Climate change and health: moving forward from COP25

By Adela Briansó Junquera

After an arguably disappointing COP in Madrid, the road to COP26 looks exhausting already. However, 2020 also offers plenty of opportunities to get involved, push for change and maximise the co-benefits of climate action and health.

In 2009, The Lancet announced that climate change is the biggest global threat in our century. Earlier this year, a decade on, The Lancet Countdown Report argued that a child born today will live in a world ‘four degrees warmer than pre-industrial average’, in which their health will be impacted across their lifetime, from birth to old age. The report, authored by Nick Watts and other leading researchers, claims that it will take bold new approaches to policy making, research and business to ensure that the life of a child born today is not defined by climate change.

In a year when climate change has been firmly in the spotlight, civil society organisations had their eyes on the annual Conference of the Parties, a meeting organised by the Climate Change agency of the United Nations UNFCCC, hoping it would finally provide real ambition to combat the climate crisis. But before we hit it off with the negotiations that just took place in Madrid, here’s a recap on some of the links between climate change and human health.

Health risks from CC
From the online course ‘Climate negotiations for health professionals’, developed by WHO and Climate Tracker and available online for free

The infographic above sets out some of the major impacts on health. Injuries due to extreme weather events, respiratory diseases resulting from air pollution, and mental ill health- from eco-anxiety to PTSD- are just a few examples. The food system is also tightly related to climate change and our health: the current extremely unsustainable global food system contributes to greenhouse emissions, soil depletion and intense use of resources, all adding to global warming.

Mitigating global warming and adapting to the impacts of climate change is a huge task – in the field of health and any other area. On top of that, the interrelation of climate change procedures means that all sectors, from energy to transport, from agriculture to development, must act united in order to limit warming to 1.5 °C.

“‘People before coal’ action” by CEE Bankwatch Network is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Every COP is a much needed opportunity to integrate health into the climate policy-making agenda, through National Determined Contributions (NDCs), Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments (V&As), and in general, by increasing awareness of climate change’s impacts on health. Notably, climate action goes hand in hand with many positive health outcomes, also known as co-benefits. In fact, WHO estimates that the value of health gains triggered by climate action would be approximately double the cost of mitigation policies at a global level.

Following the tense and largely confusing COP24 in Poland in 2018, a few key issues were on the table for COP25. Regarding climate and health, WHO recommended negotiators in Madrid to ensure the following points were agreed upon:

  1. Commit to save lives, cut carbon emissions and clean air
  2. Commit to invest in climate action, public health and sustainable development
  3. Place health at the heart of the Paris Agreement and the NDCs (National Determined Contributions)
  4. Create national policies that protect the health of citizens from climate change
  5. Evaluate the health co-benefits from climate action

However, COP25 took place with slow or no progress in the key articles and procedures that needed fleshing out. For instance, instead of working towards increasing NDCs ambition for decarbonisation and a just transition (and thus improvement of air quality for future generations) leaders of high income countries focused most of their attention in negotiating carbon markets and other [questionable] market-based methods to ‘reduce’ emissions. Regardless, an agreement on Article 6, known as one of the key elements in the Paris Agreement, has been postponed until COP26. In terms of WIM (Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts), negotiations ended with agreement on a very unambitious text.

An action by FFF activists during COP25, by David Tong / WWF-New Zealand

Climate justice refers to the importance of addressing the fact that a wealthy global minority is principally responsible for climate change and biodiversity loss. Carbon inequality intensifies the vulnerability of certain populations to the negative health impacts experienced due to climate change. Though civil society organisations and global south countries’ delegates tirelessly demanded climate justice, COP25 largely saw a failure to integrate climate justice in the agreed texts. Considering climate justice across sectors and during all stages of decision-making is essential to reverse the trend of those least responsible for climate change bearing the greatest burden of its health effects.

Screenshot 2019-12-13 at 11.22.53
from Oxfam’s 2005 report on carbon inequality

However, something negotiators have agreed upon is GAP, the Gender Action Plan; a 5-year plan on gender and climate change. As women experience disproportionate health impacts from climate change, gender equality must be at the centre of climate action. The final draft of GAP includes a strong focus on human rights, youth and a just transition, as well as the explicit mention of the right to health. The newly agreed GAP is a step towards integrating gender equality, and hence climate justice, in climate policy.

Unfortunately, GAP alone will not save global health from the climate emergency. So, what to do, in terms of climate governance and health, in preparation for COP26 in Glasgow?

As of now, air pollution is likely to increase globally in 2020. Hence, the 7 million annual deaths due to air pollution might increase in the near future. Infectious diseases will pose new public health challenges due to climate change, and so will the increased prevalence and severity of mental health conditions. The way to COP26 appears draining, but the truth is that great opportunities lie ahead for health as well as for the environment.

Climate change will cause and is already causing tremendous impacts in human health. Not taking fast, ambitious and meaningful climate action will lead to catastrophic consequences and an even more unequal world due to climate injustice. In fact, considering the enormous costs of delaying real action any further is simply absurd, especially in the field of health. Together with the economic and human consequences of the current ‘business as usual’, there is an ethical dimension of postponing addressing the climate emergency, considering it is, quite literally, a life or death situation.

What can we do? As civil society, our power lies in holding governments accountable in the health and climate emergency. This is a call to action: join a movement, protest expansion of fossil fuel industries, ask your professors to include climate change in their teaching, help others understand the urgency of the situation. Let’s come together to demand real change in 2020, knowing that the benefits of action far outweigh the costs of our leaders’ failure to unite.

Many civil society organisations are at the forefront of fighting this climate crisis, and their hard work has achieved much in the past years. Some of them are:

CAN (Climate Action Network)
FFF (Fridays For Future)
XR (Extinction Rebellion) and Doctors for XR … and many more.

If you are interested in heat and health, the 2nd Global Forum on Heat and Health and Health will take place in CPH in July 2020.