Energy’s impact on health ‘largely neglected’

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The current debate on climate change neglects a number of issues concerning energy as a major determinant of human health, argues Dr Richard Horton in a medical journal. He urges the adoption of ‘safe nuclear’ as a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables.

“Energy is a critical, yet hugely neglected, determinant of human health,” writes Dr Horton in an article published in British medical journal The Lancet, adding that society currently “suffers from a disordered global energy metabolism”.

He argues that the current debate about the impact of humans on our planet, especially with respect to climate change, is “unbalanced, too narrow and neglects a set of issues focused on energy and health”.

A number of papers and commentaries dealing with access to energy, meat consumption, urban transport and other energy issues that affect health – published on 12 September 2007 in The Lancet series on energy and health – state that some two billion people across the world currently suffer adverse health effects through lack of access to clean energy and are exposed to high levels of indoor air pollutants from the inefficient burning of natural biomass fuels. 

“Population health will substantially benefit from improved access to electricity and from a modal switch away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources of electricity generation where possible,” writes Dr Paul Wilkinson together with Professor Anil Markandya.  

“The comparison of different forms of commercial power generation by use of the fuel-cycle methods developed in European studies shows the health burdens to be greatest for power stations that most pollute outdoor air (those based on lignite, coal, and oil),” the pair postulate. “The health burdens are appreciably smaller for generation from natural gas, and lower still for nuclear power,” they add. 

Dr Horton comments that nuclear energy is not a long-term solution, as it carries too many risks, but recommends that “with appropriate regulatory safeguards, countries should adopt nuclear-energy technologies urgently as a transition between fossil fuels and more renewable sources of energy”. He also urges high- and middle-income countries to move to a low-carbon low-energy transportation system by promoting increased walking, cycling and public transport. 

Other research papers argue that improved energy efficiency in urban areas and homes has the potential to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions and improve health, and urge the reduction of worldwide average meat consumption by 10% to reduce the adverse health effects from greenhouse gases.

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