Safeguarding human health from climate change impacts is more urgent than ever, yet most countries are not acting fully on their own plans to achieve this, according to the first global snapshot of progress on climate change and health.
The WHO Health and Climate Change Survey Report, launched today at the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25), draws on data from over 100 countries surveyed by the World Health Organization.
It finds that countries are increasingly prioritizing climate change and health, with half of the respondent countries having developed a national health and climate change strategy or plan, but only 38 per cent have finances in place to even partially implement their national strategy or plan and fewer than 10 per cent had enough for full implementation.
“Over two-thirds have assessed that they have increased risks from heat stress, from injury and death from extreme weather, from food, water and vector-borne diseases and those range from everything from cholera to malaria,” said WHO Coordinator, Climate change and health, Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum.
The links between climate change and health have gained increasing prominence within the climate negotiations, with mounting evidence and experience of the wide-ranging direct and indirect health impacts of a warming world.
A small sample, according to the 2019 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, a major annual stocktake of the situation by Lancet Commission: 9 of the past 10 most suitable years for the transmission of dengue fever have occurred since 2000; the trend in global yield potential in all major crops is the lowest it’s ever been since the 1960s; and in 77 per cent of countries there has been an increase in daily population exposure to wildfires in the last 18 years.
That is apart from the threat to health of more frequent and intense extreme weather events, which also have implications for ensuring the resilience of healthcare facilities and systems in the most vulnerable parts of the world.
But health is also emerging as one of several “entry points” to greater ambition, weaving together strands of co-benefits and sustainable development, as governments at all levels search for pathways to meet Paris Agreement targets.
“WHO considers that climate change is potentially the greatest health threat of the 21st century,” said Dr Campbell-Lendrum.
“The reason for that is that unless we cut our carbon emissions, then we will continue to undermine our food supplies, our water supplies and our air quality – everything that we need to maintain the good health of our populations,” he said.
Notably, about two-thirds of exposure to outdoor air pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
“Health is paying the price of the climate crisis. Why? Because our lungs, our brains, our cardiovascular system is very much suffering from the causes of climate change which are overlapping very much with the causes of air pollution,” said WHO Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, Dr Maria Neira.
There was a “reasonably even spread of the level of planning and assessment across countries” despite differing levels of vulnerability and risks, according to Dr Campbell-Lendrum.
But, “all regions have a problem financing those plans— rich countries have problems allocating budgets because of competing demands, poor countries report lack of access to climate finance, for example, health not being connected to climate financing mechanisms, lack of capacity even to prepare proposals.”
Part of the problem, the WHO experts found, was a persistent disconnect between health and most other sectors relevant to climate change— particularly those that could have relevance to climate change mitigation, such as the transportation and energy sector.
“Health people have to be serious about climate action, and climate people need to be serious about health impacts as well,” said Dr Campbell-Lendrum.
“There are opportunities to get health co-benefits… in order to get the health benefits from climate action, we need Ministries of Health to be talking to Ministries of Transport, energy generation ministries, household energy ministries,” he said.
The benefits from acting on these links have been increasingly been put in the spotlight as a way to increase action on climate change, as the world heads towards a 3.2°C temperature rise on pre-Industrial levels, way past both the Paris Agreement targets of 2°C and 1.5°C— and the more destructive and unpredictable broad spectrum of impacts that this would bring.
The 2019 Emissions Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme, a major annual stocktake that compares where greenhouse gas emissions are heading versus where they need to be, this year highlighted air pollution, air quality and health as one of several “entry points” to achieving the sustainable development goals with climate co-benefits.
It emphasizes that “a growing body of research has documented that ambitious climate action, economic growth and sustainable development can go hand-in-hand when well managed”, including an analysis by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate done last year that estimates that ambitious climate action could generate US$26 trillion in economic benefits between now and 2030 and create 65 million jobs by that time, while avoiding 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution.
The 2019 report, now in its 10th year, also found that, “transformational pathways show huge synergies between eliminating air pollution and limiting climate change, as well as improving energy security”— and it costs less to align action on climate, air pollution and health.
It cites a study that finds that “a global fossil fuel phase-out could avoid over 3 million premature deaths each year from outdoor air pollution, or well over 5 million premature deaths per year if other human-driven greenhouse gases”, including emissions like methane from agriculture and industry that don’t come from burning fossil fuels, are cut.
The annual policy costs of tackling these challenges together? About “40 per cent lower than the sum of the policy costs for each challenge pursued independently”.
Then, there are the health gains from those avoided years of life lost, something the Lancet Commission included in their Lancet Countdown for the first time this year. It found that if the improvement in particulate air pollution from human activity experienced by Europe from 2015 to 2016 stayed the same over the course of a person’s life, this difference would lead to an annual reduction in years of lives lost worth €5.2 billion.
Those health gains and efficiencies are still largely being overlooked, indicating missed opportunities.
Currently, less than 1 per cent of international financing for climate action goes to the health sector.
“The cost of not taking enough action at the COPs is paid for by your lungs and my lungs; and, therefore, I hope this (health) argument will be used to take more action, we need to stop subsidies for coal, need to make sure our children will grow up in an environment that will not be negative for health,” urged WHO’s Dr Neira.
Read the WHO press release here: Climate risks to health are growing but prioritized funding lacking to safeguard human health from climate change
Download the WHO report here: WHO Health and Climate Change Survey Report
Read the UNEP Emissions Gap Report here: Emissions Gap Report 2019
Read the Lancet Commission report here: The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change
Banner photo by Asian Development Bank/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0