Reducing energy use in transport and homes could help prevent tens of thousands of early deaths and save the NHS £3.7 billion a year, a report has said.
Government climate policy has focused on cutting emissions from energy supplies, such as phasing out coal and boosting renewables – but has neglected moves to lower energy demand, the study by Green Alliance warned.
Reducing energy demand in transport, buildings and industry, for example through insulating homes and encouraging people out of their cars, would make it easier to meet UK targets to cut emissions to net zero by 2050.
It would also improve public health and reduce early deaths from cold homes and air pollution, the think tank said.
The report said, while the ban on sales of new conventional cars should be brought forward from a proposed 2040 date to 2030, the top priority in transport should be to reduce the need to own and drive vehicles.
Transport is the largest sector for greenhouse gas pollution in the UK, with current policies set to deliver just six million tonnes of the 70 million tonnes a year reduction needed by 2032.
Emissions are not coming down, in part due to the increase in weight of cars with more SUVs on the road, but policies to encourage walking, cycling and more use of public transport could cut pollution and improve health.
Switching just 1.7% of car journeys to walking and cycling could deliver £2.5 billion in health benefits, by reducing problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the report said.
Cleaner travel will also help prevent the estimated 65,000 early deaths a year from air pollution, the report added.
It is a similar situation for emissions from buildings, which need to deliver cuts of 35 million tonnes per year by 2032, but under current policies will only see a reduction of five million tonnes of greenhouse gases.
Making homes more energy efficient and warmer could save the NHS £1.2 billion a year, currently spent on treating problems attributed to cold living conditions such as pneumonia and heart attacks, the report said.
A £1 billion a year investment up to 2035 in energy efficiency would also lower household bills by an average of £270, and prevent 10,000 early deaths a year, it added.
The report also said that industry could cut energy use by making longer lasting, repairable items, bringing down the demand for products and promoting more efficient industrial processes that use fewer resources.
The study, based on research by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (Creds) which involves academics from 15 UK universities, said the Government should implement measures to reduce demand.
Measures are also needed to cut energy waste and encourage people to use power when high levels of supply from renewables are available, for instance through “time of use” tariffs, it added.
Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said: “The Government’s approach to energy is self defeating.
“It ignores half of the equation and denies people considerable benefits.
“Not only would reducing demand help to reach carbon reduction targets earlier, it would also reduce infrastructure costs and benefit everyone – through cleaner air, more comfortable homes and healthier lives.”
Responding to the report, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “As part of the For A Greener NHS campaign, the health service is working with the world’s leading experts to set a practical, evidence-based and ambitious date for the NHS to reach net-zero, as well as looking at how the NHS can influence other sectors of society such as the energy industry.”