Why health concerns should prompt an ambitious Paris package

Genon Jensen, HEAL

Few national leaders – and neither US President Obama nor Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Union, mentioned health in their opening addresses to COP21 on 30 November. Indeed, it took the small country of Serbia to point out that public health was in danger.

And it is – here and now in Paris. When the World Health Organization (WHO) says it anticipates an additional 250,000 deaths each year as a result of climate change between 2030 and 2050, the risk seems remote. But when Dr Bernard Jomier from the Paris Mayor’s office reminded a mainly European audience at the French medical association on Friday that the tiger mosquito is alive in the city, it was a reminder that chikungunya and dengue can now be spread here. Many European cities have already seen spikes in deaths and hospitalisations during heatwaves – and anyone with a pollen allergy knows that seasons are lengthening.

The threats mean that sooner or later health must reach the top of the climate agenda. Meanwhile, health professionals have found a positive way to speed up the process. They want cleaner technologies because these can revolutionise the quality of our lives and health – through cleaner air – as well as mitigating climate change.

One of their main calls is for cleaning up the air by reducing the use of fossil fuels. As a result of demonstrating the benefits for health of reducing reliance on coal-powered electricity generation in the UK, British doctors have been instrumental in the recent UK government decision to phase out coal by 2025.

In Poland, doctors are speaking out strongly on the need for cleaner air – even if their message falls on deaf ears. The country’s energy system is based on coal, which makes air pollution one of the worst in the European Union. According to calculations by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), the Leczna power coal plant project planned for southeastern Poland would create 300-962 million Euros in health costs over its lifetime. Total subsidies to existing coal energy in Poland (including external health costs of 9.9 billion Euros) may be higher than the budget of all public hospitals (7.1 billion Euros). Figures like these have helped make the issue front-page and television news. Dr Tadeusz Zielonka of the Polish Society of Lung Diseases told health professionals taking part in a meeting in Paris organised by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) on Friday, 4 December 2015 that it was not only experts in lung health like himself that are concerned. His recent survey showed that 32 per cent of Polish doctors saw air pollution as a risk for health.

Prompted by the prospect of government plans for 80 new coal-fired thermal plants, the called on the government to abandon its plans. The association’s president, Dr Bayazit Ilhan says the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates Turkey’s support to coal production and use at US$24.2 billion in 2015, including costs of global warming and external costs of domestic air pollution – equivalent to 2.8% of the country’s GDP.

The Climate and Health Alliance in Australia led by former nurse, Fiona Armstrong has estimated the externalised health costs associated with pollution from five coal-fired electricity generators in the Hunter Valley at $600 million per annum. Although faced with ferocious attacks from the coal industry, the findings helped to prompt the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (representing doctors in Australia and New Zealand) to divest from fossil fuels in June this year.

In India, health professionals are using the health co-benefits arguments at national level not only for advocacy on air quality but also in agriculture. Dr K. Srinath Reddy of the Public Health Foundation of India is promoting the nutritional and health benefits of “climate-smart agriculture”, he says. Experience in India has clearly shown that subsidies to fossil fuels can be eliminated. In Dr Reddy’s home city, Delhi, a court order simply decreed that all vehicles on the roads should switch from diesel use.

Dr. Maria Neira of WHO has high hopes for the healthy energy approach. “The best way to deal with climate change is to tackle the environmental risk factors,” she told the meeting. “Everyone understands when you talk about air pollution. When you bring monetary estimates of the health benefits from air quality improvements, governments listen, especially if the complaining comes from a pneumologist.”


Genon Jensen is the Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)