Climate action a major health opportunity, inaction may negate 50 years of gains

Intro

Climate change represents a “medical emergency”, but tackling the crisis could be the “greatest health opportunity of the 21st Century” according to a major new report in the world’s leading medical journal, the Lancet. The international team of researchers behind the report show that the threat to human health from climate change is so great, it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and public health. They also note that many policies to address climate change are “no-regret”, in that they will reduce ill health, enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality. By investing in clean energy over fossil fuels for example, governments will not only be reducing the climate threat, immediately improving air quality and reducing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, but will also be supporting a technology which has proven to improve the lives of the world’s poor faster and cheaper than outdated coal. The report emphasises the need for a rapid phase-out of coal from the global energy mix, for the 2200 coal plants currently in the pipeline to be replaced with renewable energy and for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Confirming that long-term economic growth and energy access can only be achieved with renewable energy, the Commission recommends the rapid expansion of access to renewable energy, and a transition to greener, cleaner, and healthier cities, and the establishment of an international carbon pricing mechanism. It also calls for greater investment in climate change and health research, and scaling-up finance for climate resilient health systems. Made up of a global team of multidisciplinary researchers from the worlds of health, climate and economics, the Lancet Commission is the latest voice to join the growing chorus, including scientists, business leaders, economists, investors, trade unions, youth, and spiritual leaders, calling for a fast and just transition away from dirty fossil fuels and towards a future powered by 100 per cent renewable energies.

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RT @TheLancet Threat to health from #climatechange cd undermine 50yrs of #globalhealth gains #ClimateHealth http://bit.ly/1FZU7It

Key Points

  • Climate change is a “medical emergency” that could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and global health. Researchers for the influential Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change warn that rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and more frequent extreme weather events are already hitting communities across the world, with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable bearing the brunt. Other consequences of climate change and the carbon economy – such as air pollution, greater spread of diseases, food insecurity and malnutrition, water scarcity, and increased migration, conflict and social unrest – are also all expected to increasingly impact human health.
  • Climate action is a no-brainer that offers the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st Century”. Many climate actions are “no-regret” policies, and tackling climate change will reduce ill health, enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality without the drawbacks of historical development pathways based on dirty, outdated fossil fuels. The Lancet emphasises the need for a rapid phase-out of coal to reduce the climate threat and improve air quality, calling for the 2200 coal plants currently in the pipeline to be replaced with renewable energy and for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Confirming that long-term economic growth and energy access can only be achieved with renewables, it also calls for the rapid expansion of access to renewable energy and the establishment of an international carbon pricing mechanism.
  • The health community is the latest powerful messenger to join the call for climate action. As with other health threats before it, such as tobacco, HIV/AIDS and polio, the medical community is well placed to unite actors around climate change and offer a human face to the crisis. The Commission’s report comes hot on the heels of Pope Francis’ moral call for climate action. Joining a growing chorus of leaders from across sectors, including scientists, business leaders, economists, trade unions and youth calling for a shift away from dirty energy sources to a future powered by renewables, this latest call is yet another important show of commitment ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris this December.

Background

The first Lancet Commission report on climate and health – published in 2009 – described climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” In their new report released today, the Commission reaffirms the severity of the threat climate change poses to health globally, but adds support for action, finding that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.

An international team of researchers has examined the latest health data, and arrived at ground-breaking conclusions: The rising risks of climate change and air pollution, both products of a global overdependence on fossil fuels, affect many facets of public health, and as a result, any effort to mitigate or adapt will result in direct benefits to human health, saving lives and improving the quality of life for citizens all around the world.

The potentially catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change has been underestimated, according to the report authors. The report shows that the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heat waves, floods, droughts and storms. Indirect impacts come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.

In 2014, the World Health Organisation estimated that 250,000 people will die each year from 2030 to 2050 as a result of well-understood effects of climate change, largely due to a rise in heat exposure, higher rates of disease transmission, and food scarcity. Another 7 million premature deaths every year are attributed to air pollution, which has also been linked to increased incidence of heart attack, respiratory illness, and stroke. As global populations are expected to grow, more people will be exposed to climate threats, according to today’s report, particularly as migration patterns push people into regions with high levels of climate impacts.

As the global number of elderly people increases both in percentage of the total population and size, climate change will also expose them to more and more heat waves, especially in developed and transition economies.

Forecasts predict that there will be 1.4 billion additional drought exposure events (the cumulative number of people affected by each drought) every year by the end of the century, while the report estimates that there will also be two billion additional extreme rainfall exposure events annually (the number of extreme storms multiplied by the number of people affected) – partly due to population growth in exposed areas and partly due to the rising number of extreme storms as a result of climate change. Extreme rainfall frequently results in dangerous flooding, especially when tied to other factors like recent drought, changing land use patterns, and sea level rise.

