Climate change has catastrophic consequences for health, but beyond that, the emissions accelerating it carry particles that kill millions of people every year.
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The link between climate mitigation efforts and health policies, according to global health bodies, should be closely aligned to the health consequences of air pollution and the benefits of reductions.
A new scorecard released by the Global Health Alliance shows that countries least responsible for climate change have put health considerations in their updated pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is largely because these countries carry a bigger health burden from the impact of harsher climate change, according to the authors.
The climate change and health scorecard assesses updated commitments to reduce emissions that are due to be deposited at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November.
The alliance has to date assessed the commitments of 60 countries, although the current scorecard includes only 14 as 130 countries responsible for half of the world’s emissions, including South Africa, have yet to submit theirs to the UN’s framework convention on climate change.
Australia, Brazil, Iceland and Norway all ranked zero for not including health in their emissions reduction targets. In Africa, Senegal and Rwanda ranked highest for including health in their climate mitigation policy.
The Public Health Association of SA, a member of the Global Health Alliance, said the targets of South Africa’s draft emissions policy still fell short of what was needed to protect the planet and people’s health.
“We support the June 2021 recommendations of the presidential climate commission for better research on climate change impacts on health systems; effective responses to climate-related epidemics; and priority actions within the health, water, biodiversity, agriculture, human settlements and infrastructure sectors to ensure greater resilience to climate shocks,” association secretary Dr Lwando Maki said.
“We call for the active involvement of health stakeholders in the working groups of the commission to implement these recommendations without delay.”
The Global Health Alliance’s Jess Beagley said countries which were not in line with the Paris Agreement’s intention to limit global warming to less than 2°C also scored low on health considerations.
Earlier this year, a study by scientists at Harvard University, University College London and other universities found that air pollution from fossil fuel use was responsible for one in five deaths worldwide.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, revealed how more than eight million people are killed each year by air pollution from burning fossil fuels such as coal and diesel, a large increase from previous estimates.
In South Africa, 9.3% of deaths can be attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels — about 45 134 people each year.
The researchers found the highest rates of deaths from fossil fuels in China and India.
This new model found a higher mortality rate for long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions, including at lower concentrations. The researchers found that globally, exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 21.5 percent of total deaths in 2012, falling to 18% in 2018 due to tighter air quality measures in China.
Co-author Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said there was a hope that quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion would send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders about the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.
“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” Schwartz said.
The latest Global Health Alliance scorecard recommends that all countries include health in the next round of greenhouse gas reduction targets and raise their ambition to stop climate change in the next five years.
The release coincided with record breaking temperatures in the US and Canada where heatwave fires damaged a whole village outside Vancouver in a matter of minutes. The village in Lyton burnt on one of three days when the town recorded Canada’s hottest day ever at 49.6°C. In Vancouver, 65 people were reported to have died in the same week as a result of the heatwave.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said the heatwave was exceptional and dangerous in areas which were more synonymous with cold weather.
“Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense as greenhouse gas concentrations lead to a rise in global temperatures,” said Omar Baddour, the head of the WMO’s climate monitoring and policy division.
“We are also noticing that they are starting earlier and ending later and are taking an increasing toll on human health.”