National governments do not have enough funding to safeguard the increasing risk to human health from the climate emergency, according to the World Health Organization

Developing countries are increasingly seeing the health impacts of climate change (Photo by Pippa Ranger)

Developing countries are increasingly seeing the health impacts of climate change (Photo by Pippa Ranger)

Climate change is harming human health as more people are suffering from extreme weather events, heat stress and vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in Madrid.

A lack of financing is preventing many countries from safeguarding human health from the impacts of climate change, according to a new report by WHO released at the annual UN climate summit being held in the Spanish capital.

“Climate change is potentially the greatest health threat of the 21st century,” said Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Team Leader, Climate Change and Health, WHO. “All countries are facing problems in financing health mitigation. Developing countries have a problem in accessing international finance.” Protecting people from climate risks on health needs to be a top priority, he said.

Although health impacts of climate change are being acknowledged in national planning, it is yet to result in additional financial or human resources allocated to the health sector, the WHO said. The WHO Health and Climate Change Survey Report, which draws on data from 101 countries, found that half of the nations surveyed have developed a national health and climate change strategy.

However, only about 38% have finances to even partially implement their national plan, and fewer than 10% have been able to channel resources to implement it completely, according to the first global snapshot of progress on climate change and health.

Health costs

“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 Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO.

“For the Paris Agreement to be effective to protect people’s health, all levels of government need to prioritise building health system resilience to climate change,” said Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, WHO. The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to restrict global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times.

The report found that 48% of countries have conducted an assessment of the climate risks to public health. The most common climate-sensitive health risks the countries have identified include heat stress and injury or death from extreme weather events, as well as food, water and vector-borne diseases such as cholera, dengue and malaria.

However, about 60% of these countries reported 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, WHO said.

“The cost of not taking policy action is too high,” Neira said. “We are feeling the health impacts of climate change but the financial mechanism to tackle it is inadequate.”

Accessing finance

The survey found that nations have difficulty 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.

Although two-thirds of current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement mention health, and although the health sector is among the five sectors most often described as vulnerable to climate change, it hasn’t resulted in the necessary level of implementation and support, the WHO said. NDCs are voluntary commitments by countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

In an earlier report published in the Lancet journal in November, new research found that for a child born today, climate change threatens extensive health damage. The report set out the lifelong health consequences of rising temperatures on children, particularly in India. Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen, said the 2019 report of the Lancet countdown on health and climate change.

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. See: Fight climate crisis to stop damaging children

Reducing emissions

Previous studies have shown that the value of health gains from reducing carbon emissions would be approximately double the cost of implementing these actions at the 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 WHO said. The survey showed that less than 25% of countries have collaborations between health and the key sectors driving climate change and air pollution such as 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 one in 10 NDCs mentioning the expected health gains.

There are gaps that urgently need to be addressed, the report said. 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, it said.

WHO has also suggested that health needs to be 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.

 

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