Over reliance on fossil fuels puts health of current, future generations in jeopardy
Global fossil fuel addiction places additional strain on healthcare systems already dealing with other crises ranging from COVID-19 to food insecurity and energy poverty
Governments and corporations continue to pursue strategies that endanger the health and survival of all people today and future generations, as continued fuel dependence places additional strain on health systems and increases the risk of food insecurity, infectious disease transmission, energy poverty and deaths from air pollution.
These worrying indications are the new findings presented in the seventh annual global report of the 2022 Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels, published Wednesday.
The seventh Lancet Countdown report is the culmination of the efforts of 99 experts from 51 organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and is led by the University College London. It was released in advance of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP27).
The report presents 43 indicators that include new and improved metrics monitoring the impact of extreme temperatures on food insecurity, household air pollution and the alignment of the fossil fuel industry with a healthy future.
As countries and health systems grapple with the health, social and economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a global energy and cost of living crisis, climate change continues to rise unabated.
Over-dependence on fossil fuels is compounding the health impacts of these crises, the Lancet report notes.
Despite the severe and compounding damage to health from climate change, governments and companies are prioritizing fossil fuel extraction and burning over renewables.
As the carbon intensity of the global energy system has reduced by less than 1% only from 1992 levels, the current pace of change would take 150 years for full decarbonization of the energy system, creating a huge risk to keep global warming at 1.5°C as outlined in the Paris Agreement, the report finds.
Oil and gas companies' commitments do not match current strategies
In 2019, fossil fuel subsidies of 69 governments out of the 86 countries studied totaled $400 billion. This amount is 10% higher than national health spending in 31 countries and 100% higher in five.
The world's largest 15 oil and gas companies, regardless of their climate commitments, lead with strategies that would increase greenhouse gas production exceeding their share of emissions compatible with 1.5°C warming by 37% in 2030 and 103% in 2040.
Lancet experts said in the report that “global crises cannot be addressed in isolation, but rather need a unified cohesive approach in order to create equitable solutions for all. Not doing so would worsen overall health outcomes. Less than a third of the $3.1 trillion spent on the COVID-19 pandemic response will reduce greenhouse gas emissions or air pollution.”
According to the report, short-sighted responses to the energy crisis and cost-of-living crisis are threatening to worsen climate change, with many governments and companies backsliding to coal, further threatening people’s health and survival.
Critical juncture for humanity
Marina Romanello, an executive director of the Lancet Countdown at the University College London issued a warning over the critical juncture the world is in with climate change driving severe health problems.
"…The persistent global fossil fuel dependence compounds these health harms amidst multiple global crises, keeping households vulnerable to volatile fossil fuel markets, exposed to energy poverty, and dangerous levels of air pollution," Romanello said.
Despite the challenges, she stated that there is clear evidence that immediate action could still save millions of lives through a rapid shift to clean energy and energy efficiency.
"Accelerated climate action would deliver cascading benefits with more resilient health, food and energy systems. With the world in turmoil, governments and companies have the opportunity to put health at the center of an aligned response to these concurrent crises, and deliver healthy a safe future for all," Romanello said.
No country is safe
As persistent fossil fuel over-dependence is rapidly worsening climate change, the data shows no country is safe.
On food security, the report's findings show that in the immediate term, climate change is affecting every pillar of food security.
Rising temperatures and extreme weather events threaten crop yields directly shortening the growing season of crops by 9.3 days for maize, 1.7 days for rice and 6 days for winter and spring wheat, the report reveals.
Extreme heat was linked to 98 million more people in 103 countries reporting moderate to severe food insecurity in 2020 than between 1981 and 2010 on an annual basis.
"On average, 29% more of the global land area was affected by extreme drought annually between 2012–2021, than between 1951–1960, putting people at risk of water and food insecurity," the report said.
Vulnerable populations are most at risk from extreme heat as it affects health directly. This can exacerbate underlying conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, causing heat stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes, worsened sleep patterns, poor mental health and increased injury-related death.
"Children under one year old experienced collectively 600 million more days of heatwaves (4.4 more days per child) and adults over 65 years 3.1 billion more days (3.2 more days per person), in 2012–2021, compared to 1986–2005," the report finds.
Infectious diseases and food insecurity on rise due to worsening climate crisis
Deaths related to heat increased by 68% between 2017 and 2021 compared to the 2000-2004 period while human exposure to days of very-high or extremely-high fire danger increased in 61% of countries from 2001 to 2004 and from 2018 to 2021, according to the study.
Being exposed to extreme heat led to 470 billion potential labor hours lost globally in 2021 with income losses particularly affecting low and middle-income countries.
Climate change is also affecting the spread of infectious diseases as the length of time for malaria transmission rose by 32.1% in the highland areas of the Americas and 14.9% in Africa between 2012 and 2021, compared to the period from 1951 to 1960.
The influence of the climate on the risk of dengue transmission rose by 12% globally in the same period. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of infectious diseases due to climate change has led to misdiagnosis, pressure on health systems, and difficulties in managing simultaneous disease outbreaks.
Health-centered response could still deliver thriving future
Despite the worrying indications laid out in the report, it maintains there are still glimmers of hope.
"A health-centered response to the current energy, cost of living and climate crises would see energy companies rapidly shifting to clean fuels and countries promptly reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, unlocking a future of sustainable development, healthy environments, and health equity while improving energy security and delivering a path for economic recovery," it said in the report.
Improving air quality would help to prevent deaths resulting from exposure to fossil fuel-derived particulate matter air pollution, of which there were 1.3 million in 2020 alone.
An accelerated transition would not only reduce 55% of agricultural sector emissions but also prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths annually.
UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, responding to the report publication, said: "The climate crisis is killing us. It is undermining not just the health of our planet, but the health of people everywhere - through toxic air pollution, diminishing food security, higher risks of infectious disease outbreaks, record extreme heat, drought, floods and more."
Guterres relayed that fossil fuel addiction is wreaking havoc on health, livelihoods, household budgets and national economies.
"The science is clear: massive, common-sense investments in renewable energy and climate resilience will secure a healthier, safer life for people in every country," he underlined.
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