Governments are increasingly focusing on health risks fuelled by global warming, with most nations now considering concerns from malaria to heart disease in their climate plans, according to data shared exclusively by the World Health Organization (WHO).
More than 90 per cent of countries have included health hazards in their commitments to tackle climate change, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), up from 70 per cent in 2020, according to new WHO data, set to be released in a forthcoming report.
The WHO’s director for public health and environment, Maria Neira, said the climate crisis threatens key pillars of public health - including access to food, water, shelter and clean air - and countries may struggle to respond adequately to growing risks.
“Climate change will fuel all the possible health disasters that we’re expecting. We need to make sure that we have health systems fit for the 21st century,” Neira said ahead of the launch of the WHO’s annual Health Statistics report on Friday.
“We need to change the narrative (on climate change). Until now, we have been concentrating too much on glaciers, the next generation and the planet,” she said in an interview.
But “the health argument for climate action can be very powerful, and can be the one that might motivate governments”.
This public health crisis caused by air pollution is not as high on the political agenda as it should be. If we want more action and to convince people (to act on climate change), we need to tell them about the immediate effects.
Maria Neira, director for public health and environment, World Health Organization
Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates’ COP28 president designate Sultan al-Jaber said that the UN climate summit in December would be the first to dedicate a day to health and would host a health and climate ministerial meeting.
In another report published this week, the Global Climate and Health Alliance - a group of health organisations - found that wealthy countries are lagging behind lower-income nations in terms of integrating health concerns into their NDCs.
World set to surpass 1.5C warming
The findings come as the World Meteorological Organization warned on Wednesday there is a two-thirds chance that global average temperature will surpass the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7F) warming limit set in the 2015 Paris Agreement within the next five years.
Climate scientists have warned that the 1.5C limit is a crucial tipping point after which impacts from sea level rise to extreme temperatures are likely to become much more severe.
The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted various climate-sensitive health risks such as heat stress, an increase in diseases spread via food, growing water shortages, changes in the range of insects and parasites, and worsening mental health conditions.
The WHO’s Neira said that while 91 per cent of countries had recognised health issues in their NDCs, only 10 per cent had incorporated the potential health benefits of taking climate action into their analyses.
She highlighted air pollution, and said addressing it could save both money and lives as people worldwide struggle with chronic health issues such as asthma and heart disease.
Air pollution, often linked to the burning of fossil fuels, causes more than 6.5 million deaths a year globally, a number which is growing, according to a study published last year in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.
“This public health crisis caused by air pollution is not as high on the political agenda as it should be,” Neira said.
“If we want more action and to convince people (to act on climate change), we need to tell them about the immediate effects.”
‘Mismatch’ between health focus and climate ambitions
The new report by the Global Climate and Health Alliance scored 58 nations on how their NDCs integrate health concerns.
The top performers were all low and middle-income nations, while wealthy countries including Australia, Japan and New Zealand were among those that scored zero.
The alliance said lower-income nations tended to be more vulnerable to climate impacts so better understand the connections between health and the environment.
The highest scorer, Burundi, involved the health sector in developing its NDC, identified vulnerabilities to issues such as flooding and vector-borne diseases, and included actions in response such as raising community awareness, the alliance said.
The report also highlighted a mismatch between the focus by some nations on health in their NDCs and their ambitions to tackle climate change. The UAE, for instance, scored well on the former but poorly on the latter.
Jeni Miller, the alliance’s executive director, said COP28’s day focused on health could be “really powerful” in bringing health ministers into discussions on addressing climate change.
But she stressed that what any deal emerging from COP28 contained would be more crucial.
“The real outcomes for health are based on what happens in the negotiations,” she said.
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