The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) took place from 31 October to 12 November 2021. Some experts have claimed that COP26 finally framed climate change as a public health issue, and that message resonated more than it has in previous years.
For the first time, the World Health Organisation sponsored a health pavilion at COP26. This made health visible at the Conference, emphasising the links between climate and health. The message was clear – failing to limit global warming to 1.5C could be catastrophic for people’s health globally. A report was published by Climate Action Tracker which predicted a 2.4C temperature rise based on if world countries continue with their short-term goals for the next 10 years.
Climate change was acknowledged as a common concern of humankind, and Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights and the right to health. The damage that climate change has already caused and will increasingly cause was also acknowledged and, as temperatures rise, impacts from climate and weather extremes will pose an even greater social, economic and environmental threat.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, spoke at the summit on the need for large-scale behavioural changes to tackle the crisis. He said that climate change is a far bigger and potentially deadlier problem than COVID-19, and more people would die from climate change than the pandemic if we fail to act.
A Climate Action for Health Event was held. Health Minister Gillian Keegan delivered closing remarks, stressing climate change is a “global health emergency” as well as the need to build resilience across health systems. A £20 million NIHR package of sustainability funding was also announced.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres reinforced his reputation as being one of the loudest advocates for urgent action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. He told the conference that “our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink… Either we stop it, or it stops us. And it’s time to say, enough. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon… We are digging our own graves.”
Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley delivered a stark warning on the effects of an increase in global temperatures on island nations like hers due to rising sea levels and more extreme weather. “1.5 degrees is what we need to survive”, while “two degrees is a death sentence”.
Wednesday 10 November was Transport Day. A COP26 declaration on zero emission cars and vans was published, signalling a commitment to transitioning to completely zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035 (in leading markets) or 2040 (globally).
Several key announcements were made across the two weeks. 42 countries committed to ensure clean power is the most affordable and reliable option for all countries to meet their power needs efficiently by 2030. And more than 80 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 (China and Russia refused to sign up).
U.S. President Biden, European Commission President von der Leyen and PM Boris Johnson announced their commitment to addressing climate crisis through infrastructure development.
The Conference was meant to end on 12 November. Updated draft agreement text was published which urged leaders to come to COP27 in Egypt in 2022 with firmer plans. Negotiations ran into the following day as an agreement was not reached.
On 13 November the Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed, which committed nations to return to COP27 next year with firmer pledges on emissions. The Paris Agreement was to keep temperatures ‘well below’ 2C, but at COP26 the goal was shifted towards 1.5C.
Despite the increased prominence of health at the Conference, there is still much more to be done. We must make sure that health, particularly public health, has a much more prominent place at COP27 next year. Actions to tackle climate change and protect health must start imminently. There is no longer any dispute around the urgency of action on the climate and health emergency. The time is to act now.