WHO key messages for COP20

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, World Health Organization

Climate change is affecting health now, and will continue to do so.

Conservative estimates suggest that climate change will cause some 250,000 additional deaths per year by the 2030s. The main risks to health are expected to be more intense heatwaves and fires; increased prevalence of food-, water- and vector-borne diseases; increased likelihood of undernutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions; and lost work capacity and reduced labour productivity in vulnerable populations.

Failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change will present unacceptable risks to health. Evidence exists for other less conclusive, but potentially more serious risks, including: breakdown in food systems and increased prevalence of violent conflict associated with resource scarcity and population movements; exacerbation of poverty stemming from a slow-down in economic development, with negative implications for achieving health targets, including those of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the objectives of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

Climate change threatens to widen health inequalities, particularly between the richest and poorest populations. Poorer populations and children are disproportionately at risk of the effects of climate change, with different impacts on women and men. Overall, the impact is likely to widen existing health inequalities, both between and within populations.

Health protection is possible, and should be a priority for investment of climate adaptation funds.Protection of health against climate change risks can be enhanced through ensuring better and more equitable access to services that mitigate and improve the social and environmental determinants of health, as well as strengthen basic public health programmes, and interventions targeted specifically at climate-related risks. These are good investments for both development and climate funds, as they save lives now and strengthen long-term resilience to climate change.

Mitigating climate change can bring large and immediate benefits for health, which should be factored into green investment strategies. The opportunity exists for policies that reduce the extent of climate change to yield significant, local, near-term health benefits for populations at all stages of development. The most obvious gains are from reducing the annual mortality attributable to ambient and household air pollution (about 4.3 million and 3.7 million, respectively), which is among the largest causes of mortality globally, particularly in low and middle-income countries.

Health can be an important motivational and economic argument for more sustainable choices across sectors, including household energy, electricity generation, transport, urban planning and land use, buildings, food, and agriculture. For example, both the greater use of renewables in electricity generation and more efficient combustion of fossil fuels and biomass can cut ambient air pollution. Putting such policies into practice can translate into significant health cost-savings, particularly through reductions in non-communicable diseases, which are now a major burden on national budgets.

Healthcare provision is responsible for approximately 10 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – and its size and contribution to climate change is growing.The health sector can also improve its own practices and at the same time minimise its carbon emissions. Health services in developed countries are major consumers of energy and significant emitters of greenhouse gases, responsible for between five and fifteen per cent of emissions in some countries. Energy efficiency, shifting to renewables, and greener procurement and delivery chains can both improve services and cut carbon emissions. In contrast, many health facilities in the poorest countries lack any electricity supply; for resource-constrained settings and off-grid hospitals and clinics, low-carbon energy solutions can form an important component of an overall energy supply strategy.