Climate change can seem such a vast and complex issue, so far beyond the reach of an individual, that it’s sometimes easy to disengage. The timescales for climate change and climate action are often described as taking decades, and the damage taking centuries to repair. The scale of greenhouse gas emissions makes the decisions of the individual appear utterly insignificant. Even the role of nations can seem inconsequential. The UK is responsible for a shade over 1 per cent of global carbon emissions - meeting a net zero emissions target in the UK will make little difference if other countries don’t join us.
So if you are feeling slightly disengaged from climate change, and can’t quite see how changing what you do will have any effect, then perhaps be more selfish. Put climate change to one side and consider actions that might benefit your health and - as an added bonus - help reduce climate impacts.
The decarbonisation of society, including the shift to electric vehicles, switching to renewables for electricity, and reducing industrial emissions, almost always has a by-product of improving air quality, and very quickly too.
Diesel vehicle exhaust
The global concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is like a supertanker that takes centuries to turn around, but air pollution that directly harms our health is much more fleet of foot. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a key pollutant arising from diesel vehicle exhaust, only lasts in the air for about a day. Remove that source and within hours the air quality has improved. Fine microscopic particles, often referred to as PM2.5, last a little longer, but within a week of the pollution being released, the atmosphere has cleaned it out.
Exposure to the air pollutants that cause us most direct harm, including aggravating asthma, increasing cardiovascular disease, and even contributing to dementia, are much more under our personal control. If you are unconvinced that reducing your CO2 emissions would ever have an effect, then think instead about what effect it might have on your health, on the people in your street or town. At this scale individual action is genuinely powerful.
Walk or cycle rather than drive outside a school or hospital and everyone inside benefits straight away. Don’t light a bonfire in your garden, or fire up a wood burning stove, and everyone in the street immediately gets a boost to their health. When streets and neighbourhoods take action to reduce air pollution emissions, measurable changes can arise. You can’t solve air pollution entirely at the local level, it needs action at the national and international level too, but personal actions have direct effects.
There are some areas of our lives where reducing your greenhouse gas emissions has quite unexpected benefits. Eating less meat is beneficial from a climate perspective because it is a CO2 intensive activity and also leads to methane emissions, another greenhouse gas. If this isn’t enough to convince you, then consider that another benefit is a reduction in the emission of ammonia, which comes from fertilisers and animal waste. Ammonia from farms drifts over cities and towns and combines with other pollution to form PM2.5, probably the most harmful air pollutant of them all. A lower meat diet is a very effective way to help improve air quality and health, even though the connection between the two isn’t immediately obvious.
Understanding how the combined set of actions needed to meet net zero will affect our health, through air quality, is an active area of research. Most net zero actions improve air quality, although some aspects need careful design. We may for example use more hydrogen in the future, instead of natural gas, to heat our homes. How we use that hydrogen matters; in an electrical fuel cell it is completely pollution-free, but in a gas boiler it may still create NO2 air pollution.
There are hundreds of decisions like this to make over the coming decade, optimising both climate change and air quality benefits together. In many sectors the economic case for decarbonisation is boosted by the air quality benefits that are delivered straight away, meaning less cost to the NHS, and less time off work.
Climate change is a multigenerational challenge for humanity, but sometimes it seems beyond our grasp as individuals. But we can personalise this by thinking more selfishly, about how actions to reduce emissions right now might benefit our own health, and the local community around us.
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