Experts have said the public health benefits of green policies and potential savings for the NHS should inspire the Government to push for bold climate targets at Cop26.
The NHS could save £17 billion over 20 years if ministers push for a change towards greener transport, according to a report published by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society.
The authors state that if city residents of England and Wales walked an average of 1km more and cycled an average of 3km further each day, the number of patients suffering heart disease, strokes and diabetes due to inactivity would be dramatically reduced.
They said this would alleviate pressure on the healthcare system, saving it the projected £17 billion, while also reducing pollution levels as more people opt to walk instead of drive.
Professor Joanna Haigh CBE told a press briefing on Wednesday she hoped the report she co-chaired would provide “significant motivation for Government action on climate change”.
Prof Haigh said: “The presidency of Cop26 provides a massive opportunity for the UK not only to stimulate action on climate change but to provide measurable improvements in public health.
“The health benefits outlined in our report should provide significant motivation for Government action on climate change, and such incentives also have the potential to increase public support for the policies and enhance public action on climate change.
“A further incentive is provided by the cost savings resulting from improvements in the health of the population.
“These can go a considerable way to offsetting the costs of mitigation.”
Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, added that “social change” is also needed.
She told the press conference: “We need significant behaviour change, we need social change, and that’s one of the themes in our report.
“Having a recognition that we need to bring people with us, that this is going to involve significant behaviour change.
“While some of this is known I don’t think it is filtering through to some of the highest levels of policy-making.
“That’s one of the things that would be great to see highlighted in Cop26.”
The report gives the example of reducing deaths from air pollution, which currently causes up to 36,000 premature deaths a year, as health issue which should incentivise the Government to phase out fossil fuels.
Better insulating in homes would also prevent deaths linked to low temperatures – which account for up to 50,000 fatalities a year, the authors said.
Professor Sir Andy Haines, who also co-chaired the report, said tackling climate change is likely to reduce health inequalities.
He said: “Our report gives many ‘win-win’ examples of actions that would have a positive impact on health and the climate.
“Many of the measures, such as improved public transport access and energy efficient housing, could also help decrease health inequalities.”