Climate change and human health

New climate accord could save lives and health costs from both climate and air pollution

Date: December 2015
Location: Paris, France

A new climate agreement can have a “huge” potential to save lives, and shifting energy investments to cleaner fuels and technologies would also reduce the millions of deaths annually from air-pollution related diseases, offsetting costs of mitigation.

These were among the key messages from World Health Organization Director-General Dr Margaret Chan, speaking at a WHO-organized side event on “Why a Climate Agreement is Critical to Public Health” at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21).

WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan speaking with Health minister delegates from Niger and Sudan and medical students at COP21
Ramon Lorenzo Luis R. Guinto

Climate change already claims tens of thousands of lives a year from increased diarrhoea, malaria and other vector-borne diseases, heat and extreme weather, Chan noted. And air pollution, largely produced by the same dirty fuel and energy sources that are driving climate change, kills some 7 million people annually.

As for financing an agreement, "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,” Chan observed, citing recent expert research by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) .

“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,” Chan said at the 8 December event, organized in collaboration with the French Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and five other UN agencies.

Other presenters included the French Minister of Health and Social Affairs, Ms Marisol Touraine, Prof Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and Professor V. Ramanathan, of the University of California at San Diego. The event was moderated by Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.

Speaking before some 200 people, Chan also called for implementing and enforcing stricter vehicle emissions standards to reduce short lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) particularly black carbon that both harm health and warm the planet. Measures such as early warning systems for heatwaves and the protection of water, sanitation and hygiene services against floods and droughts would strengthen the resilience of health systems to withstand the shocks of climate change and preserve recent progress against climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria.

“Climate change degrades air quality, reduces food security, and compromises water supplies and sanitation. These consequences are likewise deadly,” said Chan, adding. "If the right commitments are made efforts to combat climate change will produce an environment with cleaner air, more abundant and safe freshwater and food, and more effective and fair systems For social protection ... Healthier people will be the result."

The WHO Director-General added that "investments in low carbon development, clean renewable energy and greater climate resilience are investments in better 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 under nutrition alone. The heaviest burden will fall on children, women, and the poor, widening already unacceptable gaps in health outcomes.

However there are reasons for hope, she also noted. “Existing strategies that work well to combat climate change also bring important health gains.”

As one example, Chan cited "implementing and enforcing higher standards for vehicle emissions and engine efficiency, these can reduce emissions of short lived climate pollutants like black carbon.”

Such SLCP mitigation measures could save around 2.4 million lives a year by 2030 and reduce global warming by about half a degree Celsius by 2050," Chan noted, citing an assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization of potential health benefits from rapid action on a suite of 16 SLCP mitigation measures for black carbon and methane, which are far more powerful climate pollutants than CO2 but only remain in the atmosphere briefly.

“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,” Chan concluded.

Other co-sponsors of the event included the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE); the World Meteorological Organization; and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Excerpts of comments by other presenters at the side event:

Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet, urged tackling climate change, noting that it is the “greatest health opportunity of the 21st Century.” Noting that we are witnessing the “eruption of climate change and its consequences” Ms Marisol Touraine, Minister, Social Affairs, Health and Women’s Rights, France, credited WHO’s engagement in showing that climate and health are connected, calling for better integrating environmental factors in health policies.

Prof Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University, underscored the co-benefits of decarbonization are phenomenally large, and called for making sure that at COP 21 “we have the means to stop the danger of climate change.” He added that the new UN Sustainable Development Goals also provide complementary ways to act on climate change and health in a linked manner, and to “build the health systems” needed to ensure a healthy population.

Prof Veerabhadran Ramanathan, University of California at San Diego, described greenhouse gases (GHGs) and SLCPs as “the two levers for bending the curve in rising climate pollutants,” underscoring that, because of the intersection of air pollution and climate change, there is a powerful argument to address them both.