When Japan shut down its nuclear power reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it asked its citizens to conserve scarce energy, such as by using fans instead of air conditioning during summer heat.

But that public-spirited conservation push – the kind of call being made across Europe this winter in response to gas shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – is estimated to have caused 7,710 premature heat-related deaths each year, most among Japan’s elderly, a new study has found.

The study covered the years 2011 to 2015, the period energy conservation measures in response to the nuclear shutdown remained in effect.

The data suggests that well-intended public policy aimed at curbing people’s energy use to limit climate change or tackle other threats could have unintended health consequences – with swift investment in renewable energy the best way to avoid them.

“People usually think energy saving is a good thing. It helps mitigate climate change and helps people save money,” said Guojun He, a study co-author and an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.

But the data from Japan suggests “it’s probably a bad idea to restrict individuals’ energy consumption,” he explained.

“The policy objective should be substituting dirty, non-renewable energy with renewable energy (so) it doesn’t matter how much energy you consume.”

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