Research and data

How reducing greenhouse gas emissions affects public health and helps reduce healthcare costs

reducing greenhouse gas emissions is key to better public health initiatives and reduced healthcare expenditures

Zero-emission environments have been a trending topic for quite some time. As scientists urge every one of us to do our part in assessing and minimizing our carbon footprint, our local and national governments are having similar conversations to plot a better path forward. Greenhouse gas emissions are eroding the Earth’s atmosphere, an essential piece to life on earth. You’ve seen, read, or heard about it in the media. It’s no secret. But did you know that, along with the greenhouse gas emissions harming our physical wellbeing, it’s doing quite a detriment to financial budgets as well? It makes sense that the two might go hand in hand, but a study co-authored by our colleague, Dr. Patrick Kinney, put some eye-popping numbers to a very small geographic sample size. 

According to the study, the City of Boston would save $2.4 billion and 288 lives annually, if they were carbon neutral and reduced greenhouse gas emissions to zero today. Obviously, that’s easier said than done, but it gives us a good understanding of the positive outcomes that we should work towards. Because after all, healthier climates will yield healthier communities–and a healthier future for generations to come. 

While reaching carbon neutrality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not happen overnight, Boston’s Mayor Kim Janey is continuing the work of former Mayor Marty Walsh, who pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 back in 2016. They recognize the positive impacts these changes can have on the city and are actively working towards accomplishing them. Further, Boston leading the way on this action is imperative to our collective wellbeing as it’s been reported that cities themselves are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emission detriments. 

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How do we get to zero greenhouse gas emissions?

The study outlines several ways of putting together plans and policies that can help a community start to whittle away at collective greenhouse gas emissions. One such way is how individuals within a city travel and/or commute, which reduces fossil fuel combustion (and spending), ultimately decreasing air-born pollutants. In cities like Boston, the opportunity exists to take advantage of public and alternative transportation methods, which might include: 

  • Rail (the train/subway)
  • Bicycling infrastructure (creating exclusive lanes for bicycle travel, etc.)
  • Bus/trolley transit
  • Electric scooters 
  • Pedestrian infrastructure (safer walking environments and called out exclusive “lanes”, etc.) 

From the infrastructure of residential and commercial properties, measures can also be made to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Improvements to such buildings to reduce energy consumption include: 

  • Energy efficiency retrofits
  • Installation of photovoltaic cells
  • Smaller overall property footprints
  • Use of sustainable building materials for new construction
  • …and more

The study continues: 

While we focus on the public health co-benefits from local air pollutants here, it is worth noting that greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies are likely to have additional co-benefits outside of this scope (e.g. reduced congestion and improved travel time savings from strategies that shift transportation mode share from single-occupancy vehicles to more efficient modes). Meta-analyses and cohort studies have established strong positive associations between:

  • Particulate matter and mortality
  • Incidence of heart attacks
  • Respiratory and cardiac hospital admissions
  • Asthma exacerbation
  • Lost workdays
  • …and restricted activity days 

Matthew Raifman, study lead author (and doctoral student at BUSPH), said:

“Public health and climate policymaking are intertwined. While Boston’s climate policies are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these actions will also likely reduce deaths and improve the quality of life of residents of Boston and the surrounding region.”

The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is imperative to present and future public health initiatives and in fulfilling our mission of building stronger, healthier communities that are fit to last for generations to come. Small steps today can lead to significant improvements tomorrow. 

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