Action on climate change is essential, but poorly planned action risks exacerbating inequality, says University of Auckland public health physician Dr Rhys Jones, making the health of our poorest people even worse. Instead, New Zealand needs to look for win-win policies which reduce emissions while also improving the health of vulnerable populations. That means applying an ‘equity lens’ to climate action and related policy areas. In practical terms, he adds, that could mean sending cycleway funding into poorer areas, targeting taxes to reduce consumption of animal products, and ensuring that revenue from pricing emissions is redistributed in ways that benefit poorer households.
How can climate change mitigation make health worse?
One example involves financial tools to address climate change – such as a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme. While they can potentially be very effective in reducing emissions, they can also have negative impacts on health and well being, particularly for low income people. Obviously if fuel prices go up, and food prices go up correspondingly, that has much more of an impact on people who are already struggling to make ends meet.
But putting a price on emissions doesn’t have to increase socioeconomic inequalities. One idea I like is James Hansen’s idea of a tax on the importation or production of fossil fuels, which then gets recycled amongst the population. New Zealand could do this – introduce a tax at the source on fossil fuels, then redistribute this income to individuals at a national level.
Should we be dropping some climate policies because they risk increasing inequality?
The first thing I’d say is that New Zealand is not doing anywhere near enough to mitigate against climate change. Our commitment under the Paris Agreement was inadequate, we’re not even doing enough to meet those goals and we absolutely need a longer-term approach which is not left to the whim of different political parties as they go in and out of power.
But that work has to be grounded in a Treaty of Waitangi framework so that Māori aren’t marginalised. We do need to make sure that the environmental action we take aligns with equity, health and indigenous rights goals.
What policies would you see as a win-win for climate and health?
There are a number of examples of these ‘no regrets’ policies. Home insulation can reduce emissions and improve health outcomes by creating warmer, drier homes. If we do it in the right way, by putting an equity focus on it and prioritising people in lower socioeconomic groups, it will result in even greater health benefits and also reduce inequalities.
There’s also a win-win in terms of agriculture because of the health impacts of moving from an animal-product based diet to a plant-based diet. There are clear health benefits of eating less red meat and eating more plant-based foods. That certainly aligns with environmental goals – approximately 50% of our emissions are from agriculture. But there are political sensitivities around this in New Zealand, with concerns about negative impacts on farmers’ livelihoods. However it doesn’t have to be that way – we could do agriculture smarter, rather than heading towards more and more intensive dairying with a high-volume, low-value approach.
Of course this is complicated by the fact that a lot of our dairy is exported, but it could still be a major win-win for health and the environment. There are a number of ways it could be done – price is one. We could subsidise fruit and veges, or go the other way and try to tax meat and dairy. But I also think that if we were to look at reducing the extent of our agriculture that could have flow on impacts into price and availability and be associated with changes in our diet.
But the best example is probably active transport. Switching from motor vehicles to walking or cycling has benefits for physical activity, air pollution, road traffic injuries – so huge potential benefits for health in addition to the obvious environmental benefits.
Are there fewer cycle trails in lower socio-economic areas?
I do see those kinds of investments happening disproportionately in the wealthier areas – active transport infrastructure in South Auckland, for example, is pretty minimal compared with what’s happening in some of the leafier suburbs.
In a way it makes sense to build those things from the CBD outwards, which is the general approach that Auckland Transport and NZTA are taking. But that’s a particular lens which privileges longer distance commuting travel and tends to serve the wealthier areas closer to the city. There’s a lot that can also be done within local neighbourhoods to improve active transport. Traffic calming and cycle lanes can be built for local trips and don’t need to be connected up to the city centre to help with things like getting kids to school.
Of course, there’s a need for better active transport infrastructure everywhere. But those that have the resources, the power and the voice tend to get their needs met first. There is an inequity there that needs to be addressed. Instead, I think there’s a good argument for more explicitly targeting that funding towards more deprived areas – if we can encourage active transport in the areas where people have poorer health outcomes, that’s also where there is the greatest potential for health and economic benefits.
Are the health impacts of climate change well understood?
In general terms the effects are well understood. Where the challenge lies is in understanding the more localised impacts. That’s particularly the case in places like New Zealand where we don’t have the big research budgets and other infrastructure that allows us to do those more specific localised projections.
There are direct effects such as heat waves and extreme weather events. But then we have the more indirect impacts which are mediated through environmental factors or, probably further down the track, social processes. For example as we get warmer climates, mosquitoes could bring diseases like dengue fever or malaria to places where they haven’t previously been seen. We can predict that there will be impacts from forced migration from Pacific Islands and other low-lying areas. We can also predict there is likely to be scarcity of water and food and that may lead to conflict and other political processes that will have huge impacts on health.
Many people say that New Zealand will be relatively protected, at least in the early stages, from some of the more severe impacts of climate change. But that shouldn’t be any reason for complacency, because we will see the same sort of impacts eventually. We’re also not isolated from global processes, for example crop failures that will lead to substantial increases in global food prices. It’s very important that New Zealand takes urgent action on climate change, which will not only have significant health benefits now but will also help to protect against future threats to health.
To learn more about how climate change may affect our health , visit Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Climate Change and Health information.
Feature image source: Nathan Pachal, Flickr.
These interviews are supported by Royal Society Te Apārangi, which supports New Zealanders to explore, discover and share knowledge.