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Climate mitigation policies worldwide often do not address health impacts, study finds

According to an analysis by UK researchers, dozens of countries made zero mentions of the health implications of climate change at UN General Assembly debates this last decade
According to an analysis by UK researchers, dozens of countries made zero mentions of the health implications of climate change at UN General Assembly debates this last decade

Extreme weather events, droughts, floods and heatwaves are environmental changes that have an impact on human health. For example, malaria thrives in the heat, particularly in poor tropical and sub-tropical areas worldwide, but vectors breed more in humid weather.

Health and climate change in Odisha, India

India, for instance, along with 20 countries in the WHO African Region contributes to around 85% of malaria deaths globally. According to a 2019 study, climate variation could be a reason behind the high malaria rates

Specifically, a temperature rise in the monsoon season led to an increase in malaria cases in Odisha, in east India. While many hailed the state for averting 50% of malaria cases due to the success of the National Vector-Borne Disease Control Program, several faults with the current surveillance system require improvement. Particularly, cases reported often do not match with on-the-ground realities.

The National Action Plan for Climate Change and Human Health is currently under review for better implementation of plans to tackle many health concerns in India.

“A country like India requires a health-centric focus on climate change because of various direct and indirect impacts. Climate change exacerbates issues like food insecurity and nutrition deficiency,” said Poornima Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran is the deputy director at the Centre for Environmental Health. 

Growing awareness of health and climate change

Across the world, not only in India, there is a growing awareness of climate change in the context of health. The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change penned a call to action urging countries to “achieve net zero emissions by 2040.” 

Richard Smith, former editor of the journal BMJ and chair of the Alliance, pointed out that health was conspicuously missing from the top five priority areas of COP26.

“Health is not one of the five priorities of COP26. However, all five—adaptation and resilience, energy transition, clean transport, nature, and finance—have strong health connections,” writes Smith.

health climate change
Air pollution and traffic over the Wuhan Yangtze Great Bridge in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China (Photo Credit: Barnaby Chambers / Shutterstock.com)

Health framing helps change naysayers minds

A 2021 study found that framing climate change in the context of health helps garnering support for mitigation policies among those who were sceptical before. 

“Health framing can certainly build public awareness and support for addressing climate change. I’d say that this will in turn help build political support for action,” said Dr. Niheer Dasandi. Dr. Dasandi is lead author and senior lecturer at School of Government, University of Birmingham.

“I do expect to see more attention to the climate change-health link in November and going forward,” he stated. 

Climate change-health link references at the United Nations

This health focus has not been the case up to now. Dasandi’s research examined 3860 statements by 196 countries at the UN general debates between 2000 and 2019. The study quantified the references made to the health-climate change link. 

An automated search revealed that low and middle income countries mentioned health risks of climate change more than high income countries. 

At the UN general debates, health outcomes such as infant mortality or noncommunicable diseases, together with economic growth and emissions are indicators of the level of engagement with the topic. Countries directly impacted by climate change such as the Pacific Island countries made the most references to health, with at least 22 to 28 mentions in their statements. 

Similarly, countries in Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia made several references. Also, 39 countries made no references at all. 

Health in Nationally Determined Contributions

When the project searched the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), 135 out of 185 countries included health concerns in their pledges. 

However, NDCs showed differences in framing patterns. The UN General debates cover several international concerns including human rights, poverty and conflict, so countries discuss the general negative impact of climate change, explained Dr. Dasandi. 

“In contrast, NDCs are directly linked to the Paris Agreement. Each country needs to provide information about the steps they are taking. So, there are more costs and consequences attached,” he added. 

Deaths avoided by health-focused climate policies 

A 2021 paper studied the health implications of the Paris Agreement in current national policies. The paper compared these against climate policies that integrated health concerns.

Co-author Dr Alice McGushin, Programme Manager at The Lancet Countdown, says that incorporating health across the board is not a new concept. “The WHO has adopted and promoted the ‘Health in All Policies’ (HiAP) approach for several years. In 2013, WHO’s Helsinki statement recommended health to be a priority across sectors,” said McGushin.  

In the study, a sustainable pathways scenario (SPS) projected a yearly reduction of 1,18 million deaths caused by air pollution exposure in nine countries in 2040. A Health in All Climate Policies Scenario (HPS) could avoid 462,000 more annual deaths.

Adopting climate-friendly dietary policies brought down deaths caused by unhealthy eating by 5.86 million under SPS projections. The study projected a decrease of 572,000 more annual deaths due to improved dietary factors. The projections included a combination of switching 50% of diets to flexitarian or vegan and decreasing food waste.

“A greater consideration of health in the NDCs and mitigation policies has the potential to yield considerable health benefits,” affirms the study. In addition, the paper claims that including help would help to achieve the ‘well below 2°C’ target.