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Healthy planet, healthy people?

A major new research project will examine how policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could impact human health, it has been announced today.

Led by the University of Exeter the three year 3.5 million programme of research will involve experts from 17 institutions across eight countries.

Funded by the European Union under Framework Programme Seven (FP7) and entitled Urban Reduction of GHG Emissions in China and Europe (URGENCHE), the project will focus on how policies could affect all aspects of human health and wellbeing in urban environments.

It will focus on seven cities across Europe and China as case studies. These range in geography, climate and size, from Xi'an in China, home to more than 8 million people, through to Kuopio in Finland which has a population of less than 100,000.

Professor Clive Sabel, from the University of Exeter's Geography department and European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH) and leader of the project, said: "If we don't start reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cities, the planet will get hotter and hotter, but every policy to tackle those emissions has a potentially profound effect on human health.

"That could be positive or negative, so in order to make that assessment we have to look at all the evidence and relate that to the on-the-ground technical, social, economic, political and cultural realities. This research aims to integrate data from a large variety of sources to inform key policy decisions to ensure city life is a healthy, positive experience that is sustainable for the future of our planet."

The European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH), part of the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, will also be taking part in the research. Professor Lora Fleming, Director of the centre, said: "One of the unique strengths of this study is the cross cultural comparisons of approaches across many nations, both developing and developed. Climate change is a global environment and human health issue which must be addressed on both local and international levels. This study will help provide some of these future approaches."

The research will look ahead to 2030 and 2080 to see what the impact would be if various carbon reduction policies would be, particularly in context of a warming climate where issues such as heat stress and water availability will become more prevalent.

Polices under consideration will include everything from encouraging more bicycle use to designing new megacities. Specific areas of research will fall under themes such as looking at building stock, city transport, and methods of calculating human health and wellbeing.

Professor Sabel added: "Even with fairly simple policies, such as encouraging people to take journeys by bicycle, there are lots of factors to consider. It's not just that there would be less traffic on the roads and less greenhouse gas emissions those people riding their bikes may feel fitter and happier too.

"However, they could also be breathing in harmful fumes and be at greater risk from other road users. All of these things have to be considered in context to the city in question to decide whether policies are appropriate and beneficial."

Socio-economic issues will also be a key consideration in assessing impact. The lowest socio-economic groups are usually the most exposed to urban health risks because they often reside, go to work and school in the areas of the highest ambient air pollution. Even when this is not the case, the indoor air quality experienced by these groups may still be inferior due to poor building quality, crowding, heating and ventilation.

It is thought that the burdens and benefits of different greenhouse gas reduction policies may affect socio-economic groups differently, and the research will consider the full impacts of policies.

One of the key outcomes of the research will be to provide city planners and decision makers with vital tools and information needed to understand the implications of planning decisions.

The research could inform how cities are developed in the future and, in the developing world, how they are designed from scratch.

Professor Michael Depledge, Chair of Environment and Human Health from ECEHH said: "At the moment human health isn't a major factor in city planning, yet the way buildings, developments, or cities are planned can have a huge impact on health. This research will lay the foundations to make sure that the planning process is much more joined up.

"In China they are building new megacities from the ground up so this is an ideal opportunity to inform that process."

The research will be a part of the University of Exeter's Climate Change and Sustainable Futures research theme.

Work is due to start on the project in September this year.


Contact: Sarah Hoyle
University of Exeter

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