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UCL Lancet Commission



Capturing the opportunities for health through deep decarbonisation of the energy system

By Steve Pye, on 23 June 2015

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The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change strongly concludes that ‘tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century’. This reflects the possibility to reduce air pollution, increase access to affordable and clean energy, and create more healthy urban environments while undertaking actions to reduce GHGs. The transition to a deeply decarbonised economy has to happen if we are to ensure a high probability of avoiding global warming of more than 2⁰C. But the opportunity to maximise the health benefits of such a transition should be grasped.

Realising deep decarbonisation will require a radical re-orientation of the energy system, characterised by a strong shift away from fossil fuels, and the large-scale uptake of lower carbon technologies and sources of energy. As set out in section 3 of the Commission, we know that this is technically feasible, given our understanding of the required set of technologies, and necessary changes to how energy services are provided. In fact, realising the challenge is fundamentally a political one. COP21 in Paris in December therefore marks a critical moment around which to build a consensus on the need for long term deep decarbonisation. A recent statement by the G7 agreeing that decarbonisation of the energy system is required over the course of the century is one of a number of encouraging shifts in the political language around climate change action.[1]


So how can the transition be delivered? Essentially through reducing consumption of energy through improving the efficiency of use, decarbonising the energy supply e.g. moving to low carbon electricity generation, and switching to lower carbon fuels, such as bioenergy, or from coal to gas. Importantly, there is also the potential to reduce demand for energy services, for example by switching to sustainable transport modes, or changing travel use patterns. Crucially, this transition has to begin now, due to the limited carbon budget we have remaining in this century, and will need to focus on all sectors of the economy.


Action on climate change can only be effectively operationalised at the country level. To do this, countries need to adopt deep decarbonisation pathways (DDPs), which are able to demonstrate the feasibility of long term reductions, can help prioritise actions, and begin to set out how such a pathway could be implemented.[2] While country-level action is crucial, this will only be effective in parallel with strong global cooperation, on technology research development and innovation, on financial assistance to developing countries, on sharing experiences of which policy instruments work, and on developing the necessary international climate agreements.


Critical is also how health co-benefits can be maximised under a given pathway, again something that can only be understood at the individual country level. Such benefits can be crucial for helping build the policy case for decarbonisation. Potential benefits of different pathways include reducing winter mortality through improving energy efficiency, promoting healthy lifestyles by improved urban planning, addressing air pollution problems through switching to cleaner energy, and increasing access to clean and affordable energy.


As set out in section 3, three key drivers are identified that will be necessary to support ambitious decarbonisation pathways; i) maximising the impact of low and zero carbon technologies, ii) ensuring their deployment at scale, and iii) realising the potential health co-benefits of the transition. Maximising impact will require increasing awareness of the potential application of the range of technologies within different country contexts, and the necessary policy framework for implementation. Ensuring deployment at scale requires adequate policy support mechanisms that engenders certainty for investors. For key technologies, strong deployment will ensure increasing cost reductions globally, increasing affordability and cost-competitiveness. Finally, realising co-benefits will require an understanding of the policy synergies between energy, health and environment, and ensuring appropriate technologies are used that are appropriate to local conditions.

[1] Leadersʼ Declaration. G7 Summit, 7-8 June 2015. Elmau, Germany.

[2] DDPs for the largest emitting countries are being developed under the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project, the interim report for which can be found at http://unsdsn.org/what-we-do/deep-decarbonization-pathways/

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