Tackle air quality for the climate and public health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Developing countries generate most of their energy from coal. [Kodda/Shutterstock]

The links between climate change and public health are staggering. By implementing clean air policies, governments can save lives and cut health costs while mitigating climate change, writes Génon Jensen.

Génon Jensen is the founder and executive director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and an official member of the World Health Organisation’s European Environment and Health Process.

When we talk about the impacts of climate change, we often do so in terms of the health of the global environment: melting ice caps, rising sea levels, threatened species, bleached coral reefs. But the impacts on human health will also be profound – while the benefits to our health of reducing the pollution that causes climate change also promise to be considerable.

The threat is real, and the figures are stark. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that global warming will result in some 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

The costs to health systems in responding to climate change will also be substantial – estimated at between $2 billion and $4 billion a year by 2030, excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture, water, and sanitation. It will be those parts of the world with weak health infrastructure, mostly in developing countries, that will be least able to bear these additional costs.

The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, which reported last year, warned that “climate change has the potential to undermine the last 50 years of progress in public health and development”.

But it is not only the effects of climate change that impact on human health. So too do its causes. As Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted at the launch of the IEA’s recent report on energy and air pollution, the majority of such pollution comes from the energy sector, mainly from fossil fuel combustion. Currently only 8% of global energy production is combustion-free and more than half of the rest has no effective technology in place to control emissions.

This air pollution is an order of magnitude more deleterious to human health than the ultimate effects of climate change. The WHO estimates that indoor and outdoor air pollution causes around 7 million deaths each year.

Developing countries, again, are particularly vulnerable. Many of them rely heavily on coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, for their electricity supply. Few of these power plants are fitted with the advanced pollution controls that can dramatically reduce their emissions. As the cities of the developing world grow rapidly, choking vehicle emissions exacerbate these health problems. And more than 2.7 billion people still rely on polluting stoves and fuels for cooking, leading to dreadful indoor air quality.

But the rich world also suffers. According to another recent report, this time from the Health and Environment Alliance, Climate Action Network, WWF and Sandbag, emissions from Europe’s coal-fired power stations led in 2013 alone to 22,900 premature deaths, tens of thousands of cases of ill health ranging from heart disease to bronchitis, and up to €62.3 billion in health costs.

The good news is that, in many parts of the world, coal use is in decline. The bad news is that that decline is not happening fast enough – and in developing Asia, it is not happening at all. As a result, the global number of premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution is poised to continue to grow, from 3 million today to an estimated 4.5 millions in 2040.

But solutions exist. In its report, the IEA has set out what governments need to do to address air quality issues, at the same time as tackling climate change. Tailored to local conditions, its pragmatic strategy would rely on existing technologies and use proven policy tools, including setting long-term air quality goals, more rapid uptake of energy efficiency and renewables, more widespread use of advanced pollution controls, strictly enforced standards for road vehicles and access to clean cooking facilities for an additional 1.8 billion people by 2040.

If these policies and measures are implemented, the IEA’s ‘Clean Air Scenario’ estimates that premature deaths from indoor pollution could be cut by 1.7 million in 2040 compared with its central scenario, and those from household pollution would fall by 1.6 million. Implementing these measures would only cost an additional 7% of total energy investment, the IEA underlines.

As delegates gather for the Second Global Conference on Health and Climate organised by the WHO in Paris, the Conference will showcase how the public health community will support the implementation of the Paris agreement, in order to build healthier and more sustainable societies. The message they send governments should be loud and clear: climate change poses profound risks to human health, but reducing the emissions that cause it can have substantial benefits on public health and on the quality of life of people around the world.

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