The government is neglecting the health impacts of polluting vehicles and woefully inefficient homes through its narrow approach to energy and climate change, costing the NHS billions.
Government efforts to reduce carbon emissions have relied almost exclusively on decarbonising energy supply: phasing out coal and supporting renewable energy. But focusing only on the supply side ignores the significant impact of high energy demand, not only on carbon emissions but also on people’s everyday lives.
Lowering energy demand across the economy would not only make achieving net zero easier, it would also have considerable benefits for public health, in cleaner air and improved homes and public spaces.
Shifting just 1.7 percent of car journeys to active travel, like walking and cycling, could save the NHS £2.5 billion a year by reducing health problems like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. That is nearly two per cent of the NHS’s entire budget.
Greener transport, using electric vehicles and more active travel, would help to prevent the 65,000 premature deaths every year estimated to be caused by air pollution.
Improving home energy efficiency could save the NHS another £1.2 billion a year, spent on treating health problems attributed to cold homes, like pneumonia, heart attack and high blood pressure. It could also help to prevent 10,000 early deaths.
These savings are nearly twice the amount the government currently spends supporting home energy efficiency.
The study, based on research by CREDS, a collaboration of leading academics across 15 UK universities, says there are three actions the government should be taking to address the demand side of the energy equation: reducing demand, improving efficiency, and better aligning demand with supply - for instance by using ‘time of use’ tariffs, to optimise the use of intermittent renewable energy.
Dr Terry Kemple, executive committee member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said: “The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change welcomes this report. It shows that small changes in how we use energy – in our homes and when travelling – would have important benefits for our health, environment and economy.
“By lowering energy demand, for example by shifting less than two per cent of car journeys to cycling or walking, the government could improve the nation's health while simultaneously tackling the climate emergency. It would save the NHS over £2.5 billion every year in costs associated with conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes."
Professor Nick Eyre, CREDS director, said: “Going to the effort of decarbonising all of the energy we currently use is not a sensible strategy to bring about a sustainable energy system unless we also take steps to cut demand. This needs to be a dominant part of energy system change.”
Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said: “The government’s approach to energy is self defeating. It ignores half of the equation and denies people considerable benefits. Not only would reducing demand help to reach carbon reduction targets earlier, it would also reduce infrastructure costs and benefit everyone – through cleaner air, more comfortable homes and healthier lives.”
This article is based on a press release from Green Alliance.