Moreover, in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, eliminating air pollution would save the economy 4% of GDP per year in averted health-care costs. In China and India, reducing emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5°C would more than pay for itself when accounting for the attendant health benefits. Likewise, transforming our food and transportation systems would save still more lives, by providing healthier diets and encouraging more physical activity – all while cleaning the air and stabilizing the climate.
The human right to a healthy life and a sustainable future is increasingly being enforced through legal systems, and officials that fail to uphold these rights are being held accountable. In France, for example, a court found that the government had failed to do enough to limit air pollution around Paris, and in Indonesia, Jakarta residents similarly took legal action against the government because of air pollution.
At this year’s United Nations General Assembly, many governments answered the WHO’s call to achieve “air quality that is safe for citizens, and to align climate change and air pollution policies by 2030.” This represents an encouraging first step. Now, many of the countries with the heaviest health burden from air pollution need to phase out their highest-pollution energy sources.
At WHO, we will continue to push for action on these issues, while collaborating with others who are doing the same. On December 7, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, WHO and the Global Climate and Health Alliance will convene a one-day summit on climate and health, allowing representatives from civil society, the health sector, and all other stakeholders to shine a spotlight on this critical issue.
Like the pollution that causes it, climate change does not observe national borders; it does not save its effects just for those who pollute. On the contrary, inequality is a key feature of the climate crisis: those least responsible for the problem – children, disadvantaged communities, and the Global South – must bear a disproportionate share of the health burden.
WHO’s new global survey, to be launched at COP25, shows that many countries are highly exposed, vulnerable, and unsupported in dealing with health risks from climate change and air pollution. It is clear that we need an international and just response to this increasing strain on public health. Future efforts must reflect the real costs of our fossil-fuel based economy and aid those most affected.
To achieve this, we will need all signatories to the Paris climate accord to strengthen their national climate plans by 2020. Beyond that, we need to establish new, robust mechanisms for protecting the most vulnerable and helping communities adapt to the realities of climate change. Health must be at the heart of our Paris commitments. The pollution that is choking our air and warming our planet has been accumulating for generations. We cannot afford to take that long to fix the problem.
Banner photo by UNICEF