Safeguarding human health from climate change impacts is more urgent than ever, yet most countries are not acting fully on their own plans to achieve this, according to the first global snapshot of progress on climate change and health. The new report draws on data from 101 countries surveyed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and reported in the 2018 WHO Health and Climate Change Survey Report.
Countries are increasingly prioritising climate change and health, with half of the countries surveyed having developed a national health and climate change strategy or plan. Worryingly, only about 38% have finances in place to even partially implement their national strategy of plan, and fewer than 10% channelling resources to implement it completely.
“Climate change is not only racking up a bill for future generations to pay, it’s a price that people are paying for now with their health,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “It is a moral imperative that countries have the resources they need to act against climate change and safeguard health now and in the future.”
Forty-eight percent of countries have conducted an assessment of the climate risks to public health. The most common climate sensitive health risks were identified by countries as heat stress, injury or death from extreme weather events, food, water and vector-borne diseases (such as cholera, dengue or malaria). However, about 60% of these countries report that the assessment findings have had little or no influence on the allocation of human and financial resources to meet their adaptation priorities for protecting health. Mainstreaming health in national and international climate processes could help access the necessary funds.
The survey found that countries have difficulties in accessing international climate finance to protect the health of their people. Over 75% reported a lack of information on opportunities to access climate finance, over 60% a lack of connection of health actors to the climate finance processes, and over 50% a lack of capacity to prepare proposals.
While two-thirds of current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement mention health, and the health sector is among the five sectors most often described as vulnerable to climate change, this has not resulted in the necessary level of implementation and support.
In addition, previous work has shown that the value of health gains from reducing carbon emissions would be approximately double the cost of implementing these actions at global level, and meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement could save about a million lives a year worldwide by 2050 through reductions in air pollution alone.
However, many countries are not able to take advantage of this potential. The survey shows that less than 25% of countries have clear collaborations between health and the key sectors driving climate change and air pollution; transportation, electricity generation and household energy.
The health gains that would result from cutting carbon emissions are rarely reflected in national climate commitments, with only one-fifth of NDCs mentioning health in the context of emissions reductions and 1 in 10 NDCs mentioning the expected health gains.
“For the Paris Agreement to be effective to protect people’s health, all levels of government need to prioritize building health system resilience to climate change, and a growing number of national governments are clearly headed in that direction,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, World Health Organization.
“By systematically including health in Nationally Determined Contributions – as well as National Adaptation Plans, climate finance pledges, and other National Communications to the UNFCCC — the Paris Agreement could become the strongest international health agreement of the century.”
But there are gaps that urgently need to be addressed. One is getting countries from making plans to implementing them by addressing barriers to action, such as making sure the health sector is included in climate change processes and ensuring that they have the capacity and support to access the finance they need.
Another is to get health factored into the decision-making processes that have implications for cutting carbon emissions and other sustainability goals, and to take account of the health gains that result from taking climate action.