Climate action urgently required to protect human health in Europe
New EASAC report “The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe” highlights an alarming range of health risks due to climate change and the benefits of rapid phase out of fossil fuels.
In this landmark report, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) focuses on the consequences of climate change for human health in Europe and the benefits of acting now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stabilise the climate.
EASAC is the voice of independent science advice, mobilising Europe’s leading scientists from 27 national science academies to guide EU policy for the benefit of society. By considering a large body of independent studies on the effects of climate change on health, and on strategies to address the risks to health, EASAC has identified key messages and drawn important new conclusions. The evidence shows that climate change is adversely affecting human health, and that health risks are projected to increase. Solutions are within reach and much can be done by acting on present knowledge, but this requires political will.
With current trends in greenhouse gas emissions, a global average temperature increase of over 3°C above pre-industrial levels is projected by the end of the century. The increase will be higher over land than the oceans, exposing the world population to unprecedented rates of climate change and contributing to the burden of disease and premature mortality.
Health risks will increase as climate change intensifies through a range of pathways including:
- Increased exposure to high temperatures and extreme events such as floods and droughts, air pollution and allergens;
- Weakening of food and nutrition security;
- Increased incidence and changing distribution of some infectious diseases (including mosquito-borne, food-borne and water-borne diseases);
- Growing risk of forced migration.
EASAC emphasises that the top priority is to stabilise climate and accelerate efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The economic benefits of action to address the current and prospective health effects of climate change are likely to be substantial.
Working Group co-chair, Professor Sir Andy Haines (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine), comments, “If urgent action is not taken to reduce emissions in order to keep temperatures below the 2°C (or less) limit enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement, we face potentially irreversible changes that will have wide ranging impacts on many aspects of health. The scientific community has an important role in generating knowledge and countering misinformation. We hope that this comprehensive report will act as a wake-up call and draw attention to the need for action, particularly by pursuing policies to decarbonise the economy. The protection of health must have a higher profile in policies aimed at mitigating or adapting to the effects of climate change”.
Key messages addressed in the report include:
Several hundred thousand premature deaths annually in the EU could be averted by a ‘zero-carbon’ economy through reduced air pollution
Pollution endangers planetary health, damages ecosystems and is intimately linked to global climate change. Fine particulate and ozone air pollution arise from many of the same sources as emissions of greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants. For the EU overall, fossil-fuel-related emissions account for more than half of the excess mortality attributed to ambient (outdoor) air pollution. A recent estimate suggests that about 350,000 excess deaths annually in the EU can be attributed to ambient air pollution from burning fossil fuels and a total of about 500,000 from all human-related activities.
Understanding of the range of health effects of air pollution on the health of children and adults is growing. Seven million babies in Europe are living in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO recommended limits and such exposure may affect brain development and cognitive function. Action to reduce pollution through decarbonisation of the economy must be viewed as a priority to address both climate change and public health imperatives.
Promotion of healthier, more sustainable diets with increased consumption of fruit, vegetables and legumes and reduced red meat intake will lower the burden of non-communicable diseases and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Promoting dietary change could have major health and environmental benefits, resulting in significant reductions of up to about 40% in greenhouse gas emissions from food systems as well as reducing water and land use demands. Such diets can also lead to major reductions on non-communicable disease burden through reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and other conditions.
If food and nutrition security declines because of climate change, the EU can probably still satisfy its requirements by importing food. But this will have increasing consequences for the rest of the world; for example, by importing fodder for livestock from arable land that has been created through deforestation.
It is therefore vital to develop climate-smart food systems to ensure more resilient agricultural production and to promote food and nutrition security, for the benefit of human health.
Climate action could avert a significant increase in the spread of infectious diseases
The spread of infectious diseases in Europe could increase through climate change. These diseases include those that are spread by vectors (particularly mosquitos) and food- and water-borne infections. There is also an increased risk to animal health across Europe from conditions such as Blue tongue virus.
Distribution of the mosquito species Aedes albopictus, known to be a vector for diseases such as dengue, is already expanding in Europe and may extend to much of Western Europe within the next decade.
Water-borne infections such as diarrhoea may increase following heavy rainfall and flooding and higher temperatures may be associated with increased antibiotic resistance for pathogens such as E. coli. In the case of Salmonella species, an increase in temperature will increase multiplication and spread in food and increase the risks of food poisoning. There could also be an increase in Norovirus infections related to heavy rainfall and flooding. Strengthening communicable disease surveillance and response systems should be a priority for improving adaptation to climate change.
Providing evidence of the health benefits of action on climate change may be instrumental in achieving rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
Although the EU is actively engaged in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to identify suitable adaptation measures, the impacts of climate change on health have been relatively neglected in EU policy. Recognising the serious challenges that climate change poses to the global health gains made in recent decades is key to promoting public engagement.
Furthermore, the impact of climate change in other regions can have tangible consequences in Europe and the EU has responsibilities in addressing problems outside its area.
The EU must do more to ensure that health impact assessment is part of all proposed initiatives, and that climate and health policy is integrated with other policy priorities including coordinating strategies at EU and national level. It is also vital that the steps are taken to counter misinformation about the causes and consequences of climate change which threaten to undermine the political will to act.