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26th October 2022

Health leaders call on UK Government to stop subsidising fossil fuels, reduce air pollution, and improve access to green space to protect health

The Lancet Countdown is further evidence that not enough is being done to reduce pollution and protect health, according to health organisations who have called on the UK government to make fundamental changes to protect people and the planet.

In a policy briefing published today, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Psychiatrists, and Royal College of Physicians say action is needed to:

The full policy briefing can be viewed here

Lancet Countdown infographic

The policy brief builds from the global Lancet Countdown report, which presents 43 indicators that monitor the impacts of climate change on health, and the health benefits of climate action. The 2022 global Lancet Countdown report warns that health is at the mercy of fossil fuels, revealing that the health impacts of multiple crises are being exacerbated by persistent fossil fuel dependence and are putting additional strain on health systems. Acknowledging the compounding shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict in Ukraine, and a global energy and cost of living crises; the global report highlights that we are at a critical juncture, facing a very real danger of countries backsliding on climate commitments in their responses.

According to Lancet Countdown data, in 2020-21, the UK government committed significantly more resources to supporting fossil fuel-based energy than clean energy sources and allocated a net 12.3 billion in subsidies in 2019 alone – more than any other country in Europe, and equivalent to 4.1% of UK health expenditure. 

In this policy brief, health leaders say that instead of funding fossil fuels, the UK needs an ambitious programme of retrofitting, insulation and clean heat generation in all homes and public buildings to reduce fuel consumption and costs. As well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions, such actions create jobs, improve health and could help alleviate poverty.

In 2020 air pollution was linked to nearly 27,000 deaths in the UK, and those living in most deprived communities were most affected. The health organisations say that significant improvements to air quality which also address health inequalities are urgently needed. This means setting targets to reach the WHO interim target of 10 µg/m3 by 2030 with a future objective to achieve the WHO recommended guideline of 5 µg/m3.

The authors of the briefing say that action to transform societies and economies through a rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewables will require a redesign of cities to improve air quality and promote health. Nature-based solutions provide multiple solutions through reducing areas of raised temperatures, providing shade, reducing air pollution, and providing access to space for physical and mental health activities. Currently, access to green space in the UK is poor but there are huge health benefits to be gained by improving access, potentially saving the NHS around £111 million a year. The health leaders say that greater focus is needed to develop high-quality natural places to ensure everyone has a local park within a 10-minute walk of their home.

Dr Elaine Mulcahy, Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change said: “The latest Lancet Countdown report is further evidence that progress is not being made fast enough to reduce air pollution and protect health. The impacts of poor air quality, demands on energy consumption, and lack of access to nature are resulting in too many people suffering ill health and increasing the pressure on our health service. The government needs to step up action by implementing policies to clean the air we breathe and providing the green spaces we need to breathe in.”

Rose Gallagher, the Royal College of Nursing’s professional lead for infection prevention and control, said: “A more sustainable environment, including cleaner air, will benefit every person across the country. We see every day in nursing what improved air quality and access to green space can do for physical and mental health. Better public health means less pressure on our health services, which is desperately needed. Ministers must act now on the recommendations of the report, invest in tackling climate change, and urgently strengthen public health services.”

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “No one can deny that the climate and ecological crisis is a mental health emergency and requires an urgent response, but this latest data from the Lancet shows the UK government is just not acting quickly enough. Everyone deserves access to good quality green space, protection from the rising cost of energy, and clean air to breathe. These are not nice to haves, they are fundamental to protecting our mental and physical health now and for future generations.”

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, Royal College of Physicians special adviser on air quality, said: “This report once again highlights the urgency of reinvesting in growth through clean energy. Every week there is new data showing the toxic effects of the air we are currently breathing across the whole of life from conception to older age. Since over 40% of the rise in temperature is driven by short lived fossil fuel-derived pollutants, then surely by tackling air pollution with ambition there will be immediate benefits to health as well as a substantial contribution to meeting our climate change objectives and improving our environment that we are so connected to.”

British Medical Association representative body chair Dr Latifa Patel said: “This report is a much-needed wake up call for the Government. Our country’s leaders must recognise the serious threat to health that climate change poses to our nation, both young and old. As doctors working in the NHS, we have seen first hand the damaging impact of air pollution on the population’s health, increasing the risk of dangerous disease and illness. The Government must also do more to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on those living in more socioeconomically deprived areas, as over exposure to polluted air and a lack of green spaces is placing the health of millions of people at risk.”