WHO report details public health issues and climate change

Cost is often an issue when it comes to addressing climate change, but experts say the benefits far outweigh the costs. In fact, meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement could save about a million lives a year worldwide by 2050 through reductions in air pollution alone, and the value of health gains from climate action would be approximately double the cost of mitigation policies at global level.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report, released last week at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, highlights why health considerations are critical to the advancement of climate action and outlines recommendations for policy makers.

Exposure to air pollution causes 7 million deaths worldwide every year, costing an estimated $5.11 trillion in welfare losses globally. In countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, the health effects are estimated to cost more than 4 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP). As the climate rises, so does the risk for extreme weather, infectious disease outbreaks, and even exposure to toxicants that diminish overall health and vitality.

According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO, climate change threatens the basic elements we need for good health, including clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply, and safe shelter.

“The evidence is clear that climate change is already having a serious impact on human lives and health,” he said. “We can’t afford to delay action any further.”

The same human activities that are destabilizing the Earth’s climate also contribute directly to poor health. The main driver of climate change is fossil fuel combustion, which is also a major contributor to air pollution.

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 WHO’s report  notes that, though some countries are now taking action to protect against health implications of climate change, the financial support is inadequate. Only approximately 0.5% of multilateral climate funds dispersed for climate change adaptation have been allocated to health projects, the report says.

The report calls for countries to account for health in all cost-benefit analyses of climate change mitigation. It also recommends that countries use fiscal incentives, such as carbon pricing and energy subsidies, to incentivize sectors to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. It further encourages Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to remove existing barriers to supporting climate-resilient health systems.