Kiwi ‘can do’ at Cancun?

Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death and ill-health for New Zealanders. As health professionals, we take monitoring, advice and treatment very seriously so that our patients can enjoy the best of health. The good news these days is that with healthier lifestyles, early detection and rapid treatment, the outlook is much better for all of us. Early detection of risk factors like smoking and cholesterol have been particularly important, and communicating honestly and transparently about risk factor levels is vital so that people can make the necessary changes to prevent heart disease.

Would we change how we measure cholesterol so individual results look better and changes appear unnecessary? Like measuring the “good” cholesterol (HDL-C) and ignoring the “bad” cholesterol (LDL-C)? Absolutely not. That would be dangerous and unethical. People have the right to accurate information on their health so they can make wise choices that help themselves and their communities.

Right now, the New Zealand government team at the international climate negotiations in Mexico is doing just that. The team is negotiating changes to how greenhouse gas emissions are measured so that New Zealand emissions appear better than they really are, so that it no longer seems necessary to reduce them. This masks the fact that New Zealanders have one of the highest rates of emissions per person in the world, and that our greenhouse gas emissions trends are heading in the wrong direction.

Our transport emissions have increased 70% since we committed to zero emissions growth under the Kyoto agreement; and we have chosen as a nation to rapidly expand our most emissions-intensive export: dairy. Government-funded emissions reduction programmes have been axed starved by public sector funding cuts, and new government funded programmes such as the $8-10 billion national road-building programme and the plan to convert Southland lignite to nitrogenous fertiliser and diesel will further escalate our country’s emissions.

Up until now, emissions-absorbing native and exotic forests (like the good cholesterol) have helped us ignore these climate change “risk factors” (the bad cholesterol). But the moment of overall emissions-health reckoning is looming and it happens to fall just after a major planned exotic forest harvest. So now the government wants to change how we measure the risk factors. Rule changes sought by the government negotiating team would mean allowing us to count exotic forest trees as sinks even after they have been chopped down.

This may seem like a canny economic move for New Zealand in the short term. But on a wider scale, the changes New Zealand is calling for would mean a loophole enabling other countries to destroy native forests and wetlands and increase emissions by 1 billion

tonnes – that is, one tenth of all the world’s emissions per year.

The problem is that the climate is changing and this is the biggest threat to global health and well-being we face. In 2009, Oxfam estimates 10,000 people died from climate- related adverse weather events, and now this has more than doubled by just the first nine months of this year. Like heart disease, we understand the risk factors and need to act now to prevent climate change-related deaths.

Just as the problem with waiting for a heart attack before action is that half of people die immediately dying from one, so with climate change we cannot afford to wait for even more dramatic signs – it might be too late. We must act now to rapidly reduce emissions and get global atmospheric concentrations back down to a safe level.

Understandably, our neighbour Tuvalu, as the one of the first affected nations with rising sea levels compromising water supplies, has been the most critical of New Zealand’s negotiation stance.

Playing around with numbers like this is a blatant refusal to play our part as a global citizen and deal with the atmospheric health crisis the world faces. We also put our nation’s future economic resilience at risk, as we increase our dependence on emissions-generating fossil fuel transport and exports. Ignoring the numbers and the risks is not in the interests of New Zealanders’ future well-being.

New Zealand is well-placed to make a fair contribution to reducing emissions and create a resilient future for New Zealanders. The campaign for 40% emissions reductions of 1990 levels by 2020 (in other words, halving our current emissions over the next decade) is both feasible and would leave New Zealand in much better health. The kinds of changes needed would result in more active lifestyles with less dependence on animal-based food – changes that would make a significant positive impact on health, reducing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Doctors are urging the New Zealand Government to seriously listen to the voices of the New Zealand Youth Delegation currently in Cancun as they speak out against New Zealand’s efforts to ‘cheat’ on emissions measurements. These twelve young Kiwis will be middle- aged when our country has to deal with the impact of emissions decisions being made now. It takes courage to face up to our climate emissions health data, but we can make the changes to create a healthy future for us all.


OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health – prescribing for climate health

Dr Scott Metcalfe is a public health medicine specialist based in Wellington. He co-convenes OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health (senior doctors and other health professionals for climate change action)