Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Day 3: The Link Between Health, Climate, and Electricity

Often times when people think of climate change, they will think only of the environment. Much like the concept of sustainability, climate change not only has environmental implications but also economic and humans adverse effects as well. Today, I sat in on a press conference on public health hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and yesterday I attended a session on low-carbon electricity. Some may not realize it, but climate change and human health are closely linked. One speaker stated that each year, over seven million deaths are due to air pollution.

This is very true in the case of developing nations. "Diseases of poverty", as another speaker named them, such as malaria, under nutrition, and diarrheal diseases will only be made worse by climate change. Mitigating and adapting to climate change in the intersecting realm of human health and the environment are win-win situations. For example, bringing clean fuels to homes and getting rid of kerosene lamps and wood/coal burning stoves will create healthier home environments by lessening the indoor air pollution. Just as importantly, switching from diesel to electrified transportation through the use of renewable energy would greatly increase the health of both humans and the environment.

In fact, low carbon electricity is a common topic at UNFCCC. According to Marc Gratton, President of Electricians Without Borders, low carbon electricity has more than environmental benefits - it is critical to human health and economic growth  in rural and developing communities. Having the presence of such electricity in rural communities brings far more than just light. It means stimulating the economy because production rates can increase and shops can stay open past dark. It means having an energy source to refrigerate vaccines, allows surgeons to perform operations, and hospitals to run around the clock. All of these are things that many of us around the world take for granted.

There was a woman representing Nigeria on the WHO panel. She shared the struggles of an underprivileged nation has with little reliable electricity. There are eleven countries in Africa in which 33% of hospitals have unreliable electricity and 26% of hospitals have no source of energy. This means that in those countries, only 41% of hospitals are equipped with reliable electricity. Low carbon electricity would change the face of health there.

This woman had a story of her own. A few years back, she gave birth to a child prematurely at 26 weeks. The child was in critical condition, and spent the first few weeks of his/her life in an incubator. Power outages were common at this hospital, and she nearly lost her child on a number of occurrences. All she could do was pray as she clutched her child to keep them warm and alive. Having low carbon electricity would greatly reduce infant mortality rates.

                                                     photo credit: Audrey McSain

Contrary to popular belief the issue with transitioning to low-carbon electricity is not economic or technical, but rather it is a political issue. The problem is simply not being willing to make it a priority. This was heavily implied by two speakers at the low-carbon talk yesterday: Antonio Mexia (President of Eurolectric) and Jean-Louis Borloo (President of Energy for Africa). Both spoke of the financials involved with such a transition. According to Mexia, the biggest subsidies go towards fossil fuels. Of all the money put towards fossil fuels, only about 1/3-1/5 of that amount goes to renewable. This only reiterates that the renewable energy sector has little support. According to Borloo, it would only require approximately 5 billion euros in subsidies to help Africa make the transition, a mere fraction of the 35-40 billion euros Germany has spent on their energy structure.

Making the switch to low-carbon electricity is possible, and is integral for the world on a number of levels. Henri Lachmann, the former President of Schneider Electric, says we must a) provide the energy, b) train and educate young people to enter a skilled workforce, and c) encourage less consumption among users as well as better use. The fight against climate change is not just advocacy for the environment. It is advocacy for human health and life itself. We need to seriously take a look at decarbonizing our electricity as well as provide it to those who need it most.


  1. The need to end fossil-fuel subsidies and to drastically reduce GHG and toxic emissions is so obvious -- and has been for at least 20 years now -- that it makes you wonder why it hasn't been done.
    In the U.S. and many other countries, many businesses maximizing profits by making taxpayers absorb a high percentage of their costs generated by their products.
    Since we're talking primarily about climate here, take coal as an example -- and remember, about half the electric power in PA and many other states is generated by burning coal! Coal sells at about $50/ton, but generates costs to society of over $200/ton.
    How can this be stopped?

  2. Besides ending subsidies, we need to get the public to understand externalities -- all the costs passed on to them from the burning of fossil fuels (health wise, environmental disruption, and taxes). Education with facts *should* wake people up - I know, I am idealistic. But only a massive lobbying efforts by constituents can impact one legislator at a time.