Earth Hour: use energy wisely

20.30 to 21.30 on Saturday 26 March 2011 will mark Earth Hour, when lights will be switched off around the globe so people can take a stand against climate change. Reducing overall energy use and encouraging the uptake of renewable energy sources have a dual benefit for health. WHO promotes the use of renewable energy, not only to lessen the impact of climate change on health but also to reduce both communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

Greater use of renewable energy would contribute to decreasing the burden of disease in our Region from:

  • outdoor air pollution (which currently shortens each person’s life by nearly nine months on average in the European Union);
  • traffic injuries (causing 120 000 deaths and injuring 2.4 million people in the European Region each year);
  • noise (contributing to heart attacks, learning disability and tinnitus); and
  • obesity-related diseases caused by physical inactivity (responsible for some 900 000 deaths every year).

WHO/Europe is assessing the co-benefits for health of measures that reduce climate change through improved and safe use of energy under different scenarios, in order to advise countries on ways of achieving the highest level of health for current and future generations.

The health sector can make a direct contribution

The health sector, one of the most intensive users of energy, can lead action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by rationalizing energy use. Substantial health and economic benefits can be achieved in hospitals and clinics through energy efficiency measures, the development of low- and no-energy medical devices, the use of renewable energy, water conservation and safe onsite water storage, telehealth schemes, better managed procurement, and the use of locally grown food. In the United Kingdom, for instance, waste recycling and energy-efficient solutions within the National Health Service are estimated to save nearly UK£ 180 million each year.

These measures also help the health sector to adapt to the existing effects of climate change. For example, energy-efficient hospitals would keep patients cool in summer and warm in winter, and enhanced home and hospital design facilitating natural ventilation would improve air flows and achieve better infection control and resilience to heat-waves, while reducing reliance on air-conditioning.

WHO promotes health in all sectors

The use of cleaner fuels and a shift to active means of transport, such as walking and cycling, would lower carbon emissions, increase physical activity, reduce traffic-related casualties and decrease air pollution and noise. Active transport to work, school and for recreation also addresses obesity-related diseases caused by physical inactivity. ‘Greener’ urban development, influencing the design, location and construction of residential developments, could ensure better protection from heat-waves, flooding and mudslides associated with climate change and facilitate access to public transport, walking and cycling.