Act on climate change in the name of the 7 million people who die each year because of air pollution, urged WHO’s Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira.
In a passionate address at the Talanoa Talks in London on Thursday night, just days before the next major UN Climate Change Conference begins, Dr Neira advised the audience to keep health closely linked to climate change decisions.
“We are missing a critical figure: 7 million deaths caused by exposure to air pollution. What a coincidence— when you look at the causes of air pollution and the causes of climate change, there is a (significant) overlap in the sectors responsible for climate change, the greenhouse gas emissions, it is very much overlapping with the causes of air pollution,” she said.
“So, please let us accelerate action in the name of those 7 million deaths caused by exposure to air pollution– bring that number to the negotiations,” she said.
Dr Neira also advocated changing the narrative on climate change.
“On all the climate change negotiations, discussions, Talanoa groups, whatever, please make sure that near to the image of the planet, the lovely planet that we always use, put a couple of lungs,” she quipped, to chuckles from the audience.
In the spirit of Talanoa — which was introduced by Fiji, the hosts of the last UN Climate Change Conference, COP23— Dr Neira described to the audience her experience of working by kerosene lamp in a hospital in Africa as a young doctor.
“I was using that kerosene lamp to take care of my patients during the night because electricity was not available, while in Africa, where the sun was certainly (available),” she said.
“Make those fossil fuels fossil and a fossil idea. Let’s accelerate this energy transition in the name of health. Let’s make a healthy energy transition,” she said.
Air pollution and climate change have been climbing on the global health agenda as evidence continues to mount that the former damages the human body from womb to grave and that the latter threatens public health in a many direct and indirect ways.
Both have damage bills from the loss of human productivity and potential in the billions to trillions of dollars.
In fact, the WHO has previously called the Paris Agreement “a fundamental public health agreement, potentially the most important public health agreement of the century”.
Air pollution and climate change share another common trait: they are near-universal human experiences– 9 nine out of 10 people in the world breathe unhealthy air.
Dr Neira’s remarks come at a time when doctors and other healthcare professionals are coming out of their hospitals and consultation rooms to advocate for better air in the hopes of cutting off a number of major non-communicable diseases at source.
At the first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health earlier this month, professional organizations representing thousands of doctors, other health and allied health professionals and medical students, announced commitments to fight air pollution— joining over 70 countries, regions, cities, and international and non-governmental organizations.
They are also speaking out about climate change: the call to action on climate and health for COP24 was issued by organizations representing over 5 million doctors, nurses and public health professionals and 17,000 hospitals in over 120 countries.
This week alone, two major reports on health and climate change– the Lancet Countdown: tracking progress on health and climate change and the Fourth National Climate Assessment of the United States– hit the headlines.
The Lancet report significantly expanded its coverage of air pollution impacts, noting that several crucial markers of decarbonisation either indicated stagnation or deterioration, which came with an “immense” health burden, including widespread air pollution.
“Indeed, between 2010, and 2016, air pollution concentrations worsened in almost 70% of cities around the globe, particularly in low-income and middle-income countries,” states the report.
“At a time when national health budgets and health services face a growing epidemic of lifestyle diseases, continued delay in unlocking the potential health co-benefits of climate change mitigation is short-sighted and damaging for human health,” it continues.
Next week, the WHO will add its weight to the growing literature, launching its own comprehensive report on health and climate change– requested by the Fijian COP presidency– in Katowice at COP24.
Also released this week: the annual Emissions Gap Report, which, among other things, cautioned that countries needed to triple efforts to keep global warming to under 2°C on pre-Industrial levels, as agreed in the Paris Agreement on climate change, and that the gap between the target and countries’ plans must be closed by 2030– or the world will very likely miss its chance to reach that goal.
More coverage to follow.