LONDON - Governments around the world are putting the health of “all people alive today and future generations” in growing peril as they pursue policies which lock in dependence on fossil fuels, a major report has warned.
Multiple crises are being exacerbated by the impacts of fossil fuel usage, putting additional strain on health systems around the world, according to The Lancet’s annual Countdown on Health and Climate Change report.
This has resulted in increased risk of food insecurity, infectious disease transmission, heat-related disease, energy poverty, and deaths from exposure to air pollution.
The report is the work of 99 experts from 51 institutions, including the World Health Organisation, the World Meteorological Organisation, and is led by University College London.
It warns that the health of fossil fuel companies’ bottom lines have in many cases been prioritised by governments over clean energy solutions to the detriment of health.
“The vast majority of countries analysed still collectively allocate hundreds of billions of US dollars to subsidising fossil fuels,” the authors of the report said.
“This often amounts to sums comparable or even greater than the amount set aside in their total health budgets. Meanwhile, the current strategies of fossil fuel giants threaten a liveable future and would lead to emissions exceeding international climate targets to minimise global warming.”
As a result of continuing investment in fossil fuels and the rising levels of emissions being pumped into the atmosphere, cascading risks are threatening more people more widely than ever before.
“The data shows that no country is safe,” the authors said. “Climate change increases the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, wildfires, storms, and droughts, costing hundreds of thousands of lives each year worldwide.”
“Climate change is driving severe health impacts all around the world,” said Dr Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown at the University College London.
“While the persistent global fossil fuel dependence compounds these health harms amidst multiple global crises, keeping households vulnerable to volatile fossil fuel markets, exposed to energy poverty, and dangerous levels of air pollution,” she added.
Following the Covid-19 pandemic and continued disruption to supply chains due to ongoing economic and political issues, many countries’ health services aren’t in robust health themselves, leaving them vulnerable and unable to offer the level of care required to help people deal with the worsening impacts of living on a warming planet.
Professor Kristie Ebi from the University of Washington’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment, said: “Healthcare systems are the first line of defence for treating the physical and mental health impacts of extreme weather events and the other impacts of a changing climate.
“But health systems are struggling to cope with the burden of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and other challenges, putting lives in jeopardy, today and in the future.”
The changing global climate is also having a considerable impact on global food security, with significant ramifications for the health of populations around the world.
“Data in this year’s report suggests that in the immediate term, climate change is affecting every pillar of food security,” the authors said.
Extreme heat was a factor for 98 million more people reporting “moderate to severe food insecurity” across 103 countries over 2020 alone, than annually between 1981 and 2010.
The report said that on average, 29 per cent more of the global land area was affected by “extreme drought” annually between 2012 and 2021, than between 1951 and 1960, putting millions more people at risk of water and food insecurity in recent decades.
“Climate change is already having a negative impact on food security, with worrying implications for malnutrition and under-nourishment,” said Professor Elizabeth Robinson, the director of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics.
“Further increases in temperature, frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and carbon dioxide concentrations, will put yet more pressure on availability of and access to nutritious food, especially for the most vulnerable.”
She said this was “particularly concerning given that global food supply chains have this year once again been revealed to be highly vulnerable to shocks, manifesting in rapidly increasing food prices and commensurate increases in food insecurity”.
The report laid the blame for such a pessimistic outlook at the door of governments and energy firms.
The report found that 69 out of the 86 governments analysed were still “effectively subsidising fossil fuels” to the tune of $400 billion in 2019 alone.
“Regardless of their climate claims and commitments, the current strategies of 15 of the largest oil and gas companies would lead to their greenhouse gas production exceeding their share of emissions compatible with 1.5C of warming by 37 per cent in 2030, and 103 per cent in 2040,” the report said.
But despite the bleak image of the future the analysis paints, the authors said “there are still glimmers of hope”.
They highlighted the benefits which a “health-centred response” to the current energy, cost of living, and climate crises would have – in which energy companies rapidly shift to clean fuels and countries then promptly reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
In this scenario nations could unlock “a future of sustainable development, healthy environments, and health equity while improving energy security and delivering a path for economic recovery”, the report said.