Game-changing report finds that climate action will avert millions of air pollution deaths

Game-changing report finds that climate action will avert millions of air pollution deaths

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Date: 19th December 2018
Type: News

Mairi Dupar, CDKN Technical Advisor, reports on new findings from the World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization which should transform the way we think and act on air pollution and climate change.

A game-changing report - the COP Special Report on Health and Climate Change – has turned the economics of climate change on its head and exposed an environmental outrage on a planetary scale.

The report by the World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization attributes a devastating 7 million deaths per year to air pollution, worldwide, along with US$ 5.11 trillion in welfare costs, annually.

The United Nations agencies find that if countries meet the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change by phasing out fossil fuels, then the clean air benefits will save at least one million lives per year.

Such is the shocking human toll and the economic cost of death and illness from air pollution, that the costs of phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to cleaner energy pale in comparison.

“Most recent evidence says that if you figure in the health benefits the world would get from investing in [climate change] mitigation to achieve 2 degrees or 3 degrees Celsius [average global warming], the health gains would be twice value of investment,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, at COP24 in Poland this month.

“We need to stop talking about mitigation costs and talk about mitigation gains.”

She added: “When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost”.

“Include health in economic policies to address climate change,” urged His Excellency Luke Daunivalu, High Commissioner of the Republic of Fiji, and Chief Negotiator, whose government’s request for new analysis on climate change and health led directly to this report. “We should include this in pricing of fossil fuels.”

Report’s timing must focus minds on the urgency of the planetary crisis

The report’s launch took place in Katowice, on the site of a disused, built-over coal mine. Situated in the middle of the country’s coal belt, the region's air was thick with smoke – causing asthmatic conference delegates to clutch their inhalers and other conference-goers to complain of sickness and discomfort.

If the immediacy of the air pollution problem at COP24 did not focus minds, then the WHO and WMO’s unveiling of these devastating global figures for annual deaths and illness from air pollution certainly did.

The WHO-WMO report has now laid bare the scale of the harm caused to human bodies by burning fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are literally killing us, today. And the report shows that investing in the phase-out and replacement of fossil fuels is cheaper than continuing to live with them, in pure economic terms (not to mention what phasing-out will do to reduce human suffering).

The report came at a timely moment, as delegates at COP24 struggled to finalise the detail of implementing the Paris Agreement – the so-called ‘rulebook’. The Agreement is due to come into force in 2020, and countries found themselves in political gridlock: resisting efforts by fossil fuel producer countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia to water down the ambition of the Agreement (see CDKN commentary on the final outcome of the talks).

Furthermore, 2018 is the first time in four years that rates of global greenhouse gas emission are on the rise again, after staying flat for the previous three years.

The power of the WHO-WMO report is that it calls for drastic action to curb air pollution that will improve human health and wellbeing today, as well as avoiding physical changes in the Earth’s environment in the latter half of the 21st century.

“ODI analysis points to policy responses being more sensitive to immediate concerns,” noted Neil Bird, a Senior Research Fellow at ODI. “ One possible way of breaking the deadlock in the climate change policy space would be a return to focus on addressing short-term environmental concerns [such as air pollution] that are consistent with a strengthened climate trajectory. Such a strategy could be informed by earlier ODI research on how to increase the effectiveness of public environmental spending.”

Medics could be pivotal in advocating for climate action

The WHO-WMO report not only contains ground breaking arguments as regards the public health and economic benefits of tackling air pollution and climate change together. It also contains a revelation about who could lead the mission to fight air pollution and climate change.

“The public health community is the single most trusted community in the world” when it comes to communicating the dangers of climate change and the opportunities of climate action, said Dr Neira. “Data from around the world shows that doctors and nurses are most trusted as they are seen as not having a vested interest for or against fossil fuels. They are seen as having people’s wellbeing at heart. This is about climate community working with public health community to act as advocates.”

The WHO’s and WMO’s findings come as CDKN has launched its ‘Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide’ in draft form for open review. In this guide, we propose that finding the right messenger for climate action is as important as framing the message appropriately for different audiences. The analysis on trusted messengers in the WHO-WMO report underlines this important point.

Air pollution has complex role in influencing climate

If we delve behind the headlines and look in detail at synergies and trade-offs between fighting air pollution and fighting climate change, we see mostly synergies. Scientific analysis paints a complex picture: CDKN’s Raising Risk Awareness Project (a collaboration with the World Weather Attribution Initiative) explains that peak temperatures rise when air pollution decreases, as aerosols prevent the sun’s heat from reaching the ground. CDKN and WWA together produced a video animation explaining how aerosols, including from the combustion of fossil fuels, can cool the earth’s surface and mask global warming - often called global dimming.

The question then arises: will reducing and removing air pollution lead to higher temperatures, especially in highly polluted areas such as the Indian cities we studied in our Raising Risk Awareness initiative?

It seems that some trade-offs such as these may occur – although their scale is unknown. But given the sheer magnitude of death and disease caused by air pollution, the case for tackling the air pollution emergency becomes overwhelming. It is a pressing moral imperative for policy-makers today.

As Dr Neira said, in Katowice: “We should be making the fight for climate change the same as the fight against air pollution.  We should no longer have to put up with level of pollution that is killing 7 million people a year especially in the poorest parts of society. In many places, the climate solutions and the health solutions are the same. It is the same fight and has the same answers.”


Image: doctor and patient, courtesy Nestle

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