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Wrong: World Health Organization claims that health goes down as carbon goes up

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Watts Up With That?
Wednesday March 18, 2009

Does health go down as carbon goes up, and vice versa, per the World Health Organization’s claim?

Guest post by: Indur M. Goklany

A World Health Organization (WHO) communiqué to an International congress on climate change in Copenhagen designed to sound the alarm on climate change, states that it estimates “around 150,000 deaths now occur in low-income countries each year due to climate change from four climate-sensitive health outcomes – crop failure and malnutrition, diarrhoeal disease, malaria and flooding.” [To get an inkling of the quality of these estimates, which are based on modeling studies, see here.] Then, citing “increased risks of extreme weather events, to effects on infectious disease dynamics and sea level rise,” the comminiqué declares that “as carbon goes up health goes down.” It then claims that “a large part of the current burden of disease is linked to energy consumption and transport systems. Changing these systems to reduce climate change would have the added benefit of addressing some major public health issues, including outdoor air pollution (800 000 annual global deaths); traffic accidents (1.2 million annual deaths); physical inactivity (1.9 million deaths); and indoor air pollution (1.5 million annual deaths).” Accordingly it argues, “Reducing green house gases [sic]emissions can be beneficial to health: as carbon goes down health goes up.”

But what do empirical data show?


Figure 1: Life expectancy at birth (1960-2006) for high, medium and low income countries, global carbon emissions (1960-2004), and carbon emissions per capita for each country group (1960-2004). Source: World Bank (2009).

Figure 1, based on data from the World Bank, shows that:

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t


  • Health, as measured by life expectancy at birth, has gone up for the low, medium and high income countries even as global carbon emissions have increased.
  • The higher a group’s carbon emissions per capita, the higher its life expectancy. Thus life expectancy is highest for the high income group and lowest for the low income group.
  • The slowdown in the increase in life expectancy during the late 1980s and 1990s in the low income countries can be better seen in the data for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) shown in Figure 2. This slowdown is more or less coincident with the decline in carbon emissions per capita in that region, which seems to follow declines in economic development (GDP per capita). [Note that higher levels of economic development are associated with higher carbon emissions per capita. This is to be expected. GDP per capita is one of the four multiplicative terms in the Kaya Identity used in the IPCC scenarios to estimate carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion.]

Thus empirical results are at odds with the World Health Organization’s claims that “as carbon goes up health goes down” or ” as carbon goes down health goes up.”


Figure 2: Global carbon (C) emissions (1960-2004), and life expectancy at birth (1960-2006), GDP per capita (1960-2007), and carbon emissions per capita (1960-2004) for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Note that GDP per capita in constant 2000 US$ and PPP-adjusted 2005 International $ are on different axes and scales. Source: World Bank (2009).

In fact, increased health is, if anything, associated with both increased economic development (GDP per capita) and higher carbon emissions per capita. That is, these figures suggest that the World Health Organization has it backward!!

Of course, the reason for this is that WHO is ignoring the forest for the trees. Yes, there may be some health aspects (e.g., mortality from extreme heat events) that any warmer temperatures from higher CO2 may have exacerbated but, on the other hand, such warming would reduce deaths during the cold weather (which substantially exceed deaths during the warmer portions of the year; see also here). But more importantly, as indicated in Figure 3, higher economic development-both a major cause and effect of those carbon emissions-acting in conjunction with the mutually reinforcing forces of technological change and human capital reduces deaths and increases life expectancy via a cycle of progress (see pages 29-33, here).


Figure 3: Life expectancy at birth across countries for 1977 and 2003.The figure shows that at any point in time, life expectancy, the most comprehensive single indicator for health, improves with the level of economic development. It also shows that because of secular technological change, life expectancy for any given level of economic development improves with time. Source: Goklany, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet (Cato Institute, Washington, DC, 2007).


This of course raises the question whether – just as the push for biofuels may have contributed to greater hunger worldwide – WHO’s support for “strong greenhouse gas reductions (mitigation) in all sectors” might also backfire if such reductions reduce economic growth which then retards health improvements (as suggested by the economist Richard Tol and others).

It’s too bad that the World Health Organization dispenses solutions to the problems posed by climate change without undertaking a risk analysis of the problems that may result from those solutions.

Hippocrates, where art thou?

This article was posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 5:12 am

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