Ask not what you can do for climate change, but what climate change can do for you



SSCP-DTP student Arnaud Koehl argues for a better way of selling the benefits of the global climate agreement signed at the COP21 climate conference in Paris

Many pundits applauded the Paris Agreement as an unprecedented diplomatic achievement. But for all its successes, to me one key ingredient was missing: the incentive to participate in costly global action.

Fighting anthropogenic climate change is a collective effort, which seems, at least on the surface, to provide few rewards to the entities that bear the costs of pitching in. In other words, the rationale to take action does not make sense from a selfish, individual perspective. In that respect, the Paris conference did not succeed in making the deal appealing to many of the organisations and citizens that actually have power to foster change.

If we want to spur people into action, we need to change tack, shifting from a ‘climate-centric’ view (what you can do for the climate) to a broader outlook that gives greater weighting to the potential benefits for communities and individuals (what climate change can do for you). Here are just a few of these so-called ‘co-benefits’ of tackling climate change.

Better health

Reducing carbon emissions implies a shift away from fossil fuels, paving the way for a number of positive effects on public health. Switching to low-carbon technologies simultaneously in the energy and transport sectors would cut emissions of numerous atmospheric pollutants. These include the seriously harmful PM 2.5 particulate matter but also black carbon, NOx, SOx and ozone; exposure to which is linked to high blood pressure, stroke, asthma and other cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.  Reducing our use of coal-fired power stations and on oil derivatives in the transport sector would therefore prompt a reduction in the prevalence of these diseases.

traffic new dehli
Road traffic in New Delhi, India

Swapping cars for public transport, walking and cycling also benefits travellers through increased physical activity. These results are found both in developed and developing countries, including India and China. A drop in motorised traffic would also reduce noise levels, which researchers suggest have substantial ill effects on health.

As reported by the Lancet, many other co-benefits for health and health systems can also be expected from the fight against climate change.

Towards a more sustainable economy

As well as benefiting public health, the Paris Agreement could have a stabilising effect on the global economic landscape and boost local economies.

The principles set out at COP21 should, in my opinion, lead to better rewarding the private interests that create and seize opportunities to cut emissions. This market-led process has already started in the power sector, with photovoltaic (PV) solar panels now cheaper than other energy sources in some parts of the world including England, according to Professor Paul Ekins (UCL). Let’s not forget that most countries in the world keep granting billions of dollars in oil subsidies. These immense financial flows could be redirected to foster cleaner industrial options and trigger further costs reductions.

EF schumacher book cover
Original cover of the visionary 1973 book by E.F. Schumacher

Implementing a circular economy and clean energy infrastructure could result in a number of local benefits. Examples of clean, community-scale developments include microgrids and local sustainable farming. Cycle-friendly cities such as Seattle or Amsterdam benefit from enhanced local spending since cyclists tend to shop around the city more as they cycle less far than they might drive, whilst also saving money on fuel and parking costs. To me, E.F. Schumacher’s visionary book, Small is Beautiful, provides a valuable basis to explain why local dynamics are essential in our economy.

At a national scale, the growth in carbon-emissions-free technologies such as renewables or carbon capture and storage (CCS) will stimulate the creation of new jobs. A dedicated workforce will indeed be necessary to build new facilities, but also to monitor and maintain them.

Provided that supply chains in strategic materials are properly managed, shifting to renewables furthermore offers countries the opportunity to improve their energy security by protecting themselves from oil price volatility and the depletion of fossil fuel reserves. It also offers a tempting alternative to the so-called “non-conventional fuels” such as oil sands, which are controversial due to the environmental damages that can be caused by their extraction.

Longer term financial stability is another important potential co-benefit of addressing the climate issue. Mark Carney, director of the Bank of England, famously pushed this idea forward last year while stressing the need to reconcile short and long term business aspirations. Let’s remember that economic growth does not harm the environment in itself (even though experience shows that it has nearly always been the case), as long as there is a disconnect between the use of resources and the economic output.

The necessity to go beyond current commitments

The 1.5 to 2°C target set at COP21 is honourable, but existing national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (known as INDCs –Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) simply aren’t enough. This chart made by the European Union Joint Research Centre shows the effect of cumulated INDCs, highlighting the discrepancy between what has been promised and what must be done.

CO2 emissions action gap
Global greenhouse gas emissions (GtCO2e, total excluding sinks) and percent change in emission intensity per unit of GDP, JRC

To me, emphasising the health and economic co-benefits such as those outlined above seems an obvious way for policymakers to encourage individuals and organisations to rise to the challenge of averting the dangerous effects of climate change.

Whilst it will take several decades to see the results of emissions cuts on our climate, these associated benefits could be felt within years: and now’s the time to put them at the heart of the climate conversation. For me, for you, for everybody.


This post is based on an article co-written with UCL PhD student Janto S. Hess that originally appeared on Climate Exchange. View original post


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