WHO urges delegates at The Hague to cut vehicle pollution to prevent climate change

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged delegates at the climate change talks in The Hague this week to take action on road transport in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to reap immediate health benefits from the cleaner air.

The WHO quotes a study examining different scenarios for action on climate change, saying that reduction of greenhouse gases would have immediate benefit to human health. Cleaner air resulting from pre-emptive measures to directly reduce greenhouse gases would be a “win-win” strategy, says Dr Roberto Bertollini, Director of Technical Services and Strategic Development at the WHO.

Air pollution causes 6% of all deaths, killing more people than traffic accidents, according to recent research by Dr Nino Kunzli of the Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine, Basle, and colleagues. “The greatest health benefits will stem from integrated policies covering technology, urban planning, the speed and safety of traffic, quality of life and the promotion of walking, cycling and the use of public transport,” said Dr Kunzli.

According to the WHO, transport is now the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, with about 26% of all such emissions coming from transport, a sector which is projected to increase by 30% by 2010. Road transport exacts both health and financial costs that are not paid by those who generate them, says the WHO, quoting recent estimates that the cost is now 658 billion Euros (US$555 billion), nearly 10% of western European countries’ GDP.

Last year, the Member States of the WHO European region adopted the Charter on Transport, Environment and Health, aimed at achieving a transport system that is sustainable for health and the environment. “Many of the strategies we have been promoting have multiple benefits: reducing greenhouse gases and improving health at the same time,” said Dr Carlos Dora of the WHO European Centre for Environmental Health.

“Policies that encourage more public transport, in combination with more walking and cycling, are serious, feasible and lead to dramatic health benefits,” said Dr Dora. “They are also central to resolving congestion and improving the quality of life in cities. If we could cycle and walk more, we would reduce greenhouse gases and improve our health and longevity through reduced risks of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Studies show that walking to work halves our chances of heart disease.”

The WHO hopes that recognition of the multiple benefits of combating climate change will give an extra impetus to the talks in The Hague. “While there is consensus that integrated strategies need to be given higher priority, strong opposition by many stakeholders constrains their implementation,” said Dr Bertollini. “We urge countries to take action that will bring about the most benefits for the public and its health.”

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