Health and climate change: the countdown continues

Health and climate change: the countdown continues

January 08, 2021

Health and climate change: the countdown continues

Once again this year, international experts have taken a snapshot of the link between health and climate change, highlighting the missteps as well as the goals achieved.

Despite the awareness and in-depth knowledge of the problems, few practical actions are being taken to really change things. This is the message that emerges from the Lancet Countdown 2020 report published in the scientific journal The Lancet and resulting from collaborative work between 35 academic centers and United Nations agencies. As they have done every year since 2015, climate scientists, geographers, professional health economists, doctors and experts in energy, food and transport have taken stock of the situation, determining the impact of climate change on human health based on an analysis of 43 indicators divided into 5 sections: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning, and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; public and political engagement. 

All-round impact

There is no doubt that climate change is having a devastating impact on human health and socio-economic conditions. The 2020 report states that the indicators of climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability are worsening: over the past year, indicators related to the direct effects of climate change on humans have in fact reached their most worrying levels since the report was first published. These negative effects are felt the most by the populations that contribute the least to climate change, explain the researchers, which raises a question of justice, whereby climate change exacerbates existing differences within and between countries. The data speak for themselves. Vulnerable populations were exposed to 475 million more heatwave cases than in 2019, with a consequent increase in deaths. According to predictions, between 145 and 565 million people will suffer the effects of flooding caused by rising sea levels. Furthermore, rising temperature facilitates the spread of some vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria and also puts food security at risk. 

A continuing weak response

The worrying signs are clear, yet the response from countries does not appear to be strong enough to reverse the trend. The global energy system has not changed in the last 30 years in terms of the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, and the reduction observed since 2013 in global use has reversed course, showing an increase in the last two years (+ 1.7% from 2016 to 2018). All this translates into over a million pollution-related deaths per year. 

The situation in agriculture is no better. Emissions from farms increased by 16% between 2000 and 2017 and 93% of these came from ruminant animals. The number of people eating unhealthy diets is also growing, with an increase in the consumption of red meat which is estimated to have contributed to 990,000 deaths in 2017. Five years since the Paris agreement was signed, the trend in many indicators that seemed to be improving has reversed and worsened, note the experts. 

Steps forward

Despite the numerous challenges still open, positive and encouraging news also emerges from the report. For example, between 2010 and 2017, renewable energy grew by 21% globally and 28% of the electricity capacity in China was linked to low-carbon sources in 2017

The greatest progress, however, has been observed in the commitment and involvement of health professionals, with doctors, nurses and other actors playing an increasingly important part in adapting health systems to the world situation, explain the authors. Health systems in 86 countries are now connected with national weather services to create adaptation health plans. Plans developed by at least 51 countries, with a 5.3% increase in spending on these changes in 2018-19 (equal to US $ 18.4 billion in 2019). 73% of countries made explicit references to the link between climate and health in defining their contribution to the Paris agreements. A good response has also come from doctors and researchers who are committed to operating practices with a lower environmental impact and studying the topic with interest, so much so that, in the academic world, the publication of articles on health and climate change increased by a factor of 8 between 2007 and 2019. Last but not least, the involvement of the population is growing: between 2018 and 2019, media coverage of health and climate change issues increased by 96% globally. 

Pandemic and climate, joint challenges

The fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement was celebrated on December 12, 2020, and the next 5 years will be key to determining whether it will really be possible to respect the commitment to maintain the temperature increase well below 2 °C compared to the pre-industrial era. Based on these premises and with an eye on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the experts have drawn up a framework of interventions to be implemented in the coming years. The 56 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) currently emitted annually will need drop to 25 GtCO2e by 2030, explain the authors, pointing out that this requires a 7.6% reduction every year. A major challenge for governments of all nations, which will have to take into account the effects of the current pandemic. With the loss of life from the pandemic and climate change running into the hundreds of thousands, and the potential economic costs into the trillions: it is essential to approach these public health problems together, say the authors. The room for maneuver is tight and if the responses to COVID-19 are not fully and directly aligned with national strategies for climate change, we will not be able to respect the commitments made under the Paris agreement, with harmful consequences for the health and health systems today and in the future, they conclude.

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