While the risks of climate change are huge, today’s report also provides comprehensive new evidence showing that because responses to mitigate and adapt to climate change have direct and indirect health benefits – from reducing air pollution to improving diet – concerted global efforts to tackle climate change actually represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century. Many actions that cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution and mitigate the effects of climate change in urban centre, like encouraging low-cost active transport and energy efficiency in buildings will also result in immediate public health benefits and many climate action policies are “no-regret” policies.

For example, clean energy sources like solar or wind are healthier, available, and often cheaper than outdated coal- or diesel-generated power. Moving quickly away from the use of coal would yield immediate and significant health benefits, because coal-based electricity is associated with worker illness and injury, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and mercury exposure that can hurt brain development.

The commission concludes that a strong international consensus is essential to move the world to a global low-carbon economy, harnessing a crucial opportunity to protect human health, particularly of the poorest and most vulnerable populations. It emphasises the need for a rapid phase-out of coal to reduce the climate threat and improve air quality, calling for the 2200 coal plants currently in the pipeline to be replaced with renewable energy and for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Confirming that long-term economic growth and energy access can only be achieved with renewables, it also calls for the rapid expansion of access to renewable energy and the establishment of an international carbon pricing mechanism. The commission provides a clear set of recommendations for policy makers to enable an effective response to climate change that protects and promote human health. These include:

  • Investing in climate change and public health research, monitoring and surveillance to ensure better understanding of the adaptation needs and the potential health co-benefits of climate mitigation at the local and national level.
  • Scaling-up of financing for climate resilient health systems worldwide.
  • Protecting cardiovascular and respiratory health by ensuring the rapid phaseout of coal from the global energy mix.
  • Encouraging the transition to cities that support and promote lifestyles that are healthy for the individual and the planet.
  • Establish the framework for a strong, predictable and international carbon pricing mechanism.
  • Rapidly expand access to renewable energy in low-income and middle-income countries.
  • Support accurate quantification of the avoided burden of disease, reduced health-care costs, and enhanced economic productivity, combined with adequate, local capacity and political support to develop low-carbon healthy energy choices.
  • Agreeing and implementing an international agreement that supports countries in transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

The report also highlights the vital role that the health community has to play in the fight against climate change. As with other health threats before it, such as tobacco, HIV/AIDS and polio, the medical community is well placed to unite actors around climate change and offer a human face to the crisis. Meanwhile, the health sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In a report released ahead of the Lancet Commission, NGO Healthcare Without Harm warned that, once equipment procurement and other supply factors are taken into account, hospitals alone account for approximately five per cent of the EU’s carbon dioxide emissions. The group called on health institutions should be obliged by the European Union to act more rigorously in combating climate change.

As a result of the Commission’s work, the authors propose the formation of a new global independent body on climate change and health (‘Countdown to 2030: Climate Change and Health Action’).  This global coalition will monitor and report every two years on the health impacts of climate change, progress in mitigation policies and their interaction with health, and progress with broader actions to reduce population vulnerability, to build climate resilience, and to implement low carbon, sustainable health systems.

A global collaboration published in one of the most respected health journals in the world, the Lancet report represents the latest powerful messenger to join the call for climate action. The Commission’s report comes hot on the heels of Pope Francis’ moral call for climate action. Joining a growing chorus of leaders from across sectors, including scientists, business leaders, economists, trade unions and youth calling for a shift away from dirty energy sources to a future powered by renewables, this latest call is yet another important show of commitment ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris this December.

