The Covid-19 pandemic, Russia-Ukraine conflict and climate change are the global crises which have had a devastating impact on different sectors. These crises also have several health impacts. The world uses fossil fuels for various purposes, including transportation and power generation. The burning of fossil fuels is detrimental to the environment and to the health of people. Over-dependence on fossil fuels is exacerbating the health impacts of the global crises, according to the 2022 Report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels.
This is the seventh Lancet Countdown report. It represents the work of 99 experts from 51 institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), is led by University College London, and published ahead of the 27th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP27). The report presents 43 indicators that include new and improved metrics that monitor the impact of extreme temperature on food insecurity, household air pollution, and the alignment of the fossil fuel industry with a healthy future.
Persistent fossil fuel dependence compounds health harms
In a statement released by The Lancet, Dr Marina Romanello, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown at University College London, said the report this year reveals the world is at a critical juncture. She explained that climate change is driving severe health impacts all around the world, while persistent global fossil fuel dependence compounds these health harms amidst multiple global crises. This is making households vulnerable to volatile fossil fuel markets. Also, the households are exposed to energy poverty and dangerous levels of air pollution due the global crises.
She added that despite the challenges, there is clear evidence that immediate action could still save the lives of millions, with a rapid shift to clean energy and energy efficiency. She explained that accelerated climate action would deliver cascading benefits, with more resilient health, food and energy systems. The world is in turmoil, but governments and companies have the opportunity to put health at the centre of an aligned response to these concurrent crises, and deliver a healthy, safe future to all.
How climate change is amplifying the health impacts of global crises
Persistent over-dependence on fossil fuels is rapidly worsening climate change, leading to dangerous health impacts being felt by people around the world. No country is safe, the data shows. Every year, climate change increases the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, wildfires, storms and droughts, the report states.
Professor Kristie Ebi, Lancet Countdown Working Group Lead on Adaptation, Planning, and Resilience for Health, said healthcare systems are the first line of defence for treating the physical and mental health impacts of extreme weather events and the other impacts of a changing climate. However, health systems are struggling to cope with the burden of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and other challenges. All this is putting lives in jeopardy, today and in the future.
Climate change is affecting every pillar of food security, data in this year’s report suggests. The growth season of crops has shortened by 9.3 days for maize, 1.7 days for rice and six days for winter and spring wheat, due to rising temperatures and extreme weather events. In 2020, the number of people who reported moderate to severe food insecurity in 103 countries was 98 million more than that annually between 1981 and 2010.
Exposure to extreme heat is dangerous because it exacerbates underlying conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and causes heat stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes, poor mental health, worsened sleep patterns, and increased injury-related death. Extreme heat also impacts the health of people indirectly by limiting their capacity to work and exercise.
Vulnerable populations, including children less than a year old and adults over 65 years of age, are most at risk from extreme heat. Between 2017 and 2021, heat-related deaths increased by 68 per cent, compared to 2000 to 2004.
The spread of infectious diseases is also increasing due to climate change. The risk of infectious diseases due to climate change, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, is leading to misdiagnosis, difficulties in managing simultaneous disease outbreaks, and pressure on health systems.
A major problem is that governments continue to encourage fossil fuel production and consumption. Delays in the inequitable access to clean energies have left households dependent on the use of dirty fossil fuels. This exposes them to energy poverty and dangerous levels of indoor air pollution. In 2020, biomass contributed to 31 per cent of energy consumed in the domestic sector globally.
What are the solutions to these problems?
In order to unlock a future of sustainable development, healthy environments, and health equity, there should be a health-centred response to the current energy, cost of living, and climate crises, the report states. Companies should shift to clean fuels and countries must take action to promptly reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
There should be improvements in air quality to prevent deaths resulting from exposure to fossil fuel-derived particulate matter air pollution. In 2020, there were 1.3 million deaths from exposure to fossil fuel-derived particulate matter air pollution.
It is important to accelerate a transition to more balanced and plant-based diets. This would not only reduce 55 per cent of agricultural sector emissions from red meat and milk production, but also prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths annually and reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.
Only 27 per cent of urban centres are classified as moderately green or above, in the present day. It is necessary to redesign urban areas to provide increased green space. This would reduce urban heat, benefit physical and mental health, and improve air quality.
While the health sector is responsible for 5.2 per cent of all global emissions, it has shown impressive climate leadership. As part of the COP26 Health Programme, 60 countries have committed to transitioning to climate-resilient health systems.