© UNICEF/Habibul Haque / Air pollution in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is causing a range of health problems for the city’s residents.
This warning from the UN World Health Agency comes on the same day as the release of an open letter from the Global Health Workforce Alliance, which also calls for action to avoid a health catastrophe.
The WHO COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, launched today ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, sets out the global health community’s prescription for climate action, based on a growing body of research establishing the numerous and inseparable links between climate and health.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people,” the WHO chief argued.
Climate change, the “greatest health threat
The WHO report criticizes “the burning of fossil fuels (which) is killing us”. This is a way for the UN agency to remind us that climate change is the “greatest health threat” facing humanity.
Especially since air pollution, which results mainly from the burning of fossil fuels and is also the cause of climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide.
The report emphasizes that protecting people’s health requires transformational action across all sectors, including energy, transportation, nature, food systems and finance.
The release of this report comes at a time when unprecedented extreme weather events and other climate impacts are increasingly affecting people’s lives and health. Increasingly frequent events, such as heat waves, storms, and floods, are killing thousands of people.
They also threaten health systems and facilities. According to the WHO, weather and climate change threaten food security and promote food-, water- and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, while the effects of climate also negatively impact mental health.
Faced with the challenges of the climate crisis, “one of the most pressing health emergencies” on the planet, the new WHO report highlights “10 priorities for preserving the health of populations and the planet that feeds us”.
The WHO calls on all countries to commit to taking decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C. “Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in the interest of the planet and the international community,” it insists.
Reducing air pollution to WHO-recommended levels, for example, would reduce the total number of deaths worldwide due to air pollution by 80%, while significantly reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
In addition, “a shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets could significantly reduce global emissions, ensure more resilient food systems, and avert up to 5.1 million food-related deaths per year by 2050,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Environment, Climate Change and Health Department.
The WHO report is being launched along with an open letter, signed by more than two-thirds of the world’s health workforce – 300 organizations representing at least 45 million physicians and health professionals worldwide.
“We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at COP26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to put human health and equity at the heart of all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions,” the health professionals’ letter reads.