to deliver significant emissions reductions. Actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions not only reduce the health risks associated with climate change and environmental harm, but can also improve health outcomes, and reduce health care costs from increases in physical activity, improved air quality and improved diet.

Shifting to low emissions transport can significantly improve air quality and reduce the burden of respiratory disease. More active transport systems can cut the incidence of obesity, chronic illness and cardiovascular disease. Shifting away from coal as a fuel source for electricity will improve air quality and reduce related deaths from lung cancer and heart disease. Changing to a diet with lower meat consumption can cut emissions from livestock production as well the incidence of heart disease and diabetes.

A recent report from the European Union reveals significant health and economic benefits are associated with strong targets for emissions reductions. A target of 30% reduction by 2020 is expected to deliver health care savings – from avoided ill health – of €30.5 billion per year by 2020.11 There are very real economic and health benefits from mitigation policies such as investment in renewable energy infrastructure in rural and remote areas which should also be considered in the context of avoided (and avoidable) health costs.

People care about their health: Polling constantly shows that health is a top priority issue for people in Australia. Evidence suggests that although many people (for a variety of reasons) are disinclined to rate climate change as a top priority, when the issue is presented in a public health context, climate change is much more likely to resonate as an issue of personal significance. Using the public health “frame” is a useful way to communicate about climate change and can lead to greater support for mitigation policies as it provides an individual context as well as offering a positive narrative in terms of potential benefits.

Summary: Future health costs from climate change are inestimable. An effective response by nations and their governments to climate change has the potential to significantly reduce the health costs we will face in the next decade and the coming century. We do know that poor people from developing nations will be disproportionately affected and we must consider how Australia, as a rich, high emitting nation will respond. But climate change is a health issue for Australians too, in 2010, and we must move now to protect our own population from further adverse effects by committing to substantial and rapid emissions reductions. This provides an important risk management strategy against the increase of catastrophic health and environmental effects of climate change, and importantly offers an avenue for improving human health and wellbeing.

Briefing Paper No. 2 - November 2010

A price on carbon is good for health

The view of the Climate and Health Alliance: The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) accepts that global warming poses grave risks to human health and biodiversity and left unchecked, threatens the future of human civilisation.

What the Climate and Health Alliance seeks: CAHA advocates for urgent policy action to minimise further global warming and protect the community from the adverse consequences of climate change and environmental damage. CAHA advocates a national committment to policies and strategies that will achieve strong emissions reductions to reduce the current and future health impacts and risks associated with increasing global temperature, sea level rise, and food and water insecurity. CAHA recognises reducing the threat to human health from climate change requires an urgent transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy to achieve a zero emissions stationary energy supply. A price on carbon that reflects the climate and health costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions is an important and necessary step in achieving this.

Climate risk: Average global temperature has increased almost 1°C over the last century. Emissions to date have likely committed us to an increase beyond 2°C, a level considered to pose “unacceptable risks to key natural and human systems, including significant loss of species, major reductions in food-production capacity in developing countries, severe water stress for hundreds of millions of people, and significant sea-level rise and coastal flooding”. CAHA therefore calls for dramatic and urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and removal of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to restore a climate that is safe for human health and the species on which humans depend.

The danger posed by fossil fuels: CAHA recognises policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to reduce climate risk as well as bring important public health benefits. However Australia‟s current energy and transport systems are heavily reliant on the burning of fossils fuels, such as coal, gas and oil: energy sources implicated in driving climate change as well as posing risks to human health. Shifting away from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but will also reduce current health risks, such as developmental disorders, cancers, heart disease and respiratory problems implicated in the mining, transportation and burning of coal, as well as reduce the incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases associated with vehicle emissions.

Why pricing carbon is necessary: The current system of pricing fossil fuels fails to include the costs of environmental harm and damage to human health. For example, some estimates suggest coal-fired power generation in Australia carries a human health cost (from associated respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous system diseases) of $2.6 billion annually. The annual health costs from pollution from fossil fuelled transport are estimated to be around $3.3 billion. These conservative estimates put the total health costs to the Australian community from burning fossil fuels at around $6 billion annually.

Putting a price on carbon would allow these currently „externalised‟ climate and health costs for Australian power generation to be accounted for, making so-called „cheaper‟ fossil fuels less cost competitive with safer, clean, renewable energy resources. For example, if climate and health costs were included, the costs of producing natural gas would rise by $A19/MWh, black coal $A42/MWh and brown coal $A52/MWh. The external costs of wind power by comparison however add only around $A1.50/MWh, and solar thermal and solar PV around $A5/MWh.

Outcomes from putting a price on carbon: Once these costs are taken into account the relative differences between the power generating technologies are much less – making renewable energy technologies such as wind power cost competitive with coal.12 The introduction of a price on carbon emissions in Australia would assist in realising these costs and support the transition to a cleaner energy supply system and a cleaner transport system - reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and our contribution to climate risk, as well as reducing specific threats to human health.

One good policy is not a substitute for a policy suite: While a price on carbon is an important measure in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it should not be considered the „silver bullet‟ in achieving substantial and sustained emission reductions. A comprehensive suite of policies is required. This includes stronger regulation of emissions, with tougher emissions standards, mandated energy efficiency standards, removal of the current perverse incentives that favour fossil fuels, and investment in zero emissions energy, transport and transmission infrastructure.

There are no precedents for policies to effectively combat climate change or to reduce emissions at the rate indicated by the science; therefore the implementation of a range of policies is necessary to ensure rapid emissions reductions occur across sectors. This will also require regular evaluation of progress to enable „learning by doing‟; revising as required to achieve the emissions trajectory indicated - not only to avoid irreversible and dangerous climate change but to protect, even promote, human health.