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World Health Day: fossil fuels, pollution and human health



Joseph Iddison examines the health consequences of having a high-carbon economy, as part of World Health Day. 

As the world continues to burn fossil fuels to meet the energy demands of its growing population, health concerns are raised due to connections between the release of carbon dioxide and changes in atmospheric conditions. Such changes will have significant impacts on humanity, from community displacement to a shortage in food security. Another issue with an altered climate is potential impacts of human health.


Perhaps the most direct concern from global warming is increased exposure to heat and sun. Between 1880 and 2012, the Earth’s average global temperature increased by 0.85C, and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we could see a decadal increase of 0.2oC from now on.

This temperature increase is likely to put the elderly and young at risk from cardiovascular diseases, as the extreme heat puts greater pressure on the heart due to thicker, less-hydrated blood. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that the 2003 summer heatwave caused over 70,000 deaths. This mortality rate could easily become the norm in future summers with rises in temperature.

Extreme heat is also connected to intensive solar radiation, which can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer if exposed to.


Another noticeable harmful impact from fossil fuel burning is on human respiration from air pollution, which the UK has witnessed first-hand over the last week.

Carbon dioxide is a poisonous gas that we inhale into our lungs through respiration. If left there, CO2 can cause both localised issues to organs as well as the entire body. Due to the physical function of breathing, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide will result in more and quicker breaths, as the need to exhale the gas becomes more vital. This change will affect blood pressure levels, with the heart working harder to circulate the oxygen.

Other respiratory problems have been linked to increased fossil fuel emissions. Asthma, hayfever and similar allergies have long been on the increase and are associated by some with additional CO2. The European Lung Foundation notes the rate of increase in respiratory difficulties over the last 50 years, documenting the rise in allergies, particularly pollen.

As the Earth warms, seasons are anticipated to alter, with spring occurring earlier and autumn later. This extended period of mild temperatures could see an increase in allergenic plant produce, with more pollen in the air for longer. Indeed, according to a study conducted by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the amount of pollen could double by 2040 due to a warming climate. This is most likely to occur in urban areas due to the heat island effect


With increased temperatures from fossil fuel burning come flood threats. From glacial melting and thermal expansion, ocean levels are rising, posing dangers to communities across the globe. At present, over 50% of the Earth’s 7 billion population live within 35 miles of oceans. Increased ocean levels therefore pose a significant problem to humanity.

A further issue with flooding is the spread of vector-borne diseases. Acting as breeding grounds, floods can intensify and distribute diseases such as malaria. Malaria is deeply associated with Africa due to the continent’s tropical climate, with almost a quarter of a billion people infected each year.

A study conducted by both UK and US scientists discovered the disease could spread beyond the tropics due to increased temperatures. This would see uninfected populations at risk due to their lack of immunity.

The increased risk of flooding, coupled with global temperature rises, make the possibility of disease proliferation that much more likely.

The future

The British Medical Journal (BJM) recently backed efforts to decarbonise through fossil fuel divestment as a means of combating the associated health issues.

Its editor-in-chief Dr Fiona Godlee, along with president of the British Medical Association Dr Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, said, “We should push our own organisations – universities, hospitals, primary care providers, medical societies, drug and device companies – to divest from fossil fuel industries completely and as quickly as possible.”

Tim Ratcliffe, the European divestment co-ordinator at campaign group, argued that such a public statement in the BMJ “should serve as a wake-up call to investors to pull their money out of high-carbon assets”.

Joseph Iddison is a master’s student at the University of Leicester. Having graduated from the same institution in July 2013 in BA English, he is currently studying environmental science.

Further reading:

We must divest from fossil fuels ‘as quickly as possible’, say health experts

Pollution alert remains high for the rest of the week

World Health Organisation: air pollution is carcinogenic to humans

Pollutants may cause complications of obesity, study finds

Royal London: sustainable investors should consider health and safety

Joseph Iddison is a master's student at the University of Leicester. Having graduated from the same institution in July 2013 in English, Joseph will start the global environmental change course in September.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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