Climate change poses the biggest health emergency of this century, with its effect already felt in the UK. Average global temperatures are increasing, with 2023 on track to be the hottest year on record worldwide. This trend is predicted to continue, increasing the risk of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves, as well as changes in infectious disease patterns in the UK. These will have a major impact on local authorities (LA), increasing costs and requiring changes to service delivery, planning and emergency responses.
Climate change-related impacts can affect health at all stages of life including increased risk of complications in pregnancy and birth, asthma attacks, stroke, death, stress and anxiety. These impacts particularly affect more vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and young children, people from ethnic minority groups, those with underlying medical conditions and those living in more deprived areas or in poorer quality housing.
From a local authority perspective, the impacts from climate change are numerous. Increases in extreme weather events, such as flooding, require emergency response, with mental and physical health consequences for affected individuals and communities.
Droughts and flooding can reduce agricultural productivity, either in the UK or in countries that the UK depends on for food. This disruption of food supply chains can lead to food insecurity and loss of income to farmers. Local authorities are likely to find increasing proportions of their populations affected by food insecurity, which adversely impacts health, and increases pressure onto services.
Many UK buildings, including care homes, are not built to withstand hot temperatures. This increases the risk of dehydration and heat stroke, particularly in vulnerable older people. The expected increase in rainfall during winter, coupled with poor ventilation and inadequate heating due to fuel poverty, is likely to contribute to increased mould in homes with detrimental impacts on indoor air quality.
Climate change may also lead to an increase in migration, either from abroad or even within the UK as flooding, coastal erosion and rising sea levels displace people, creating a major impact on local authorities’ ability to house everyone in need.
LAs are well placed to take effective action against climate change, and can improve their population’s health and reduce inequalities at the same time. Social justice must underpin the planning and embedding of this work, ensuring that health co-benefits are optimised and health inequalities do not widen. LAs have a key role to play in the identification of population groups most vulnerable to climate change.
Haringey LBC, for example, has used existing tools to map the locations of their vulnerable populations and established an Adverse Weather and Health Group to drive action in this area.
Public health teams within local authorities can and should make the case for climate change action and the associated health co-benefits, but they cannot act in isolation. The UK’s Climate Change Committee has raised substantial concerns about the UK’s preparedness for climate change, and addressing these concerns is everyone’s business across all sectors.
Elected local councils need to demonstrate political commitment that enables action. There are good examples of resources supporting such action and can be adapted to different localities such as the Yorkshire and Humber ADPH Climate and Health Narrative. Tools are also available to help decision-makers when planning a range of work – including approving planning permissions and commissioning and/or providing services. Cornwall Council’s Cornwall Development and Decision Wheel, for example, aims to balance the needs of a thriving society and planet. LAs also have an important role to play in educating, engaging and mobilising local communities on climate change and sustainability-related issues through community engagement, support for the voluntary and community sector, and integrating relevant messages in public-facing council functions.
Although moving away from fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change, towards renewable energy is dependent on central Government policies, there are actions local authorities can take. For example, Northumberland CC installed solar panels estimated to provide, once completed, up to 50% of the council headquarters’ energy needs, redirecting anticipated savings to services.
Reducing energy demands of our buildings, homes and transport by improving energy efficiency is key. This includes appropriately insulating new homes and providing a comprehensive programme of retrofitting existing buildings. Support must be proportionate to needs to ensure health inequalities do not increase. We need resilient infrastructure that supports and encourages active travel as well as affordable, accessible and reliable public transport. Adaptation and resilience plans should be tailored to local needs with community asset-based approaches and must ensure that inequalities do not increase.
Many actions that tackle carbon emissions and improve adaptation to climate change fall within the jurisdiction of local authorities or with organisations that local councils work in partnership with. Local councils have an important role in influencing climate change action, and with local communities at the centre of these plans, have the opportunity to realise substantial health co-benefits.
Maria Van-Hove is chair of the faculty of Public Health’s Sustainable Development Special Interest Group and Dr Charlotte Parbery-Clark is a public health specialty registrar
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