Optimizing health in transport and climate change measures – new WHO report identifies key strategies

by World Health Organization

DURBAN – Rapid transit and safe cycling/walking networks are good for both health and climate – and climate experts should consider more systematically how these strategies can reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector, one of the world’s major contributors to climate change, says a new WHO report.

The new report, Health co-benefits of climate change mitigation – Transport sector was released 6 December, 2011 during the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-17).

The report reviewed over 300 studies on health outcomes from different types of land transport systems to identify those mitigation measures most closely associated with specific health co-benefits or risks.

The review is the latest product of WHO’s Health in the Green Economy initiative, which is considering available evidence on health impacts from climate mitigation strategies for key economic sectors, as reviewed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Climate Change, 2007).

The new WHO report was launched at an official COP-17 Side Event on “Health and Development in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” convened by the Government of South Africa, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and WHO. The report was also the focus of a press briefing, involving high-level officials from South Africa’s Department of Health and Department of Transport, as well as WHO.

The IPCC’s global assessment of mitigation options for the transport sector places the greatest emphasis on the mitigation potential of improving carbon efficiencies for private vehicles and fuels.

In contrast, the WHO review found a stronger, and more positive, association with health benefits from rapid transit and dedicated walking/cycling systems – measures which are given less emphasis by the IPCC, which did not consider health issues.

“We have looked at the IPCC assessment through the lens of public health and come up with quite a different reading,” said Dr Carlos Dora of WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment, in the briefing to journalists.

“Public/rapid transport and safe cycling and walking are the prototype of a transport system that is good for health; it so happens that these are good for climate too.”

A large and growing body of literature finds such systems are strongly associated with more healthy physical activity, lower urban air pollution risks, and lower rates of traffic injury among transit users and pedestrians and cyclists on dedicated networks, said Dora, citing findings in the report.

Land use systems that emphasize more compact cities, and mixed use development of commercial and residential areas, along with amenities for walking and cycling, also are strongly associated with better health as well as greater health equity because they allow groups such as children, women, older people, disabled, and those without cars to move around more safely and easily.

While there are large differences in the transport systems of rich and poor nations which need to be recognized, with affluent countries, as well as many emerging economies increasingly dependent on the automobile, while people in very low income countries have trouble getting access to any motorized transport at all, the report identifies what could be some fundamental “win-win” principles for health, transport and climate, Dora said.

That’s because high-quality transit, walking and cycling networks can facilitate better access to motorized transport among poorer groups, as well as physical activity in more sedentary, urban populations. When combined with more compact land use, these may also wind up being very cost-effective climate mitigation measures in the longer term.

“So if you want to reduce climate change and do something for health, employ locally and produce results you can measure, then you can go into good quality cycling, walking and public transport/rapid transit,” Dora said.

Download the full report.

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