Written by Antoaneta Roussi/UNEP
Health never used to be much of a question in climate change discussions. The two were seen as disparate issues, requiring different approaches and funding streams. That changed in 2015, when the World Health Assembly passed a resolution on air pollution that recognised improving air quality would benefit climate efforts as well as people’s health.
Air pollution has quickly become one of the world’s most dangerous health risks, with 7 million people dying from the “silent killer” every year. In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly placed air pollution as the second leading cause of death from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) after tobacco, surpassing physical inactivity, excess alcohol and unhealthy diets as a risk factor for diseases like cancer, heart and lung diseases.
Now Norway — a nation that has been instrumental in supporting air pollution efforts by the World Health Organization— has become the first country to include air pollution in its funding announcement for fighting NCDs in low and middle-income countries. The commitment is an additional 133 million USD from 2020 to 2024.
“Norway is the first donor country with a strategy focusing on NCD-action in developing countries,” said Dag-Inge Ulstein, Minister of International Development for Norway. “Despite the enormous death burden in low and middle- income countries, NCD efforts only receive between one and two per cent of all global health-related development aid. There is a huge need for funding.”
More than 15 million people under the age of 70 die every year from NCDs, with 7 million premature deaths related to air pollution. Despite the growing burden, donor assistance to developing countries has remained unchanged with a focus on infectious diseases. While those ailments cannot be discounted, experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that people with underlying health issues, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, have an increased risk of succumbing to viruses.
Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO, said that at present 90 percent of the world was breathing air that is below WHO safety guidelines. For Neira, the Norwegian pledge is a step in the right direction, as she says, world leaders need to address air pollution if they want to advance the NCD agenda.
“I really hope that in 10 years, the levels of air pollution will be much lower than what we have now and that when people see images of air pollution in urban areas, it will bring about the same reaction as when we now see photos of people smoking in hospitals or airplanes,” she said.
Aside from improving human health, robust reductions in methane, black carbon and ground-level ozone can mitigate climate change. For instance, by reducing air pollution from coal-fired power plants, health risks from particulate matter would fall as would the consequences of global warming including drought, sea level rise, extreme weather, and species loss. Similarly, by replacing diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones, governments would more easily meet global goals on climate change, and urban air quality would vastly improve, especially for the most vulnerable communities, who also suffer disproportionately from NCDs.
The Norwegian assistance for NCDs aims to fund activities around strengthening primary health care with NCD prevention diagnosis and treatment, including related to mental health. It will also support countries in tackling the main NCD risk factors; air pollution, tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity. One of the more concrete actions would be to assist countries in establishing taxes and regulation for products that are harmful to health such as tobacco, as well as instituting air pollution taxes to encourage shifts to clean energy and transport. Finally, it will improve access to medical equipment and medication, especially in areas hit by crises and conflict.
Marit Viktoria Pettersen, Senior Adviser for global health at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that through implementation of this strategy, Norway would help tackling a huge challenge for sustainable development, and it was the poor that would benefit the most.
“Many people consider NCDs ‘lifestyle diseases’, but it is actually the disease of the poor,” said Pettersen. “They are exposed to the worst air quality because of where they live and they have limited access to affordable healthy food and life saving medicines, like insulin.”
“This is evident by the fact that 86 per cent of premature NCD deaths happen in developing countries,” she added.
The global health picture today is very different from 2000. NCDs have taken over as the leading killer with over 40 million deaths a year, while communicable diseases— like HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis— cause about 3 million deaths. Even so, action to combat NCDs only gets about two per cent of the total health related development budget. “If we are going to tackle NCDs,” Pettersen said, “official development assistance should reflect that.”
Norway will contribute an additional USD 133 million to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases #NCDs in low-income countries. "I hope other donor countries will follow", says @dagiulstein #WHA73 @HealthPolicyW @WHO @DrTedros @ncdalliance https://t.co/7vPwnDnqtb pic.twitter.com/cBGWZFNMtE
— Norway MFA (@NorwayMFA) November 11, 2020
Hero image © Mu Cang Chai via Freepik; Top image and video © Norway MFA via Twitter.