How climate change will affect our health in Ireland

18 Nov 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Nov 2022

Dr Patrick Vallance, opening speaker. Pic: British Government

Later this month hundreds of delegates will gather for the all-Ireland Healthy Planet Healthy People conference.

More than 700 are booked in to date, and because it will be held online there’s room for many more.

This event is believed to be one of the first major conferences to highlight the impacts of climate change on population health on the island of Ireland.

It is hoped that it will have a lasting impact on health policy in both jurisdictions and promote further understanding of an often neglected and misunderstood issue - the impacts of climate change on health, and the health benefits to be gained from taking climate action.

Underpinning this is the simple message that action on climate change also provides clear benefits for our health and wellbeing, our environment and economy.

And if delegates go back to work convinced of that, then the seeds of change will have been sown.

Speakers include Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, who became a household name during the pandemic and will deliver the opening address, Dr Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organisation , Dr Nick Watts, the Chief Sustainability Officer for the NHS and Professor John Barry, from Queens University. The conference will be chaired by Dr Jenny Mack of the Institute of Public Health.

A key objective of the conference is to learn what is needed to achieve net zero in our health systems.

On the face of it this appears to be a very big ask, but it is something that NHS Trusts in England have signed up to and Nick Watts from the NHS will be explaining how that was done and what it involves.

In England it has seen 212 NHS Trusts, covering more than 1,000 hospitals and healthcare facilities, gaining board approval to plans which will save more than 1 million tonnes of carbon over the next three years. That’s the same as taking 520,000 cars off the road.

The UK Government has recognised the benefits that energy savings bring for tax-payers – it has pledged  £329 million Government for hospital energy efficiency and decarbonisation schemes across more than 20 hospitals. These will see efficiency savings of around £463 million over the next five years, at the same time as cutting carbon.

Trust owned fleets are also being electrified with the first fully electric HGV in the NHS going into service in the north west, transporting medical supplies between sites.

This will not just cut costs – there will be health benefits too. Less emissions means better air quality which means less health problems, which means less treatment at less cost.

Remember too just how many the health service employs both directly and has some control over via procurement and you start to realise the potential impact that could be achieved.

So commitments north and south of the border would be logical and seem a reasonably achievable outcome that would bring tangible benefits.

But to help to secure them we first need to fully appreciate what is at stake, not just for the planet but for this part of it and what that might mean for the health services that serve it.

Essentiality climate change is a public health emergency not just for developing countries but here as well.

We’re beginning to see that in two respects. The first is that in Ireland we contributing significantly to climate change. For example in 2019 the main urban area in the north around Belfast, Lisburn and Castlereagh had the highest carbon emissions per capita of the UK's capital cities.

Belfast is ranked the UK’s third most polluted city in terms of air pollution which contributes to around 500 premature deaths per annum in Northern Ireland

We’re also seeing more and more extreme weather incidents. In Northern Ireland these increased by 2,000% between 2000 to 2019 from four to 86. It was estimated that we had at least 30 heat related deaths per year in that period. That is projected to rise to 30-115 deathe per year by 2050 and 55 to 135 by the 2080s, assuming no population growth. 

We’re also seeing the emergence of mental health issues that arise from climate anxiety – as global temperatures rise so too will anxiety, which means it is important to adopt a calm, measured approach which enables and empowers people to make a positive contribution.

At the recent Cop 27 conference it was agreed to stick to the ambition of restricting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C. But there can be no guarantees. The commitment requires much more to be done at present and there’s no great evidence of the willingness of nation states to do what is necessary.  

So therefore a rise greater than 1.5C needs to be catered for. It will mean more extreme weather and  higher sea levels and the potential for people being displaced from other countries. Health services need to be prepared for these kind of eventualities.

And mitigating the current and future risks require joined-up thinking, both across the borders and across governments.

That in turn means breaking away from the silo mentality that affects the public sector. This will be far easier said than done.  But it needs to be done. This is not the kind of emergency that can be popped into a box and given a label. It is a task for all and needs a response from all.

Mitigating and slowing climate change will be a task for all of government and for all governments.

Also it is an issue that for health requires a renewed focus on preventing outcomes rather than treatment an approach which has been neglected heretofore.

In that regard the conference has got off to a good start. It has come about through a collaboration between the Institute of Public Health, the Public Health Agency, Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, University College Cork and HSE Health & Wellbeing.

The numbers planning to attend are encouraging too – and the more who come from non-health backgrounds the better if we are to stimulate the sort of cross departmental co-operation that will be required.

Breaking down silos is what is ultimately required. That will take time. But the fact that climate change is now being explicitly linked to health policy is a good start. As is the growing understanding that our health, the environment and the economy are inextricably linked to climate change and that reversing global warming will bring benefits to all other sectors.


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