The Latest Health Trend: Cutting Out Climate Change

One of the world's most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet, published a report a couple weeks ago about the impact climate change is having on our health. The central finding of the report is significant: "tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century." And one of the most important takeaways is this: Cities have a lot to gain, financially and health-wise, from a rapid shift away from fossil fuels. That's because the so-called co-pollutants that spew out of power plant smokestacks, vehicle tailpipes and building chimneys along with climate-disrupting carbon dioxide are terrible for our health, increasing rates of cancer, asthma, heart attacks, and other diseases that come from burning fossil fuels. (With coal power plants, the resulting mercury emissions lead to developmental delays and neurological problems, too.)

Just as important, that shift away from fossil fuels will likely pay for itself in health savings alone. In fact, one study cited in the Lancet report found that some policies that cut carbon emissions from sources such as power plants can pay for themselves in improved health outcomes more than 10 times over. That's right: more than 10 times over. "Being sick means lost income and increased medical expenses," explains MIT researcher and co-author of the cited study Rebecca Saari. "There's an economic benefit in having a healthier population."

Let's think for a minute about what all that means for cities.

City governments pay for these fossil-fuel induced health problems in a host of ways. They pay by underwriting public hospitals and health clinics, where they often provide necessary health services to low-income and uninsured residents. They pay as employers, both through higher health insurance premiums and the lost productivity that comes when workers are out sick or illness prevents them from performing at their best. Cities also pay because they're emergency service providers whose ambulance crews, fire fighters, and police must respond to those in medical need.

Cities as communities pay, too. Asthma is the leading cause of missed school days among America's children. When kids whose asthma is aggravated by pollution miss school because they can't breathe (and their parents miss work to take care of them), that decreases educational attainment and costs families and employers money. In the long run, the diseases that fossil-fuel co-pollutants cause often lead to serious financial strains for families and the individuals who experience these illnesses. (Think: missed work, big medical bills.) Employers suffer from workers' lost productivity. The result: All of us feel the pain of increased medical and health insurance costs.

To date, no one has quantified just how much America's cities, in particular, pay for these health-related costs or how big the savings and growth opportunities could be. (A calculator that would allow cities to punch in air-quality numbers and find out would be especially helpful. So, please, economists, get to work!) Still, it's pretty clear that the savings and prosperity that can come from city energy-efficiency policies, and other clean energy policies, are significant.

It's time we start incorporating these realities into our thinking about city energy efficiency policies, like the ones that our 10 City Energy Project cities and NRDC's Urban Solutions program are developing and helping to implement now. (CEP engages with pioneering cities across the country to improve energy efficiency in buildings. Urban Solutions helps cities answer 21st century challenges, such as lowering energy bills, reducing flooding, improving access to healthy food, and making transportation less expensive and less polluting for everyone.)

These days, when we discuss the advantages cities accrue from energy efficiency, we often focus on logistics, energy-bill savings, obstacles to adoption, and ways to maximize long-term benefits. To be sure, these are important considerations. But, as theLancet report demonstrates, there's a bigger picture--one that includes better health for city residents, increased financial savings for municipalities, and upped prosperity for cities overall. These are benefits we definitely shouldn't ignore. Healthier cities are more prosperous cities. City energy efficiency policies can help get us there.

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