Stronger climate action urged at COP26 to avoid “unimaginable” health risks



  • Health risks linked to climate change are increasing
  • Linking work on mitigation, adaptation and health could help
  • UK NHS among healthcare systems poised to cut own emissions

GLASGOW, November 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From extreme heat to worsening hunger and water shortages, accelerating climate change threatens “unimaginable” health consequences, scientists and health officials on the sidelines of the UN climate talks at COP26 in Glasgow.

As with the COVID-19 pandemic, “it won’t be long before the entire world population is affected, directly or indirectly,” said former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, now head of the charity British Health Wellcome Trust.

But a large number of possible changes – from making it easier to cycle and walk in cities to changing diets and the rise of renewables – could together curb global warming, protect health, and improve people’s lives. billion people, experts said.

Achieving these changes will require not only investment and effort to make the health benefits clearer, but also, crucially, the integration of people who do not normally work on health issues.

With enormous influence on air pollution and the way people choose to travel, for example, “the Minister of Transport is probably more of a Minister of Health than the Minister of Health,” noted Richard Smith, chairman of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

Too often, efforts to reduce emissions, adapt to climate threats and address health issues are conducted separately, but “we need these people to work together for integrated solutions,” said Andy Haines of the London School. of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

This could include things like adding more trees and water-absorbing green spaces to poor areas of cities, to tackle both inequality, flooding and heat risks, while also strengthening nature and improving mental health.

“The solutions are the same for the climate, our health and our biodiversity,” said Rayan Kassem, regional director for West Asia for Youth4Nature, a green nonprofit focused on climate and natural solutions.


Climate change is already the root of various health threats around the world, said Haines, professor of environmental change and public health.

For example, the ranges of insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue are shifting as weather conditions change, and heat deaths are increasing rapidly, more than a third of those recorded between 1990 and 2018 being attributed to climate change, he said.

The increase in the number of forest fires, floods, droughts and extreme heat is also having “truly devastating effects” on mental health, alongside the concerns many people have about the future with the worsening of the disease. climate change, Haines said.

As permafrost melts in the rapidly warming Arctic, it could even expose “Methuselah organisms” – bacteria and viruses long frozen and potentially deadly, he said.

“As we release them, we don’t know what’s going to happen to human health,” he said.

But some health risks linked to climate change are already well known.

Air pollution, largely linked to the use of fossil fuels, kills an estimated 7 million people a year, said Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, who heads the climate and health unit of the World Organization. health.

A major step towards reducing this risk would be removing what the International Monetary Fund says is $ 5.9 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry each year, making artificially polluting fuels cheaper, did he declare.

“We have to stop spending money on the bad things and start spending it on the good things,” said Campbell-Lendrum, an avid cyclist who has ridden 1,600 km to the top of Glasgow from Geneva.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella died in London in 2013 from a severe asthma attack that coroners attributed to “excessive air pollution,” told conference attendees that “breathing clean air is a human right”.

The United Nations Human Rights Council first adopted a resolution in October recognizing access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right.

Poornima Prabhakaran, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Health at the Public Health Foundation of India, said air pollution also had “huge social and economic costs” for her country, which is home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

“This crisis is real,” she said. “We don’t want a cosmetic answer … We want real, tangible action.”

People who are already disadvantaged and less able to prepare for, respond to and recover from the impacts of climate change will be the most affected, warned Susan Aitken, head of Glasgow City Council.

“This is as true here in a city like Glasgow as it is on a global scale,” she said.


As they search for ways to limit growing health threats, doctors and hospitals are also looking for ways to reduce their own emissions.

Nick Watts, sustainability manager for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), said the $ 120 billion a year service accounts for around 5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions – roughly the same as a country like Denmark or Croatia.

To help meet Britain’s goal of cutting emissions by 78% by 2035, the service has set an initial one-year target to phase out emissions equivalent to those used to fuel 1.1 million homes in the country every year.

This involves things like making buildings more energy efficient, asking suppliers to meet NHS net zero targets, and reducing transport emissions from the service itself and its users through changes such as more appointments. you online.

The NHS ‘first zero-emission ambulance, currently being tested in Birmingham, is also parked at the COP26 site in Glasgow.

“This will be the future of healthcare in this country and everywhere else,” Watts said at the conference.

Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, stressed that many other national climate plans must take into account threats to health – and that reducing emissions will be key to reducing those risks.

“The decisions taken at COP26 will define the health and well-being of people (…) for years to come,” she said.

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; edited by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

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