New paper shows: ‘A win on climate is a win for health’

A rural road leads toward factories spewing smoke.

From ramping up clean electricity to eliminating food waste. From designing cities for walking and biking to preserving ecosystems. Projects that lead to a low-carbon society and limit climate change will have more and greater benefits for health than previously realized.

Those are findings from a new commentary in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health from collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute (GHI) and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Project Drawdown and the University of Minnesota.

In “Climate Solutions Double as Health Interventions,” the team analyzes how Project Drawdown’s 80 solutions that build on existing technologies and practices to limit global warming will also improve human health. Looking at nine sectors, from energy to environmental resources, they identified health benefits “through improved air quality, increased physical activity, healthier diets, reduced risk of infectious disease, improved sexual and reproductive health, and universal education.”

“We only have eight years to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent to keep the earth from heating more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels,” says GHI Director and co-author Jonathan Patz, who holds appointments in the Nelson Institute and Department of Population Health Sciences. “The climate crisis is actually a human health emergency. Yet, at the same time, actions to reach a low-carbon economy offer enormous health opportunities.”

Patz and others have previously published work on how limiting greenhouse gasses benefits health. This paper goes further, using Project Drawdown’s quantitative assessment of specific climate change actions to determine which of those solutions might provide the biggest benefits to health and well-being.

“While the full climate benefits from greenhouse gas mitigation can take decades to manifest, many of the health benefits we describe here begin to accrue immediately after a climate mitigation action is taken,” says lead author Nicholas Mailloux, a SAGE doctoral student.

“Climate action today means health benefits tomorrow.”—Nicholas Mailloux, doctoral student, SAGE

The paper notes that the current 1°C of warming above preindustrial times is already disrupting weather across the earth. “Continued warming of the planet will lead to increasingly dangerous extreme weather events (such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires), cause significant sea level rise, have dramatic effects on ecosystems and natural resources, and threaten human well-being worldwide.”

The paper looks to immediate action across sectors to reduce emissions 45 percent by 2030 and net-zero targets by 2050. Project Drawdown, established to help reach the point when levels of greenhouse gasses begin to decline, has shown the world could halt global warming between the 2040s and 2060s by implementing solutions that exist today and are financially viable.

Connecting the Project Drawdown work to health benefits helps clarify the need for action. “The health co-benefits of climate mitigation solutions are often more familiar to people and thus can help garner public support for climate action while addressing the very real impacts of the climate crisis on individuals’ and communities’ health worldwide,” says co-author Kristen P. Patterson, director of Drawdown Lift at Project Drawdown.

“People often assume that solutions to climate change mean giving something up,” adds co-author Paul West, director of special projects-Global Solutions Initiative, at Project Drawdown. “Eating healthy foods, working to improve our communities’ air quality and walkability, increasing access to reproductive health services, boosting quality education and expanding open green spaces all improve people’s health and quality of life. Turns out they’re also climate solutions.”

A graphic of potential emissions and solutions.
The Project Drawdown graphic shows the potential emissions from each sector as well as the solution subgroups.

By connecting the climate actions with health benefits, the authors hope the paper will be a resource, especially for health professionals, including physicians and nurses, who advocate for action on climate change.

“Health professionals, who consistently rank among the most trusted messengers in society, are increasingly engaged in climate advocacy and are uniquely positioned to make health a resonant part of the climate conversation,” Mailloux says. “The information in this paper can help to put this group and others on firm scientific footing when discussing the scale and scope of health benefits of climate mitigation.”

The assessment is especially timely since many nations are determining their climate commitments in advance of the next United Nations climate change conference, or CoP27, in November 2022, Patz says. “If they know how much overlap there is between carbon reduction decisions and public health policies, it helps clarify that actions on climate can be viewed more positively. A win on climate is a win for health.”

The team plans to distribute the paper to decision-makers with the goal of encouraging policies to reduce climate-heating emissions and provide health gains.


By Ann Grauvogl/January 20, 2022