Biodiversity and the benefits for human health

In our "Biodiversity and the benefits for human health" publication, Swiss Re Institute demonstrates just how beneficial time spent in nature can be for physical and mental well-being. Increasing access and improving green areas in cities and suburbs can reduce health effects caused by air pollution, excessive noise and extreme heat - and should be a priority for health care and disease prevention, policy making, nature conservation and urban development.

"Nature itself is the best physician." So stated Hippocrates, the Greek physician commonly known as the 'father of medicine'. Intuitively, it is what most of us feel. Lazing by a beach, hiking over mountains, strolling through parks, lingering in woodland, cycling a winding bike path – they make us feel better, more relaxed, more at one with ourselves.

We do not have to rely on intuition. We have proof. The scientific literature is already rich and continues to grow with evidence of concrete health benefits conferred on study participants by their time spent in nature. Some of these studies have been captured in our 'Biodiversity and the Benefits for Human Health' publication.

Did you know?

  • Markers for cardiovascular disease were shown to improve with better access to nature against control groups in studies from the US, Spain, South Korea and Canada.
  • Air pollution is a global health concern; and cities with more trees have better air quality. A US study suggested tree coverage in the US removed 17.4 million tons of pollutants in 2010, equating to health savings of USD 6.8 billion.1
  • Heat-related mortality is increasing across the world with climate change and more frequent heat waves. Well-vegetated cities cope better with heat. One study suggested air temperatures during heat waves in London could be up to 4°C cooler within 400m of a park.2
  • Research from Japan demonstrated lower cortisol and haemoglobin levels – both associated with stress and poor mental health - in a group that regularly walked in local forests against a control group largely confined to urban areas.
  • The European Environmental Agency estimated in 2019 that 20% of Europe's population is exposed to noise levels detrimental to health. This translates to hearing and sleeping problems; and contributes to secondary physical and mental conditions. Greening roads to reduce noise pollution is a preventive health care measure.

More than half of the world's population currently live in urban areas, a figure that is projected to grow to more than two thirds by 2050. From a human angle, all will appreciate and enjoy well-designed and maintained urban green spaces. From a policy perspective, improving health as a result of being in nature reduces health care costs. In the US alone, healthcare costs in 2018 were USD 3.6 trillion, a figure rising well ahead of inflation. Improve health outcomes with green spaces in urban areas by just one or two percentage points, and the healthcare savings amount to in billions of dollars. These relationships are a call to integrate health, traffic, settlement and urban & rural zoning policies.

Green spaces create public and individual health benefits and can be enabled and protected by insurance.
Oliver Schelske, Natural Assets & ESG Research Lead, Swiss Re Institute

This, in turn, impacts re/insurers. We provide life and health insurance products to millions of consumers. We want our insured population to be healthy and happy, and to close health insurance protection gaps. Our 'The Big Six' Lifestyle Factors - an initiative to develop evidence-based understanding of how lifestyle and clinical factors interact with each other and affect people's health - are an important step in reaching this goal. They include mental well-being, physical activity, environment, sleep, nutrition and substance use.

Recent pandemic lockdowns demonstrated how valuable green spaces are for our mental and physical health.
Christoph Nabholz, Chief Research Officer, Swiss Re Institute

There are many factors contributing to healthy policy holders – and we firmly believe that increased access to improved green, biodiverse spaces is one of those. Bridging the story to property & casualty, insurance can provide a financial protection mechanism for the risks that greened environments face, whether green roofs against leakage due to heavy rain, or forestry insurance.

References

[1] D.J. Nowak, S. Hirabayashi, A. Bodine, E. Greenfield Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States. Environmental Pollution 193 2014 119-129.

[2] K.J. Doick, A. Peace, T.R. Hutchings 2014. The role of one large greenspace in mitigating London‘s nocturnal urban heat island. Science of The Total Environment. Volume 493, 2014, 662-671.

  

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