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8th September 2022

Letter to the Prime Minister

A letter urging PM Liz Truss to demonstrate the leadership the world needs in taking action to minimise the harms of climate change.

Following the appointment of Liz Truss as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, we have written to congratulate her new role and urge, at this critical time, to demonstrate the leadership the world needs in taking action to minimise the harms of climate change.

Dear Prime Minister,

We write to you as members of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change to congratulate you on becoming Prime Minister. Our Alliance includes 34 UK health organisations, including Royal Colleges, medical journals, and professional associations and societies. Collectively, the total membership of our members is almost 1 million health professionals.

As health leaders, we are deeply concerned about the impact that climate change is having on human health and urge you at this critical time to demonstrate the leadership the world needs in taking decisive action to minimise the harm to human life. While we understand the need to focus on the economy, it would be counterproductive to do so if it was at the expense of the health of the people a healthy economy is supposed to benefit.

We are already seeing people suffering the consequences of breathing heavily polluted air, living in poor housing conditions and fuel poverty, and experiencing ill health due to extreme weather including heatwaves and floods. Evidence presented at a briefing to MPs in July by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, warned of worsening consequences and said this is a systems-wide problem that affects every part of every department. It needs leadership from the top.

Air pollution is among the greatest environmental determinants of health and contributes to many serious and chronic health conditions affecting every organ of the body. In the UK, thousands are living with health conditions caused or exacerbated by breathing dirty air. The sources of particulate pollution – road transport, domestic and industrial burning – are also the sources of a significant proportion of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. We must tackle the challenges of climate change and air pollution simultaneously if we are to meet the UK’s commitment to reaching net zero carbon emissions and to protect health. This means at least aiming to achieve the WHO interim target of 10μgm-3 by 2030 with the ultimate objective of reducing PM2.5 levels to 5μgm-3.

We welcome your commitment to maintain the government commitment to net zero by 2050. We urge you to make a similar commitment to maintain and deliver the net zero strategy that was launched in October 2021. When it was launched, it was hailed as demonstrating “how the UK is leading by example, with a clear plan for the future.” While there has been progress in developing the policies needed to achieve net zero targets, the Climate Change Committee has warned there has been little progress in delivering.

We call on you to take action to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by supporting the expansion of wind and solar projects. The contrary approach of expanding UK reliance on domestic production of gas and oil, including shale gas through fracking, is slow to achieve – the time to delivering new product will be a decade or more away – and will do nothing to alleviate fuel poverty in the UK.  Solutions that will make a real, positive impact for both the economy and people’s health are urgently needed, and we believe they are to be found in sustained investment in renewable energy. Just as many of the innovations of the industrial revolution were made by Great Britain, the UK is leading the way when it comes to the green economy. With more support from central government, the low carbon economy – which is already worth around £200bn – could similarly see us in the global driving seat.

Nobody should need to choose between heating and eating, and it is vulnerable and elderly people who will feel the impacts the most. We need an ambitious programme of retrofitting, insulation and clean heat generation in all homes and public buildings to reduce fuel consumption and cost. As well as decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, such actions create jobs, improve health, alleviate poverty and the need for social security, and improve our national energy security.

This summer, we experienced the impacts of extreme heat in the UK with temperatures exceeding 40C for the first time. Heat vulnerability in the UK has been steadily rising and without adequate measures to adapt, heat-related deaths are expected to rise to around 7,000 each year by the 2050s. Climate experts have consistently warned of increasing risk to life with a higher frequency of extreme heat events as the planet continues to warm. People’s capacity to work and exercise outdoors is also affected by temperature and humidity, impacting on mental and physical health. Adequate heatwave plans and adaptation measures must be put in place to protect health across the whole of the UK.

The consequences of the climate crisis fall disproportionately on those countries and communities that have contributed least to the problem and are least able to mitigate the harms. The impacts felt in the most vulnerable nations create problems like poverty, infectious diseases, forced migration and conflict that spread through global systems. The climate crisis is a global problem that requires a global response, and it is in the UK’s best interest to play its part in meeting commitments in funding and support to low- and middle- income countries to build cleaner, healthier and more resilient societies. It will not be possible to prevent global temperature rises without such support.

We are in the midst of a multi-faceted climate, health, and energy crisis that needs decisive and principled leadership. We urge you to take the lead in taking the bold action needed to make the fundamental changes to how our societies and economies are organised and how we live.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Richard Smith CBE, FMedSci, Chair UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

Members of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change are: