By Imelda V. Abano
KATOWICE, Poland – Governments need to act swiftly to save about a million of lives a year by 2050 through reducing air pollution, according to a special report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the United Nations climate talks here.
WHO said about 7 million people deaths have been recorded globally every year due to exposure to air pollution from fossil fuel which emit carbon dioxide and is considered as the main culprit for climate change.
“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,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO.
The report said that most of the energy used around the world continues to be from fossil fuels. To protect health and the climate, there is a need for a health energy transition to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy, with zero emissions of greenhouse gas emissions and health-damaging air pollutants.
The report presents the central role of the 2015 Paris Agreement in good health, means of addressing the health risks of climate change and the opportunities for health offered by tackling climate change.
Overall, the report stated that health impacts of climate change could force 100 million people into poverty by 2030, with strong impacts on mortality and morbidity. A highly conservative estimate of 250,000 additional deaths each year due to climate change has been projected between 2030 and 2050; of these, 38 000 will result from exposure of the elderly to heat, 48,000 from diarrhea, 60,000 from malaria and 95,000 from childhood undernutrition.
“ 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,” Dr. Maria Neira, Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health for WHO said. “When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost.”
The Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, with an absolute ceiling well below 2.0 °C, are essential to protect health in the medium to long term. The report added that a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50–90% is needed to keep global temperature from rising by more than 2.0 °C.
The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed a rapidly closing window of opportunity to maintain global warming under 1.5 °C stimulated a renewed sense of urgency among decision-makers.
Switching to low-carbon energy sources will not only improve air quality but provide additional opportunities for immediate health benefits. For example, introducing active transport options such as cycling will help increase physical activity that can help prevent diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
The report includes recommendations for decision-makers on how to tackle climate action and public health issues at the same time, including: policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and air pollution; the mobilization of mayors to effect local change; investment in “climate-smart” health facilities; and the leveraging of the health community as powerful public advocates for climate action.