By Mary Hearty
A health-centered response to the current crises would still provide the opportunity for a low-carbon, resilient future, which not only avoids the health harms of accelerated climate change but also delivers improved health and well-being through the associated co-benefits of climate action.
This is according to the 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change dubbed: ‘health at the mercy of fossil fuels’.
The report states that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as high temperatures and heat waves.
As the global climate indicator shows that the average temperatures humans were exposed to during summer seasons in 2021 were 0·6°C higher than the average in 1986–2005, representing twice the global mean temperature increase in the same period (0·3°C).
These environmental changes are driving shifts in the geographic range of climate-sensitive infectious diseases, affecting food and water security, worsening air quality, and damaging socioeconomic systems.
“Changing climatic conditions are increasing the risk of heat-related illness, changing the pattern of infectious disease transmission, increasing health risks from extreme events, putting sanitation at risk, and having multidimensional impacts on food and water security,” the report reads.
In South Africa for instance, it is reported that the drought that occurred in Western Cape between 2015 and 2019 restricted HIV patients from getting access to HIV treatment. Although health data was limited, vulnerable populations were likely disproportionately exposed to the drought, resulting in adverse health outcomes.
To avert such health outcomes, the Lancet recommends a just transition from the use of fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. This is because fossil fuels are the most significant contributors to global climate change, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gases. Yet in 2021, the total energy demand rose by 59%, increasing energy-related emissions to a historical high. This continuously undermines global health through increased climate change impacts.
“Such response would see countries promptly shifting away from fossil fuels, reducing their dependence on fragile international oil and gas markets, and accelerating a just transition to clean energy sources,” the Lancet notes.
As a result, this would reduce the likelihood of the most catastrophic climate change impacts, while improving energy security, creating an opportunity for economic recovery, and offering immediate health benefits.
Furthermore, the Lancet explains that improvements in air quality would help to prevent the 1·2 million deaths resulting from exposure to fossil fuel reported in 2020 alone, and a health-centered energy transition would enhance low-carbon travel and increase urban green spaces, promoting physical activity, and improving physical and mental health.
In the food sector, the report states that an accelerated transition to balanced and more plant-based diets would not only help reduce the 55% of agricultural sector emissions coming from red meat and milk production, but also prevent up to 11·5 million diet-related deaths annually, and substantially reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.
Notably, accelerating climate change adaptation would lead to more robust health systems, minimizing the negative impacts of future infectious disease outbreaks and geopolitical conflicts, and restoring the first line of defense of global populations.