Health has been the most important issue of 2020. But it’s not just about Covid-19: climate change is also multiplying and intensifying threats to our health.
The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a flagship report of The Lancet medical journal that tracks 40+ indicators on links between health and climate change. This year’s report presents the most worrying outlook to date.
But it’s not all bad news. The Lancet Countdown shows how limiting temperature increases to well below 2°C and aligning climate and pandemic recovery can deliver both near-term and long-term health and economic benefits.
Here are five key findings from the report that show how health and climate change are inextricably linked.
EXTREME HEAT IS ON THE RISE
With the frequency and severity of heatwaves increasing at an alarming rate, heat is a health threat on a global scale. As with Covid-19, older people are particularly vulnerable, showing how climate change can reinforce existing health inequalities.
The Lancet Countdown shows that Europe is the region most vulnerable to these impacts due to its ageing population. Globally, the last 20 years have seen a 54% increase in heat-related deaths for people aged over 65.
WILDFIRES ARE INCREASING
Increases in extreme heat and drought are driving more wildfires which are affecting more people. The Lancet Countdown shows that 128 countries saw an increased number of people exposed to wildfires in the last four years compared with the early 2000s. As well as causing a devastating loss of lives, smoke from wildfires can be harmful to cardiovascular and respiratory health.
Two countries particularly badly affected are Australia and the US. According to the Lancet Countdown, the US in particular suffered some of the biggest increases in the number of people affected by wildfires over the last two decades.
BURNING FOSSILS AFFECTS AIR QUALITY
Air pollution, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, kills 7 million people every year, according to the WHO. Taking action to reduce the use of fossil fuels would not only limit global warming, but also protect our health.
There are signs of progress highlighted in the Lancet Countdown, for example in Europe, where loss of life from air pollution has decreased. Considering just the reductions in exposure to one key outdoor pollutant in EU countries from 2015 to 2018, if these improvements were held constant across a lifetime, they would lead to a reduction in years of life lost that health economists have valued at US$8.8 billion per year. These huge sums support the case for green stimulus measures in Europe and beyond.
DISEASE TRANSMISSION IS LIKELY TO INCREASE
Decades of progress in tackling deadly mosquito-borne diseases dengue and malaria are at risk due to climate change. Rising temperatures and changing rain patterns are increasing climate suitability for transmission of these diseases, threatening previously unaffected areas.
The Lancet Countdown reports a rise in the climate suitability for the transmission of malaria in highland regions of Africa, the Western Pacific, the Americas, and South-East Asia, meaning many more people could be affected by the tropical disease.
WHAT WE EAT IS DRIVING CLIMATE CHANGE
Food production represents a quarter of the world’s GHG emissions, and 9 million deaths every year are linked to poor diets. The Lancet Countdown examines deaths from excess red meat eating, finding that mortality has risen 70% over the last 30 years, with the majority of the almost 1 million deaths a year occurring in the Western Pacific and Europe.
With livestock being particularly emissions-intensive, shifts in food production and consumption could help to protect our health and the environment at the same time.
As shown in the Lancet Countdown report, responding to the converging crises of climate and Covid-19 can deliver a triple win: better public health, a sustainable economy and environmental protection. Climate action can ensure cleaner air, healthier diets, and more liveable cities for all.