Reflecting on COP26, environmental noise, and hearing loss

We've been enjoying a fantastic conference in Newcastle today, Invest Newcastle and NewcastleGateshead Initiative's 'Sustainable City Conference', as part of COP26.


Debate continues as to how to secure global net zero by mid-century and keep the all-important 1.5 degrees within reach. Countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 reduction targets which align with reaching net zero, including the speeding up of the switch to electric vehicles.

Such initiatives have a significant impact on reducing pollutants. Importantly, though, they reduce another pervasive pollutant – environmental noise – which adversely affects the health and wellbeing of citizens across the world. Heavy industry and transport noise are considered the second most significant environmental cause of ill health in Western Europe, behind fine particulate matter pollution (WHO and JRC, 2011).

Prolonged exposure to environmental noise is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes, including cardiovascular and metabolic effects, sleep disturbance, and cognitive impairment in children. As urban growth rapidly continues, so do the risks associated with environmental noise and the issue of living with unaddressed hearing loss.

Timely action is needed to prevent and address hearing loss across the life course. In a VOICE® survey, over half of those aged 75+ had difficulty hearing, and one in three said they found problems with hearing particularly challenging in social situations, with 30% saying they had dropped out of numerous social activities and hobbies due to stress.

It remains to be seen what impact COP26 will have and how urban travel behaviour will shift following recent lockdowns. But behind the headlines, the move to electric vehicles and indeed less traffic in urban environments will likely lead to quieter environments and softer cities with associated reductions in noise pollution, which can have major health benefits for citizens.

Over 5% of the world’s population – or 430 million people – require rehabilitation to address their ‘disabling’ hearing loss (including 34 million children). By 2050 nearly 2.5 billion people are projected to have some degree of hearing loss and at least 700 million will, or one in every ten people, will have disabling hearing loss. Nearly 80% of people with disabling hearing loss live in low- and middle-income countries. The prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, among those older than 60 years, over 25% are affected by disabling hearing loss.

It is clear that COP26 has far-reaching consequences, and I look forward to discussing them at today’s Sustainable City Conference.