The Ecologist

 

Will Big Business make you thin?

Dan Box

20th July, 2009

Tackling climate change will have lots of knock-on benefits, but one we probably haven't considered is what it will do to car-related injuries. Dan Box meets a man who has...

Ian Roberts is a man with a good news story about climate change. Such news is rare and, justifably, he is exited.

'I think the health sector has got the only, or if not the only, one of the most interesting good news stories in this whole sorry charade (climate change),' he says. 'And we’re not telling it and that’s a disaster.'

So what has got him so fired up? It’s this:

Ian (or Dr Roberts, he works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) once worked in intensive care. His patients were mostly young, male victims of road accidents. So he started researching what causes people to be hit by cars. The results were simple – more traffic, going faster, means more people get hit. That’s when he had the revelation.

'I thought, "My god, this is just a kinetic energy disease".' Cars, as Ian sees them, turn chemical energy (from petrol) into kinetic energy (from movement) which is transferred to the human body when they hit it. The effects are 'gross'.

What makes it worse is that as roads get more dangerous for those out walking and cycling, more people travel by car instead to stay safe.

'People are being driven into their cars to escape this dangerous kinetic energy that’s on their streets and of course what’s happening? They are getting fat.' They are also getting heart disease, stroke, cancers and depression.

Fossil fuels, Ian says, have displaced human energy as the primary source of human movement. They have also, of course, driven climate change. This is where it gets really interesting, because Ian argues, what we need to do to sort out climate change – reduce carbon use – is actually going to benefit our health. In crude terms, we must use less fossil fuel, which means less cars. Ian is part of a team who have modelled the health benefits of this, whose results will be published later this year in The Lancet. He wouldn’t tell me the exact figures, but it’s safe, he says, to assume the rates of car accidents, obesity, heart disease, etc will go down.

I like Ian’s argument, with one quibble. It relies on governments introducing what he calls carbon rationing to reduce our use of fossil fuels. But will they? Last week’s UK government energy white paper went the other way, stressing the reduction of emissions per car, not of cars themselves nor miles driven. Voters don’t like being denied either of these last two things.

Oddly, this is where the market may step in. Deep within the white paper is this sentence: 'Transport taxes also play a part: fuel duty … incentivises fuel-efficient purchases and encourages more fuel-efficient behaviour.' If the government won’t directly ration the use of carbon in car fuel by law, is it about to increase taxes on that fuel instead? By making petrol more expensive, this may have the same effect.
Even without governments, the oil price is going up anyway for the simple reason – another crude simplification this – that there are more of us and less of it. This makes petrol more expensive. Once again, like rationing, this will probably mean people drive less. Big business just may be about to make you thin.

Ian Roberts is a co-founder of the Climate and Health Council.

 

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