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Scientists: Immediate climate action critical to safeguard billions of lives

The 2023 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change Report starkly underscores the grave danger looming over billions worldwide due to delays in vital climate action. With projections leaning towards a 2.7°C increase by 2100, urgent steps are necessary to avert catastrophic health and survival impacts.

Growing hazards need climate action

“Our health stocktake reveals that the growing hazards of climate change are costing lives and livelihoods worldwide today. Projections of a 2°C hotter world reveal a dangerous future, and are a grim reminder that the pace and scale of mitigation efforts seen so far have been woefully inadequate to safeguard people’s health and safety,” said Marina Romanello, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown at University College London

“With 1,337 tons of carbon dioxide still emitted every second, we aren’t reducing emissions anywhere near fast enough to keep climate hazards within the levels that our health systems can cope with. There is an enormous human cost to inaction, and we can’t afford this level of disengagement – we are paying in lives. Every moment we delay makes the path to a liveable future more difficult and adaptation increasingly costly and challenging.” 

Climate action needed for global health

This eighth installment of the Lancet Countdown, involving 114 experts from 52 institutions, presents 47 indicators, including new metrics, to evaluate the interplay between health and climate change. It urges immediate action ahead of the 28th UN Conference of the Parties (COP).

“There is still room for hope,” Romanello said. “The health focus at COP28 is the opportunity of our lifetime to secure commitments and action. If climate negotiations drive an equitable and rapid phase out of fossil fuels, accelerate mitigation, and support adaptation efforts for health, the ambitions of the Paris Agreement to limit global heating to 1.5 °C are still achievable, and a prosperous healthy future lies within reach.”

“Unless such progress materializes, the growing emphasis on health within climate change negotiations risks being just empty words, with each fraction of a degree of heating exacerbating the harms felt by billions of people alive today and the generations to come.” 

Deteriorating global health landscape 

The report, led by University College London and encompassing work from global experts, highlights the escalating health-related losses and damages due to climate inaction. The rise in heat-related deaths and food insecurity, along with the spread of infectious diseases like Vibrio, reflects the deteriorating global health landscape even at the current average heating of 1.14°C.

Healthcare systems are under significant pressure, with many cities reporting concerns about being overwhelmed by climate change impacts. The report also notes substantial economic losses due to extreme weather and labor hours lost to heat exposure, disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income countries.

A crisis on top of a crisis

Dr. Georgiana Gordon-Strachan, Director of the Lancet Countdown Regional Centre for Small Island Developing States, voiced concern: “We’re facing a crisis on top of a crisis. People living in poorer countries, who are often least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, are bearing the brunt of the health impacts, but are least able to access funding and technical capacity to adapt to the deadly storms, rising seas and crop-withering droughts worsened by global heating.” 

“Despite this, rich nations have broken their long-standing pledge to deliver the comparatively modest sum of US$100 billion a year to help vulnerable countries cope with climate change, jeopardizing a fair, equitable transition to a healthy future.”

New climate change projections

The report offers new projections, developed with the Climate Vulnerability Forum (CVF), outlining the escalating risks if the 1.5°C target is missed. Under a 2°C scenario, heat-related deaths could increase by 370 percent by mid-century, with significant rises in food insecurity and infectious diseases.

Professor Stella Hartinger, Director of the Lancet Countdown Regional Centre for Latin America, stressed the need for primary prevention: “We must go beyond treating the health symptoms of climate change to focus on primary prevention.”

“The root causes of climate change must be tackled through rapidly accelerating mitigation across all sectors to ensure the magnitude of health hazards do not breach the capacity of health systems to adapt. Unless governments finally start to act on these warnings, things will get much, much worse.” 

Zero-carbon future 

Despite the severity of these challenges, the report outlines the transformative health benefits of a zero-carbon future. Professor Ian Hamilton, Lancet Countdown Working Group Lead on Mitigation Actions and Health Co-benefits, highlights the necessity of enabling clean energy transitions, especially in low-income countries, to achieve equitable health outcomes and reduce socioeconomic disparities.

Professor Paul Ekins from Lancet Countdown Working Group Lead on Economics and Finance, criticizes the ongoing investment in fossil fuels, calling for urgent redirection towards renewable energy and public health initiatives.

Ultimately, the report calls for unprecedented global collaboration and action. Professor Anthony Costello, co-chair of the Lancet Countdown, emphasized the need for health-centered climate action and mitigation to enable a thriving future for current and future generations.

Human catastrophe

“Climate breakdown has begun, and humanity is staring down the barrel of an intolerable future. We are already seeing a human catastrophe unfolding with the health and livelihoods of billions across the world endangered by record-breaking heat, crop-failing droughts, rising levels of hunger, growing infectious disease outbreaks, and deadly storms and floods,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in response to the Lancet report.

“There is no excuse for our collective inertia. Only powerful and immediate action will limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert the very worst of climate change. The evidence is unequivocal—a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewables together with a global surge in adaptation investment will save millions of lives and help protect the health of everyone on earth.”

The report is published in the journal The Lancet.

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