Global health at the mercy of fossil fuel addiction, scientists warn | Climate crisis

Global health at the mercy of fossil fuel addiction, scientists warn | Climate crisis

According to the study, the health of people around the world is at the mercy of global dependence on fossil fuels.

The analysis reports rising deaths from heat, hunger and infectious diseases as the climate crisis intensifies, while governments continue to give more in fossil fuel subsidies than to poorer countries experiencing the effects of global warming.

The climate emergency is exacerbating food, energy and cost-of-living crises, the report says. For example, nearly half a trillion hours of work were lost in 2021 due to extreme heat. It hit agricultural workers in poorer countries the hardest, reducing food supplies and incomes.

But the report says urgent health-focused measures to combat global warming could save millions of lives a year and enable people to thrive, not just survive, with cleaner air and better nutrition.

The Lancet Countdown Group’s report on health and climate change is titled Health at the mercy of fossil fuels. It was created by almost 100 experts from 51 institutions from all continents and was published on the eve of the UN COP27 climate summit in Egypt.

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“The climate crisis is killing us,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in response to the report. “It undermines not only the health of our planet, but the health of people everywhere – through toxic air pollution, reduced food security, greater risks of infectious disease outbreaks, record extreme heat, drought, flooding and more.”

Human health, livelihoods, household budgets and the national economy were under attack as fossil fuel dependence continued to spiral out of control, he added. “The science is clear: massive, common-sense investments in renewable energy and climate resilience will ensure healthier and safer lives for people in every country.”

Dr Marina Romanello, lead of the Lancet Countdown at University College London (UCL), said: “We are seeing an ongoing dependence on fossil fuels. Governments and companies continue to favor the fossil fuel industry at the expense of human health.”

The report tracks 43 health and climate indicators, including exposure to extreme heat. It found that heat-related deaths in the most vulnerable populations – babies under one year old and adults over 65 – rose by 68% in the last four years compared to 2000-04.

“Heat waves are not only very uncomfortable, but also deadly for people who have increased vulnerability,” said Romanello.

Extreme heat has also left people unable to work, with 470 billion working hours lost globally in 2021. “This is an increase of around 40% compared to the 1990s and we estimate the associated income and economic losses at around billions of dollars,” she said. About 30% more land is now affected by extreme droughts, compared to the 1950s.

These impacts lead to increasing hunger, the report said. Hot spells in 2020 were associated with 98 million more people unable to get the food they needed, compared to the average from 1981 to 2010, and the share of the global population experiencing food insecurity is rising. “The biggest driver of this is climate change,” Romanello said.

Pump cranes work in Eddy County, New Mexico
New Mexico Pump Cranes. The strategies of the 15 largest oil and gas companies remain in stark contrast to ending the climate emergency, according to the report. Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Professor Elizabeth Robinson of the London School of Economics said: “This is particularly worrying given that this year it has again been found that global food supply chains are highly vulnerable to shocks [such as the war in Ukraine]which is manifested in the rapid increase in food prices.”

The report also noted the impact of the climate crisis on infectious diseases, revealing that the periods during which malaria could be transmitted became 32% longer in mountainous areas of the Americas and 15% longer in Africa over the past decade, compared to the 1950s. The probability of dengue transmission increased by 12% over the same period.

The Lancet report also tracks the fossil fuel system. It found that 80% of the 86 governments assessed did subsidizing fossil fuelsproviding a collective $400 billion in 2019. These subsidies were greater than national health spending in five countries, including Iran and Egypt, and more than 20% of health spending in another 16 countries.

“Governments have been until now failed to provide less than $100 billion per year to support climate action in lower-income countries,” the report said.

The report says the strategies of the 15 largest oil and gas companies remain starkly at odds with ending the climate emergency, “regardless of their climate claims and commitments”.

UCL’s Professor Paul Ekins said: “The current strategies of many governments and companies will lock the world into a fatally warmer future, tying us to the use of fossil fuels which is rapidly closing the prospect of a habitable world.”

A rapid reduction in the burning of fossil fuels would not only reduce global warming, but would bring immediate health benefits, Romanello said, such as preventing a million or more premature deaths from air pollution annually.

A shift to a plant-rich diet in developed countries will halve emissions from red meat and dairy production and prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths annually, the report says.

“The world is at a critical moment. We must change, otherwise our children face a future of accelerated climate change, threatening their very survival,” said Professor Anthony Costello, co-chair of the Lancet Countdown. “A health-focused response to the current crisis would continue to provide an opportunity to deliver a low-carbon, resilient and healthy future.”

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