WHO Director-General addresses event on climate change and health
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
Climate change is the defining issue for the 21st century.
In the run-up to COP-21, countries have made important commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation to climate change. But more needs to be done. As many have noted, the world is recklessly late in agreeing to take action.
The stakes are high. WHO estimates that climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year. These deaths arise from more frequent epidemics of diseases like cholera, the vastly expanded geographical distribution of diseases like dengue, and from extreme weather events, like heatwaves and floods.
Climate change degrades air quality, reduces food security, and compromises water supplies and sanitation. These consequences are likewise deadly.
WHO estimates that more than 7 million people die each year from diseases related to air pollution, making it the world’s largest single environmental risk to health.
Experts predict that, by 2030, climate change will be causing an additional 250,000 deaths each year from malaria, diarrhoeal disease, heat stress, and undernutrition alone. The heaviest burden will fall on children, women, and the poor, widening already unacceptable gaps in health outcomes.
Health has critical evidence, and positive arguments, to bring to the climate talks. The agreement under negotiation is not just a treaty for saving the planet from severe, pervasive, and irreversible damage. It is also a significant public health treaty, with a huge potential to save lives worldwide.
If the right commitments are made, efforts to combat climate change will produce an environment with cleaner air, more abundant and safer freshwater and food, and more effective and fair systems for social protection. Healthier people will be the result.
Existing strategies that work well to combat climate change also bring important health gains. Investments in low-carbon development, clean renewable energy, and greater climate resilience are investments in better health.
Implementing and enforcing higher standards for vehicle emissions and engine efficiency can reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, like black carbon and methane. Doing so could save around 2.4 million lives a year by 2030 and reduce global warming by about half a degree Celsius by 2050.
Researchers have estimated that reform of global energy subsidies could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20%, cut premature air pollution deaths by more than half, and raise government revenues by nearly $3 trillion.
Measures such as early-warning systems for heatwaves and the protection of water, sanitation, and hygiene services against floods and droughts strengthen the resilience of health systems to withstand the shocks of climate change. Doing so safeguards recent progress against climate-sensitive diseases.
WHO is doing its part. For example, WHO, in collaboration with the UNFCCC secretariat and other partners, launched the first set of climate change and health country profiles.
The aim is to empower ministers of health and other decision-makers to include health in the climate negotiations. Profiles provide a snapshot of up-to-date information about current and future impacts of climate change on human health, and current policy responses in individual countries.
They also illustrate, within the country context, the health benefits that arise from actions to mitigate climate change, like shifting to cleaner energy sources, using public transport, and promoting walking and biking.
Minimizing adverse effects on public health has been part of UNFCCC objectives since the first agreement in 1992. We hope that the current negotiations will fully exploit the opportunity to protect the planet’s most valuable resource, its people.
A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health. A healthy planet and healthy people are two sides of the same coin.