The severity of the impact of climate change on health is increasingly clear. Exposure to air pollution causes 7 million deaths worldwide every year and costs an estimated US$ 5.11 trillion in welfare losses globally.
In the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, the health impacts of air pollution are estimated to cost more than 4% of their GDP. On the contrary, actions to meet the Paris goals would cost around 1% of global GDP. “We should be talking about the benefits of mitigating climate change,” explained the experts at COP24.
“The Paris Agreement is potentially the strongest health agreement of this century,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). “The evidence is clear that climate change is already having a serious impact on human lives and health. It threatens the basic elements we all need for good health — clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter — and will undermine decades of progress in global health. We can’t afford to delay action any further.”
The same human activities that are destabilizing the Earth’s climate are also directly contributing to poor health. Fossil fuel combustion is both the main driver of climate change and a major contributor to air pollution. The air pollutants which are causing ill-health, and the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are causing climate change, are emitted from many of the same sectors, including energy, housing, transport and agriculture.
“If the mitigation commitments in the Paris Agreement are met, millions of lives could be saved through reduced air pollution, by the middle of the century,” explains the health experts at COP24. In fact, the health gains from energy scenarios to meet the Paris climate goals would more than meet the financial cost of mitigation at global level and would exceed that in countries such as China and India by several times. To put it simply: it makes economical sense!
“We pretend that fossil fuels are cheap fuels only because we don’t include the health cost they have on our societies”
For Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, health is one of the most important topic of COP24. “We need to incorporate the 7 million air-pollution-related deaths into our negotiations on climate change. We need to see words like asthma, COPD and lung cancer in our negotiation texts,” she argues in Katowice.
The World Health Organization recommends that the health implications of mitigation and adaptation measures are included in the design of economic and fiscal policies, including carbon pricing and the reform of fossil fuel subsidies. They also recommend facilitating and promoting the engagement of the health community as trusted, connected and committed advocates for climate action.
“The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs. The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high, that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself,” says Dr Maria Neira. “When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost.”
According to the health experts, switching to low-carbon energy sources will not only improve air quality but provide additional opportunities for immediate health benefits. Introducing active transport options such as cycling could for instance help increase physical activity that can help prevent diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.