One of the first sessions at the recent Reading Climate Festival covered an innovative project led by Professor Elizabeth Robinson of the University of Reading. It is motivated by the global “Lancet Countdown: Tracking the health impacts of climate change” (the 2020 report was launched on 3 December 2020, see www.lancetcountdown.org/the-global-launch-of-the-2020-lancet-countdown-report).
As part of the Health Theme of the Reading Climate Strategy, Professor Robinson and her team have undertaken the first town-level “Countdown”, which tracks over time the extent to which climate change is having a negative impact on the health of Reading town’s residents, focusing particularly on heat and heat stress-related illnesses. These put increasing pressure on local health services. The report tracks the extent to which local actions to reduce global climate change are contributing to an improvement in local residents’ health and taking pressure off our health services. It also tracks the extent to which local Berkshire MPs and local press are explicitly engaging with the links between climate change and health, and how this is evolving over time.
The key messages in the report are summarised as
“Data for Reading show clearly that mean temperatures, the frequency of heatwave events, and the number of heat stress days have increased in Reading over the past four decades. The period 2009-2018 was 0.3°C warmer than 1981-2010, and the number of heat stress days has increased by 1.2 days per year.
In parallel, the prevalence of diseases in Reading that are linked to heat and heat stress, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, have increased. Rates of mortality from respiratory (3.4%), communicable (5%), and chronic kidney diseases (1.5%), all of which are linked to heat stress, have increased over the last decade. These data make clear that global warming appears to be having a measurable and negative impact on health outcomes in Reading. These increases in disease prevalence put increased pressure on local health services. Hospital admissions due to respiratory, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and asthma have steadily increased over the last decade in Berkshire and Reading. This makes it more difficult for Reading to improve its overall health outcomes.
Reading has not been a passive bystander while global climate change increasingly and directly harms the health of the town. Individuals have taken actions that make them less susceptible to climate-related illness. For example, smoking can lead to health complications and illnesses with consequent increased susceptibility to heatwave events, and smoking has declined since 2006. In Reading, in contrast to a general downwards trend in England, bus journeys have increased 38% over the past decade. Reading is also ahead of the curve with respect to investment in electric vehicle chargers, with 31 chargers per 100,000 people compared with 27 per 100,000 across England as a whole. Reading has invested in 62 bio-gas powered and 21 hybrid buses, that not only contribute to a reduction in overall vehicle miles and traffic, but also produce less particulate pollution. However, “active transport” such as walking and cycling, that can contribute to reduced traffic congestion and offer further individual health co-benefits, has not increased between 2015 and 2018.
Reading reduced its CO2 emissions by almost 50%, between 2005 and 2015, thereby contributing to global climate mitigation and the corresponding global health co-benefits; the UK’s climate change commitments; and potentially directly improving local health outcomes. However, emissions within the transport sector have not fallen so rapidly, and these are strongly linked to local air pollution and local air quality, with direct localised negative health impacts. This suggests that Reading could be missing out on important health co-benefits associated with reducing emissions from transport. Indeed, the findings may explain why, although overall emissions have been declining in Reading, the fraction of mortality attributable to particulate air pollution has been increasing since 2015.
Tracking Hansard’s records of what is said in parliament, the report finds that all Berkshire MPs have mentioned climate change in at least one debate since 2006, except for James Sunderland (Bracknell, 2019-present) and Laura Farris (Newbury, 2019- present), both of whom are very recently elected (December 2019) Members of Parliament. Overall, the total number of debates participated in by Berkshire MPs in which “climate change” is mentioned is 121, equivalent to an average of just 2.28% of the total number of debates they have participated in. Out of these 121, in only 16 of these was a climate and health connection made, of which 14 can be considered implicit and just two explicit. Both these explicit health mentions were by a single MP (Matt Rodda, Shadow Minister for Local Transport 2016-2020), who made a connection in both debates (25/06/2019 and 23/07/2019) between the need to reduce emissions and pollution; and health benefits associated with consequent moves to walking and cycling.
The Reading Chronicle has increased its coverage of climate change considerably in the past three years. However, only 13% of articles that address climate change address the links between climate change and health. Overall, in local media, climate change has rapidly increased as a topic and arguably has become a key talking point over the last year. More MPs and candidates are talking about climate change, more policies and plans are being put forward and, perhaps most importantly, more change appears to be occurring. However, rarely are the health impacts associated with climate change addressed explicitly.”
As Professor Robinson said during Q&A at the Festival, “Perhaps some of the most interesting insights came from tracking Hansard and local media”, to see how changes may come about.
The report can be found at www.ethicalreading.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Reading_Countdown_2020.pdf, and the Reading Chronicle coverage is at www.readingchronicle.co.uk/news/18867594.reading-climate-report-shows-worrying-levels-traffic-emissions.