‘Health can get a boost from climate policy’

The emissions targets set at the UN climate conference in Paris this week will not only determine how many degrees warmer the earth will get. The objectives are also about providing for current and future generations. Access to healthy food, water and a clean environment are essential for good welfare, something we will put at risk if we continue consuming the world’s resources at the rate we are today.

Doctors across the globe are concerned about the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) finding that climate change constitutes an unacceptable threat to global health.

The extreme weather events that have occured in the 2000s, such as heatwaves and floods, have caused hundreds of deaths. We’re seeing new diseases spreading in Europe such as dengue and chikungunya fever, and viral illnesses spread by mosquitoes that usually do not survive the European climate. In Sweden, especially, we’re experiencing increased problems with tick-borne diseases and infectious bacteria in our bathing waters during the summer.

A transition to a sustainable society is thus not about sacrifice, but is a prerequisite for maintaining our health and welfare.

Air pollution due to dangerous emissions and elevated temperatures is becoming an increasingly serious problem and WHO has classified air pollution as a major cause of lung cancer.

In Paris last spring the level of air pollution was so high that children and the elderly were urged to stay indoors. The mayor of Paris banned heavy vehicles in the city and instead offered free public transport and bicycles. This is a good example of how both physical activity and air quality can be promoted in the fight against climate change.

Many international companies already understand the threat of climate change to future business and have introduced their own tariffs for carbon in impatient anticipation of changing national and international regulations.

Several major banks recently launched a joint statement in which they urged world governments to set a global price on carbon emissions. In Sweden 40 percent of our municipalities have, on their own initiative, introduced a meat-free day of the week for both climate and health reasons. Policies at the national level are lagging behind.

If we are to solve the climate issue, politicians must dare to challenge their own and voters’ eating habits. Both the planet and public health are strongly linked to the unsustainable increase in meat consumption we are seeing in the world.

The WHO recently linked meat products to major diseases in Sweden such as cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes. Several studies show that a diet based primarily on vegetables reduces the risk of these diseases considerably. Despite this clear relationship, Swedes eat four times more meat than is recommended by the World Cancer Research Fund.

The way we raise and slaughter animals also contributes to the devastation of rain forests, increased greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity and loss of biodiversity. Today beef for the most part is produced by using animal feed that could actually be replaced by foods such as soy, corn, and wheat. At least half of the world’s arable land is used for the production of animal feed.

We need policy instruments to reduce the consumption of animal products. The meat we eat should come from sustainable production, such as free range beef, that contributes to maintaining an open landscape and enhancing biodiversity.

Sustainable living and climate awareness create a range of synergies. If we eat less meat, cycle more often and use more renewable energy sources and thus breathe cleaner air, we get a chance to reduce the risk of common ailments such as cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, lung problems and cancer. At the same time, we can preserve the ecosystems and biological diversity upon which we are so dependent for our survival.

Sweden can become the world’s first fossil fuel-free nation. If we can be a role model then hopefully other countries can be inspired to do the same. The effect will a healthier population, preserving biodiversity, functioning ecosystems and a planet that has a chance to be enough for everyone.