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Climate change is affecting the health of India’s children and threatens lifelong impact on them unless immediate action is taken, warns the latest Lancet Countdown report

The climate emergency is severely affecting the health of children (Photo by Claudio)

The climate emergency is severely affecting the health of children (Photo by Claudio)

For a child born today, climate change threatens extensive health damage, according to new research from 35 global institutions that was published in the Lancet journal today. The report sets out the lifelong health consequences of rising temperatures on children, particularly in India.

As temperatures rise, infants will bear the greatest burden of malnutrition and rising food prices, the Lancet study said. Children will suffer most from the rise in infectious diseases, with climatic suitability for the Vibrio bacteria that cause cholera rising 3% a year in India since the early 1980s, the study found.

Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen, said the 2019 report of the Lancet countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. Total energy supply from coal increased 11% in India from 2016 to 2018, the report said. Dangerous levels of outdoor fine particulate air pollution (PM 2.5) contributed to over 529,500 premature deaths in 2016.

For a child born today, extreme weather events will intensify into adulthood, with India seeing an additional 21 million people exposed to wildfires since 2001-2004, and 22 billion additional hours of work lost due to extreme heat since 2000. Out of this, 12 billion work hours have been lost in agriculture alone.

India at risk

“With its huge population and high rates of healthcare inequality, poverty and malnutrition, few countries are likely to suffer from the health effects of climate change as much as India,” said co-author Poornima Prabhakaran of the Public Health Foundation of India. “This report shows that the public health gains achieved over the past 50 years (in India) could soon be reversed by the changing climate.”

Pursuing the Paris Climate Agreement aim to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius will allow a child born today to grow up in a world that reaches net-zero emissions by their 31st birthday, the report said. The authors called for health impact of climate change to be at forefront of the agenda at the UN Climate Conference scheduled to be held next month in Madrid, Spain.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is an annual analysis that tracks progress across 41 key indicators, demonstrating what action to meet Paris Agreement targets means for human health. The project is a collaboration between 120 experts from 35 institutions, including the World Health Organisation and World Bank.

To protect the health of the next generation, the energy landscape will have to change drastically. If it’s just business as usual, with high carbon emissions and climate change continuing at the current rate, a child born today will face a world on average over 4 degrees Celsius warmer by their 71st birthday, threatening their health at every stage of their lives, the report said.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants,” said Nick Watts, executive director of the Lancet Countdown. “Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.”

Cautious optimism

Despite the climate crisis, the reports said there’s reason for cautious optimism. Growth in renewables, for instance, accounted for 45% of total growth in power generation in 2018, out of which 27% was from wind and solar power.

“While India is joining the global shift towards renewable energy, it still overwhelmingly relies on coal for electricity, with an 11% increase in its energy from burning coal in 2016-2018, compared to less than a 1.5% rise in China,” said Prabhakaran. “To dramatically reduce emissions by 2050, and to meet multiple Sustainable Development Goals, India must transition away from coal and towards renewable energy. It will also need to enhance public transport, increase use of cleaner fuels, and improve waste management and agricultural production practices.”

The authors of the reported called for action in four key areas

  • Delivering rapid, urgent, and complete phase-out of coal-fired power worldwide;
  • Ensuring high-income countries meet international climate finance commitments of USD 100 billion a year by 2020 to help low-income countries;
  • Increasing accessible, affordable, efficient public and active transport systems; and
  • Making major investments in health system adaptation to ensure health damage of climate change doesn’t overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services to treat patients.

“The path that the world chooses today will irreversibly mark our children’s futures,” said co-author Stella Hartinger of Cayetano Heredia University, Peru. “We must listen to the millions of young people who have led the wave of school strikes for urgent action. It will take the work of 7.5 billion people currently alive to ensure that the health of a child born today isn’t defined by a changing climate.”

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