27 Oct 2020   |   News

Urgent action needed to protect human health from the effects of climate change

As global warming threatens to undermine advances in human health, experts at the World Health Summit call for sustainable, carbon-neutral farming practices

World Health Summit

Next to industry, transport and fossil fuel electricity, agriculture gets little attention as a source of global warning. Yet it is one of the most polluting sectors, responsible for 30 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, driving the climate change that is a threat to safe water, clean air, habitable land and food supplies.

To safeguard public health, agricultural practices need to change, Jeremy McNeill, the president of the Royal Society of Canada told the World Health Summit meeting this week.

Sustainable farming, eating less meat, and reducing food waste, would see global emissions from agriculture fall significantly. “We are part of the problem and we need to change that, and in changing that we need to think how it relates to food security,” McNeill said. 

Action is needed, because between 2030 and 2050, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates climate change will cause around 250,000 additional deaths per year.

In addition to slowing climate changes, reducing air pollution would reduce the prevalence of respiratory diseases, such as asthma and lung cancer, while a change in diet could help fight obesity and life style related conditions such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, said Robin Fears, director of the biosciences programme at the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC). “We do have a prospect of bringing health benefits through a reduction of obesity and some non-communicable diseases,” Fears said.

“The solutions lie within our hands. It is about adapting to a change we can’t prevent, but more importantly, preventing the change that we really can’t adapt to,” Andrew Haines, professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the conference, normally held in Berlin, but this year taking place online.

To do this it is necessary to rapidly mobilise arguments in favour of rapid decarbonisation of the economy, of which the health security argument “is a crucial lever to change,” Haines said.

Region-specific recommendations

The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a network of more 140 national academies in over 100 countries, is scoping specific issues the four world regions are facing in respect to climate change and health. The aim is to produce recommendations for their respective governments on how to address them.

The first report, produced by the EASAC and funded by Germany’s ministry of research, published last year, details how health and climate change are linked.

“Solutions are within reach, and much can be done by acting on present knowledge,” said Fears.

Building on the European example, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are now working on region-specific recommendations for their respective policymakers.

Khairul Abdullah, president of the Asian arm of IAP, spanning 38 national academies, said the diversity of environmental conditions in Asia sparks a range of different health concerns. Extreme heat can place an extra burden on the heart and circulation of people with cardiovascular disease, air pollution from forest fires causes respiratory disease, while the expanding geographical range of infectious agents such as mosquitoes and ticks is spreading diseases such as dengue fever and encephalitis.

Not all the health impacts of climate change are easy to measure. For example, Abdullah said, a recent study revealed that female fertility in Asia is declining in part to due to “physiological changes that are brought by climate change.” How exactly this works is unclear, but data show climate change may have an effect on the female reproductive system.

Along with modifying agriculture practices, Abdullah said climate change in Asia could in part be addressed with more use of renewable energy, better urban planning and reforestation.

Reform is also needed to adapt health systems to the changing environment. Abdullah pointed to the integration of local and national healthcare systems, strengthening health services and public awareness, and setting up early warning systems for emerging infectious diseases, as starting points.

Africa is also facing extreme heat, precipitation, and floods. However, tracking these extreme weather events is not always easy, with lot of data in Africa is stored on paper, not digitally, said Caradee Wright, president of the African IAP network. To properly analyse climate change, these records must be digitised.

Better technology could also save lives. Household air pollution from poorly-vented stoves and heaters causes 600,000 deaths annually in Africa. Better ventilation, improved insulation and solar powered cookers would help.

In African healthcare, there is a lot of discussion about ‘going back to basics’. “It doesn’t necessarily mean going back to twenty years ago, but actually a leap forward,” said Wright. Many African countries have under-resourced, ill-managed health systems that cannot provide basic services and are in no shape for environmentally friendly upgrades. Completely revamping these systems instead of making many small changes could help them catch up with environmental needs.

As one case in point, Wright referenced South Africa, which had one of the first successful COVID-19 tracing apps, despite most health data in the country being held in paper records. It was a huge leap forward, and was managed successfully, Wright said.

McNeill, who leads the America IAP network, says the region’s issues range from the melting of ice roads, which are needed to deliver food to remote parts of Canada, to migratory insects destroying crops, causing food shortages.

The most important thing is to act now. “If we don’t move now, we’ll have a problem,” said McNeill. This is evident in rising mental health problems among young people, who worry about the state of the planet they will be left with.

None of these adjustments can be made without money. Haines said research funding agencies must step up and stop funding “in a traditional silo way.” Climate change and health are inter-related issues and funding must reflect this.

Post-COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages are a great opportunity to use the money for a sustainable recovery, Fears said. “It is important to ensure there is wise investment and to capitalise on political momentum.”

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