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COP21: A defining moment for human health

Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO

Commentary
4 December 2015

Dr Margaret Chan
WHO

This week's United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris offers a chance to save the planet from severe, pervasive and irreversible damage. Though often lost in the debate, saving the planet also means saving the conditions that sustain human life in good health. If sufficiently ambitious and effective, the climate agreement will be a major turning point in environmental policy, but also a far-reaching treaty for protecting public health.

The stakes are high. Unless a deal is clinched to keep the temperature rise within two degrees Celsius, the consequences will be catastrophic. Many of the same inefficient and polluting energy choices that are driving climate change are also devastating human health. Climate change degrades air quality, reduces food security and compromises water supplies and sanitation.

Climate change and heatlh

WHO estimates that, each year, more than 7 million deaths worldwide can be attributed to air pollution. Climate change is also causing tens of thousands of yearly deaths from other causes. Records for extreme weather events -- like droughts and floods, storm surges, heatwaves and wildfires -- are being broken a record number of times, claiming human lives and livelihoods. The World Meteorological Organization says 2015 is already the hottest year since records began in 1880. Next year is predicted to be even hotter.

Droughts, especially in poor countries where subsistence farming is rain-fed, threaten already perilous food supplies. Outbreaks of cholera thrive under conditions of too much or too little water. Insects and other carriers of disease are exquisitely sensitive to variations in heat, humidity and rainfall. Climate change has already given dengue a vastly expanded geographical range and may do the same for malaria.

Experts predict that, by 2030, climate change will be causing an additional 250,000 deaths each year just from malaria, diarrhoeal disease, heat stress and undernutrition.

Investing in better health

The health sector has critical evidence, and positive arguments, to bring to the climate talks. 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 at least 2.4 million lives a year by 2030 and reduce global warming by about 0.5o C by 2050. New estimates could raise that to 3.5 million lives saved annually by 2030, and between 3 to 5 million lives per year by 2050. Policies that promote walking and cycling bring added dividends for health.

In preparation for COP21, countries have made important commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation to climate change, but more needs to be done. 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 -- arguably the world's most important resource -- will be the bonus.

Earlier this year, member states of the United Nations agreed on a set of supremely ambitious goals and targets for sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Without a strong climate deal, most of the 17 goals will be utopian. The tremendous progress made since the start of this century in reducing deaths among children and during childbirth, and turning the epidemics of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis around is likewise at stake. All these hard-won gains can easily be swept away by the tidal wave of health threats unleashed by climate change. We are recklessly late in taking action and must not fail. A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health.