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How do carbon emissions affect our health?

The UK has a target to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, as we have discussed in previous articles. To do this, drastic and radical change in the infrastructure of our country is needed. This will help reduce the trajectory of our warming planet and help to control climate change.

We are often encouraged to be more mindful of the planet with the incentive of reduced global warming, decreased frequency of natural disasters and cleaner air.

The under-appreciated benefit of switching to a low carbon lifestyle is the profound impact it could have on our health. For example, nitrogen dioxide is a highly reactive gas which is introduced into the air from petrol or diesel cars, trucks and buses, power plants and other off-road equipment. For many this increased nitrogen dioxide does not cause any problems, but for the many millions in the UK who have respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, this increase in the pollutant can exacerbate symptoms.

The main compound we need to really consider, in terms of our health, is carbon dioxide as it is the primary pollutant and the one we need to make a priority to reduce. Factors that determine how likely you are to be negatively affected by carbon dioxide pollution include occupation and genetic susceptibility to lung damage. Gender also has to be taken into account as women are more susceptible to the effect of air pollution. Also, the elderly population are more likely to have pre-existing lung impairment before the impact of pollution, so often this makes the impact worse.

Carbon dioxide levels don’t seem to have direct effects on our ability to breathe at the current concentrations, rather their effects on health are secondary due to the repercussions carbon dioxide has on our environment. However, like nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide can exacerbate symptoms in those who already have a long term respiratory condition.

The main effect of carbon dioxide pollution is the effect it has on the temperature of our environment. A study published in the Journal of Nature Climate Change has shown that around 30% of the world’s population is currently exposed to temperatures hot enough to kill people for 20 or more days each year. This same study showed that between 1980 and 2014 there were 783 cases of excess human mortality due to heat in 36 countries. These stark statistics are just the beginning as the global temperature continues to rise.

Increasing temperatures also have an impact on the prevalence and transmission of infectious diseases. Due to the current pandemic, we know now more than ever the impact that an infectious disease can have and that we must try at all cost to prevent further outbreaks.

Diseases transmitted by insects tend to be more active at higher temperatures. For example, tropical mosquitoes which transmit malaria require temperatures about 16 degrees to complete their life cycles.

The WHO has predicted that by 2030, there will be 10% more diarrhoea diseases than there would be with no climate change. This change will mostly affect young children in developing countries. Furthermore, a study conducted in the University of Toronto’s department of Medicine found that rising regional temperatures may contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

So what can we do to prevent the damaging effects of air pollution on our health?

Things like eating mostly plant-based and decreasing food waste, reducing fast fashion, up cycling and recycling materials can have a huge impact if we all do our bit.

Another way to reduce your carbon footprint is by driving less or by going electric on your next car purchase. Electric vehicles are responsible for considerably lower emissions over their lifetime, even when the electricity they use is not produced sustainably.  The carbon emissions of electric cars have been found to be 17-30% less that a petrol or diesel car.

There are so many little things that we can do to add up to a big change and if you thought that one person’s effort wouldn’t make a difference – just took at the collective reduction in emissions due to the Covid pandemic.

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