Countries must set ambitious national climate commitments if they are to sustain a healthy and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization has said.
The WHO COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, launched October 11, in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, spells out the global health community’s prescription for climate action based on a growing body of research that establishes the many and inseparable links between climate and health.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people. WHO calls on all countries to commit to decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests. WHO’s new report highlights 10 priorities for safeguarding the health of people and the planet that sustains us.”
The WHO report is launched at the same time as an open letter, signed by over two thirds of the global health workforce – 300 organizations representing at least 45 million doctors and health professionals worldwide, calling for national leaders and COP26 country delegations to step up climate action.
“Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change,” the letter from health professionals reads. “We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at COP26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions.”
The report and open letter come as unprecedented extreme weather events and other climate impacts are taking a rising toll on people’s lives and health. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, kill thousands and disrupt millions of lives, while threatening healthcare systems and facilities when they are needed most. Changes in weather and climate are threatening food security and driving up food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, while climate impacts are also negatively affecting mental health.
The WHO report states: “The burning of fossil fuels is killing us. Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. While no one is safe from the health impacts of climate change, they are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”
Meanwhile, air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide.
The report concludes that protecting people’s health requires transformational action in every sector, including on energy, transport, nature, food systems and finance. And it states clearly that the public health benefits from implementing ambitious climate actions far outweigh the costs.
“It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “Bringing down air pollution to WHO guideline levels, for example, would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80% while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. A shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets in line with WHO recommendations, as another example, could reduce global emissions significantly, ensure more resilient food systems, and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050.”
Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement would save millions of lives every year due to improvements in air quality, diet, and physical activity, among other benefits. However, most climate decision-making processes currently do not account for these health co-benefits and their economic valuation.
The COP26 report includes ten recommendations that highlight the urgent need and numerous opportunities for governments to prioritize health and equity in the international climate regime and sustainable development agenda.
- Commit to a healthy recovery. Commit to a healthy, green and just recovery from COVID-19.
- Our health is not negotiable. Place health and social justice at the heart of the UN climate talks.
- Harness the health benefits of climate action. Prioritize those climate interventions with the largest health-, social- and economic gains.
- Build health resilience to climate risks. Build climate resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems and facilities, and support health adaptation and resilience across sectors.
- Create energy systems that protect and improve climate and health. Guide a just and inclusive transition to renewable energy to save lives from air pollution, particularly from coal combustion. End energy poverty in households and health care facilities.
- Reimagine urban environments, transport and mobility. Promote sustainable, healthy urban design and transport systems, with improved land-use, access to green and blue public space, and priority for walking, cycling and public transport.
- Protect and restore nature as the foundation of our health. Protect and restore natural systems, the foundations for healthy lives, sustainable food systems and livelihoods.
- Promote healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems. Promote sustainable and resilient food production and more affordable, nutritious diets that deliver on both climate and health outcomes.
- Finance a healthier, fairer and greener future to save lives. Transition towards a wellbeing economy.
- Listen to the health community and prescribe urgent climate action. Mobilize and support the health community on climate action.