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Meeting climate goals ‘would save millions of lives every year’ through shift to healthier and greener diets

Achieving the world’s climate goals would bring knock-on benefits for human health, research suggests

Daisy Dunne
Climate Correspondent
Tuesday 09 February 2021 23:49 GMT
A shift to climate-friendly diets with less meat and dairy and more fruit and vegetables could save lives, according to research
A shift to climate-friendly diets with less meat and dairy and more fruit and vegetables could save lives, according to research (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Taking tougher action to meet the world’s climate goals could save millions of lives each year, a new study finds.

This is because more stringent action on greenhouse gases would come with knock-on benefits for human health, researchers said. For example, stronger climate policies would see the wider adoption of greener and healthier diets and drive reductions in harmful air pollution.

Shifts towards climate-friendly diets, including less meat and dairy and more fruit and vegetables, would by far provide the largest co-benefits for health, the study suggests.

The research analysed the current climate plans of nine countries, which together represent half of the world’s population and 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

None of these countries currently have climate plans in place that are in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels.

The analysis finds that, if the countries increased their pledges to be in the line with the Paris goals, almost six million deaths could be avoided each year as a result of shifts towards healthier and greener diets by 2040, when compared to a scenario where no additional efforts are made.

In addition, around one million lives could be saved due to reductions in air pollution and close to one million lives could be saved due to the adoption of more active forms of transport such as cycling and walking, according to the findings.

Dr Ian Hamilton, a scientist at University College London and executive director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, the international research team behind the new study, told The Independent: “Well-designed climate policies across the energy, built environment, food and agriculture, and transport sectors could result in cleaner air, improved housing, increased physical activity, and healthier diets.

“This would see countries taking actions that have global impacts and local benefits.

“For places like the UK, which have made substantial progress around air pollution and decarbonising their electricity generation, we see that there is still significant room to go on vehicle pollution, increasing physical activity and reducing excessive consumption of red meat and saturated fats.”

The nine countries studied in the analysis – published in a special issue of The Lancet Planetary Health journal – include Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US.

For the study, the researchers used modelling to look at how the policies outlined in the countries’ current climate plans, which are known as “nationally determined contributions”, could affect levels of pollution and changes to diet and physical activity by 2040.

They then compared this to future scenarios, including one where countries alter their climate plans to be consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN’s sustainable development goals. 

From this, they were able to deduce how taking more stringent climate action could affect the number of deaths connected to diet, physical activity and air pollution in each of the nine countries.

The results show that, in the UK, implementing climate policies in line with the Paris Agreement could each year save around 98,000 lives due to healthier and greener diets, 3,000 lives due to better air quality and 21,000 lives due to more active travel by 2040, when compared to a scenario where no additional efforts are made.

The number of lives saved could be even higher if countries' prioritised health when setting more stringent climate policies, the researchers added.

Across the nine countries, most health benefits are derived from changes to diet, the research notes.

“Our modelling shows that shifts in diet to remove excess red meat and saturated fats and to increase consumption of plant-based foods and more vegetables and fruits will have quite a big impact on diet-related disease,” said Dr Hamilton.

“The reason for the size of effect has to do with how daily consumption in our diets has a big influence on overall disease, but also our physical conditions – being overweight – and the influence of this on disease.”

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