Global health and global warming: How COP21 can deliver

By Michèle Rivasi, Claude Turmes 09 December 2015

Targeted efforts to reducing emissions can help mitigate against the effects of air pollution. As climate change affects every social and environmental determinant of health, what are we to do to have an impact? Photo by: Nicolò Lazzati / CC BY

Delegates from 196 countries are in Paris for COP21 to reach an agreement in order to avoid exceeding the 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures that the scientific community says is vital if we are not to irreversibly damage our climate. The threat of climate change is real and grave.

The debate on emissions and on climate change frequently makes reference to the catastrophic impact a warming globe will have on our natural environments, biodiversity, rising ocean levels and increased droughts. The impact that rising temperatures will have on health, such as fighting and controlling communicable diseases, malnutrition and famine, and air pollution are equally serious.

Climate change affects every social and environmental determinant of health — be it clean air, safe drinking water or access to sufficient food. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will account for 250,000 adult deaths every year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Warming temperatures will create new opportunities for parasitic diseases like malaria and dengue fever to reassert themselves.

More frequent and extreme weather events, increased rainfall and more humid climates will impact on access to safe drinking water and access to essential medical services. The experience in Haiti after the earthquake shows how susceptible communities can become to diseases like cholera after natural disasters. The frequency of these crises is only likely to increase.

Reducing emissions will also help to mitigate against the effects of air pollution. Both post-industrial economies with a long history of high emissions and low- and middle-income countries experiencing rapid industrialization now need to contribute to this; the latter countries are particularly at risk from rising air pollution. A recent study published argued that cutting emissions would reduce premature deaths from air pollution by 500,000 a year in 2030, and 1.3 million by 2050. If the rationale for action is clear, what are we to do?

An ambitious agreement to cut emissions

Political leaders meeting in Paris this month need to reach an ambitious and binding agreement to tackle climate change. Europe and the EU have an important role to play in this, and if Europe intends to take a leadership role in the talks, it will have to increase its commitments above and beyond what it has already agreed internally, both now and looking at longer-term goals toward 2050.

A vaccine against malaria could become even more necessary, for example, as long as clinical trial data is publicly available and as the safety of this vaccine can be ensured. Such a vaccine should not be an opportunity for a private company to make profit and it should be available at a low price.

If they are serious about keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius, then international leaders need to achieve an ambitious agenda including setting a target and a timeline for the global phase-out of all carbon emissions, as well as a binding framework for emission reductions and increasing financial support for climate action in low- and middle-income countries.

Accelerating the fight against diseases of poverty

A resurgence in diseases like malaria and dengue would turn back the clock on the unprecedented global health achievements of the last 15 years. Even if we manage to keep the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, standing still is not enough. We need to accelerate the rollout of lifesaving medicines that we already have. We also need to invest heavily in the next generation of global health innovations — a vaccine for malaria that could become ever more necessary, for example.

A vaccine against malaria could become even more necessary, for example, as long as clinical trial data is publicly available and as the safety of this vaccine can be ensured. Such a vaccine should not be an opportunity for a private company to make profit and it should be available at a low price.

If temperatures continue to rise, infectious diseases are unlikely to remain a concern solely for low- and middle-income countries for long, and we could see the return of malaria to places from which it has long since been banished. Looking at efforts to control and reduce the spread of these diseases, a vaccine and/or elimination of the mosquitos and flies that are the carriers of these diseases are the only real and long-term solution.

Health care systems strengthening and improving resilience

Ebola demonstrated that the countries that are most vulnerable to outbreaks of disease are those with fragile health infrastructure. It is these countries that will bear the brunt of climate-related health emergencies. We need to support low- and middle-income countries in building up their health systems — providing better and more accessible services, improving the training of medical staff, and helping them to become better prepared to deal with public health emergencies. If we are to mitigate the effects of climate change on health, we need to make sure that health systems at every level are able and equipped.

It is clear that the effects of a warming climate are already being felt around the world, and the industrialised north will not remain immune from them forever. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes to the land, atmosphere and oceans in all regions of the globe and in all countries.

These changes will have massive implications for the health and well-being of billions of people living in the worst-affected countries. But, if we can reach a binding and ambitious climate accord in Paris now, if we can move away from a carbon-intensive culture and consumption patterns, we have an opportunity to reap a huge health dividend — through more sustainable forms of transport, healthier eating, reduced air pollution and a renewed fight against diseases of poverty.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the authors

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Michèle Rivasi

Michèle Rivasi is a French member of the European Parliament, representing Europe Écologie, and is a vice chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation to the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly. She is a vice chair of the Group of the European Greens/EFA and has been an MEP since 2009. Previously, she was the director of Greenpeace in France from 2003-2004.

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Claude Turmes

Claude Turmes is a member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg, representing Déi Gréng - Les Verts (Group of the European Greens/EFA). He has been an MEP since 1999, and sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.

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