- Climate change is already impacting population health and wellbeing and, in the coming decades, could result in a substantial annual global death toll and affect the health of millions. It already affects several social and environmental determinants of health, such as clean air and availability of sufficient food.
- Unless something is done now, the numbers affected by climate change and its impact will increase exponentially;
- ‘Net zero’ has been adopted by the UK, the EU, and many other countries around the world as the best strategy to protect global populations from rising temperatures.
- As the largest employer in Britain, the NHS is responsible for around 4% of the nation’s carbon emissions. In late January 2020, the NHS launched its campaign ‘For a Greener NHS’ to support its ambition set out in the NHS Long Term Plan and deliver on the UK’s commitment of reaching net zero.
- In 2019 the Government amended the Climate Change Act to commit the UK to achieving net zero by 2050, a change from the previous target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.
- The Government has introduced some policy initiatives to meet net zero, but the Climate Change Committee has said that the Government will have to “introduce more challenging measures” if the UK is to meet its target.
- The Paris Agreement is one of the most important public health agreements of this century. Meeting the commitments of the Paris Agreement is essential to improving health.
What is the impact of climate on this area?
- Time is running out to keep global warming below 1.5°C. Any increase will negatively affect human health.
- Lower risks are projected at 1.5°C than at 2°C for heat-related morbidity and mortality. Science shows that we are moving faster towards a 1.5°C rise in average global temperature than we thought in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was negotiated at COP21.
- ‘Limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century’ has been identified as the most optimistic target of the Paris Agreement as, worldwide, the policies needed to achieve this have not yet surfaced.
- Analysis has shown that the world might first exceed 1.5°C between 2026 and 2042 if little is done to tackle emissions, and between 2026 and 2057 if stringent actions are taken.
Who/what is at risk?
- Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C, and increase further with 2°C.
- Poverty and disadvantage are expected to increase in populations as global warming increases; limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C, could significantly reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty.
- All populations will be affected by climate change, however the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society will disproportionately bear the burden – children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
- This contributes to the widening gap in health outcomes between the socially advantaged versus the disadvantaged communities in our population.
What actions need to be taken to minimise the risk?
- The WHO Executive Board endorsed a new work plan on climate change and health. One element of this work plan was support for implementation of the public health response to climate change, to assist countries to build capacity to reduce health vulnerability to climate change and promote health while reducing carbon emissions.
- A combination of Government policies (cleaner energy systems, promoting active travel) and individual choices (encouraging ‘green’ choices within households, such as recycling and eating less meat) can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to improvements in health.
- As countries implement their Covid-19 recovery measures, policies to protect the climate must be consistent with the aims of the Paris Agreement.
- Health and climate should be at the core of all policies.
- Health equity must be an explicit policy goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, as stated by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. Otherwise, there is a risk that the health benefits of climate policies – such as cleaner air, healthier diets, and lower energy bills – will be unequally distributed.
Achieving net zero emissions is the most important global health intervention, now and for decades to come. COP26 is a crucial time to drive action and mobilise knowledge on the impact of climate on health. It is crucial that clear measures are implemented to protect the temperature of the Earth – this is the only way to prevent the next public health crisis and protect our population.