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India’s severe air pollution can only be combatted through strong political action, even as the World Health Organisation warned that health costs of climate change have become unacceptable

Air pollution levels have reached alarming proportions in India (Photo by Axel Drainville)

Air pollution levels have reached alarming proportions in India (Photo by Axel Drainville)

Tackling climate change to meet goals set out in the Paris Agreement will save a million lives every year by 2050 that are lost due to air pollution alone, said the World Health Organisation in a special report released at the climate summit in Katowice in Poland. Latest estimates indicate that the value of health gains from climate action would be double the cost of global climate mitigation policies, and the benefit-to-cost ratio is higher in countries such as China and India.

Exposure to polluted air results in 7 million premature deaths every year and costs an estimated USD 5.11 trillion, the WHO said, also pointing out that nearly a quarter of all deaths worldwide result from people having to live or work in unhealthy environments. In the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, health impacts of air pollution cost more than 4% of their GDP, it said.

The same human activities that are destabilizing the Earth’s climate also contribute directly to poor health, WHO said. The main driver of climate change is fossil fuel combustion, which is a major contributor to air pollution.

“The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs. The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself,” said Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost.”

Air pollution in India

Speaking on India, Neira said that there is an urgent need to political action to tackle the severe air pollution in the countries. One in every eight deaths in India can be attributed to air pollution, according to research published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal. Life expectancy in India would have been higher by 1.7 years if its people breathed clean air, the researchers found.

Switching to low-carbon energy sources will not only improve air quality but also provide additional opportunities for immediate health benefits, WHO said in its special report. India has some good plans, but it needs a “strong political push” for effective implementation, Neira said.

India could see health benefits worth USD 3-8 trillion by taking stronger steps to tackle climate change, the special report said. “The most recent evidence indicates that the gains for health to be derived from scenarios that meet the Paris goal for reduced climate warming would more than cover the financial cost of mitigation at global level and would cover it several times over in countries such as China and India,” the report said.

“People are only now starting to connect the fact that the same things we need to do to address the air pollution problem will also be good for climate change,” Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Coordinator, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO, and co-author of the special report, told in Katowice.

Kristie Ebi, a Professor at the Departments of Global Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington and lead author of Global Warming of 1.50C, the most recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emphasised the need to accelerate climate action to protect people’s health. “People are suffering and dying from the effects of climate change and every associated warming means more deaths,” Ebi said.

“The evidence is clear that climate change is already having a serious impact on human lives and health,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said in a statement. “We can’t afford to delay action any further.”

The world and India must hasten the energy transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources, Neira said. “The more we delay, the more deaths will occur,” she said. “How many deaths are we willing to accept?”

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