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Key Quotes

  • “Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability.  However, our analysis clearly shows that by tackling climate change, we can also benefit health, and tackling climate change in fact represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come.” – Professor Anthony Costello, Commission co-Chair and Director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health
  • “Climate Change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.” – Professor Hugh Montgomery, Commission co-Chair and Director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance
  • “The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past. It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation.” – Peng Gong, Commission co-Chair and professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
  • “Globally, 88 per cent of the world’s population breathes air that does not meet WHO’s air quality guidelines.6 This is partly due to poverty and lack of access to clean energy—but it is also a result of policy choices. The health impacts of air pollution are not reflected in the price of the fuels that cause them, so that the cost is instead borne in lost lives, and health system expenditure.” – Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization
  • “With this new report, heads of state and governments participating in the Paris talks have the evidence base at hand to support an ambitious agreement, a swifter move away from fossil fuels and a decarbonisation path that will boost the health of their citizens… The recommendation on healthy energy couldn’t be more timely and spot on – building in health impacts of national energy policies into regulations and decision making processes. It makes absolute public health and economic sense.” – Genon K. Jensen, Founder and Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)
  • “We would like to see doctors and other health professionals highlighting the costs to health of coal and encouraging national decision makers to take these costs into account in energy decisions. Choosing to build new coal power plants would be detrimental to efforts aimed at tackling chronic disease and protecting children’s health.” – Vlatka Matkovic Puljic, HEAL’s Project Coordinator on Energy and Health, for South and Central Eastern European countries
  • “A large coal-fired power plant emits several thousand tons of hazardous air pollutants every year and has an average lifetime of at least 40 years. The plans for a massive increase in investment in Turkey would mean that coal’s contribution to respiratory and cardiovascular disease would continue for decades. This unhealthy future has to be avoided.” – Dr.Bayazıt İlhan, President of the Central Council of Turkish Medical Association
  • “The scientific evidence that air pollution causes disease is no longer in doubt. Ambient air pollution is recognised as a leading determinant of health globally and in Western Europe – and coal combustion is an important source of this pollution. Energy policy must seriously consider the significant health costs resulting from the use of coal.” – Dr Michal Krzyzanowski, visiting professor at King’s College London
  • “Reducing the level of pollutants in the air would produce very significant reductions in deaths, suffering from respiratory and heart problems and health care costs in Serbia,” he says. “Health protection must therefore be considered in energy choices. Long-term effects on population health in Serbia should be taken into account when developing energy policies.” –  Professor Dr. Berislav Vekić, Deputy Health Minister of Serbia
  • “The tendency among many people has been to think that the UK will be largely exempt from the worst effects of the damage humans are doing to the environment. This report is a stark reminder that it is something that affects the health of us all. Air pollution causes an estimated 29,000 premature deaths in the UK every year and can adversely impact child lung development. It is time we stop ignoring these serious issues and take steps to address the detrimental effects we are having on our environment and our health.” – Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation
  • “Women along with children and the elderly are set to bear the brunt of climate change.  Hundreds of older people have died in the UK in recent years from heat waves and the number is sadly set to grow.  It just makes sense to tackle climate change and particularly when doing so has other health benefits.  Cutting coal power would save huge amounts of carbon emissions and air pollution which kills hundreds every  year in the UK alone.  Who wouldn’t want a cleaner, healthier, safer place to live?” – Marylyn Haines Evans, Public Affairs Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes
  • “I’ve seen the stress and distress that heat waves cause to patients and we know climate change is already increasing their likelihood.  London has the added challenge of the ‘heat island’ effect where large cities get even hotter.  But there’s so much we can do as a city to both cut carbon and improve our health.  From cycling and walking to going all-out for solar energy, we can make London a better, cleaner city while tackling obesity, diabetes and lung cancer at the same time.” – Dr Fozia Hamid, a GP based in Camden in London
  • “Less than week after the Pope called for renewables to replace fossil fuels in his climate change encyclical, this new report from the Lancet brings home the hidden costs of continuing to burn dirty fuels like coal. These costs include severe health problems today as a result of air pollution and, in the longer term, devastating public health impacts due to climate change, especially for the world’s poorest. We must rapidly decarbonise the global economy before runaway climate change completely wipes out recent development gains, pushing millions more into poverty and health insecurity.” – Tom Mitchell, Head of Climate and Environment Programme, ODI
  • “Doctors have always taken a wider view of health than simply treating the individual patient in front of them, and this report continues that tradition, showing that for a public health issue like climate change, governments could have more influence on population health than individual patient behaviours.  The RCP itself has contributed to reducing the harm from tobacco over the past few decades by lobbying government to introduce harm reduction policies such as bans on smoking in public places and in cars where children are present. The clear set of recommendations provided by the Commission show how we can prevent and mitigate the risks to health posed by climate change, and should be considered by governments across the world now.” – Professor Jane Dacre, president of the Royal College of Practitioners (RCP)  
  • “This shows how people, especially the poorest and most marginalised, are threatened from all sides by the gathering pace of climate change. The evidence of the damage climate change wreaks on people’s respiratory, cardiovascular and mental health and how it increases the threat of infectious diseases is truly frightening… Rich countries can and should make substantial cuts to their emissions by phasing out coal and by providing the funding that developing countries need to cope with climate change.” – Mohga Kamal-Yanni, Oxfam’s senior health policy advisor
  • “In the long run, Climate Change is one of the world’s most serious problems, with the potential to undo many of the gains in public health of the last 50 years. Actions to deal with it need to begin immediately.” – Professor Bob Lowe, Lancet Commission author, and the director of the UCL Energy Institute

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