The Paris Agreement, resulting from the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) that took place in Paris in 2015, was signed by 196 countries around the globe. The signing parties of this legally binding international treaty agreed to substantially reduce their global greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the global temperature increase during this century to well below 2°C and preferably down to 1.5 °C, compared to pre-industrial levels. Countries were required to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by 2020 in which they laid out actions they planned to take to carry out these reductions in emissions. Countries are also being encouraged to formulate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) to outline their vision and direction for future development. (1)
By the end of 2020, response to the Paris Agreement and the NDC commitments that had been completed were revealed as woefully inadequate to achieve the goal of staying “well below 2 °C” and, in fact, would allow global temperatures to continue to rise, likely reaching increases greater than 3°C by the end of this century (2). Obviously, leaving things as they are is not an option. It is estimated that, to avoid the worst health effects of climate change, global annual greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 (3). The UN Emissions Gap report, which provides an overview of the difference between where greenhouse emissions are predicted to be in 2030 and where they should be to avert the worst impacts of climate change, states that countries around the globe need to strengthen their current NDC commitments three-fold in order to limit temperature rise to “well below 2°C” as outlined in the Paris Agreement. Similarly, they recommend a five-fold increase in NDC plans to reach a 1·5°C target (4).
Mercifully, there appears to be some hope in this impending scenario of doom. Enter the Lancet Countdown, an international multidisciplinary research collaboration between academic institutions and practitioners across the world, that tracks the health impacts of climate hazards and the possible gains to be derived from more health-focused climate mitigation policies (5). Their research suggests that greater consideration of human health when creating climate change solutions has the potential to not only help reach the “well below 2°C” commitment but also to yield considerable worldwide health advantages. Actions toward better health such as increasing the availability of clean energy, reducing air pollution both in- and out-of-doors, creating healthier housing, increasing physical activity and promoting more nutritious diets have their own beneficial effects on the climate. Moreover, much-needed support for the required changes would likely increase among politicians, industries and society alike because the probable benefits from such a move are more comprehensive, affecting many more sectors than just environmental ones (2).
Here are some examples of the potential positive outcomes of making improved human health a main objective in the quest for climate relief (2).
- Decreasing pollution originating from electricity generation, road transport, industrial processes, food production and agriculture, and household cooking would also reduce universal disease incidence and risk of early death.
- Reducing the use of cars to bring down greenhouse gas emissions requires considerable participation from city planners and public transportation providers, among others. However, the creation of elements that are needed to achieve this result would pay back with greater participation in physical activity, a known pathway to improved health. Examples of improvements that would help accomplish this goal include safe, well-planned, high-quality walking/cycling routes and major enhancements to public transportation.
- Healthier diets have far-reaching effects when it comes to many aspects of life. They usher in not only longer lifespans but also extended healthspans in which active, fulfilling and healthy years continue all the way to the end of life. Eating more wholesomely would reduce the use of health-care facilities, resulting in lower health-care costs as well as a more productive workforce. Early deaths would be avoided both through decreasing the intake of detrimental foods such as red meat and processed foods and reducing obesity as well as to increasing the intake of health-giving foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. The potentially enormous benefits to society of eating more nutritiously would provide the impetus required to address the complex nature of food systems and tackle the cultural, economic and behavioural factors that influence dietary content.
The Lancet Countdown study looked at nine countries of the world that represent 50% of the global population and 70% of global emissions (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States). The researchers developed models to predict the consequences of the adoption of stronger climate policies and NDCs and especially those explicitly addressing health considerations, making them of top importance in constructing climate policies.
Results were reported in reduced mortality as follows (2).
Positive health outcomes derived through reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement with strengthened NDCs from these nine countries would result in…
…annual reductions of 5.86 million diet-related deaths by the year 2040
…annual reductions of 1.18 million air pollution-related deaths by the year 2040
…annual reductions of 1.15 million deaths due to lack of physical activity by the year 2040
Placing health as a central focus for formulating climate mitigation policies and NDCs would add to the above benefits with…
…a further annual reduction of 572,000 deaths attributable to poor diets by the year 2040
…a further annual reduction of 461,000 deaths attributable to air pollution by the year 2040
…a further annual reduction of 943,000 deaths attributable to physical inactivity by the year 2040
In summary, this analysis proposes that strengthening climate change policies and positioning human health at the forefront of climate change mitigation would not only allow the world to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement but could also be preventing more than 10 million excess deaths per year by the year 2040. (2)
There has already been some positive news on this front as some of the signing countries have strengthened their NDC targets. China announced a commitment to reach carbon neutrality before the year 2060 and the US is working on a plan to reach net zero emissions by the year 2050. These intensified plans are a beginning, but more of them are crucial for us to have any hope of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. (2). Will the world reach a point where its citizens can breathe a collective sigh of relief and carry on with a more optimistic spring in their steps? Only time will tell.
2 Hamilton, I., Kennard, H., McGushin, A., et al. The public health implications of the Paris Agreement: a modelling study. Lancet Planet Health. February 2021;5(2):E74-E83.
3 Rogeli, J., Shindell, D., Jiang, K. et al. Mitigation pathways compatible with 1·5°C in the context of sustainable development. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva 2018.
4 UN Environment Programme; Emissions Gap Report 2020. https://www.unenvironment.org/emissions-gap-report-2020
5 Watts, N., Adger, W.N., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Bai, Y., Byass, P., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Colbourn, T. et al. The Lancet Countdown: tracking progress on health and climate change. Lancet. 2017 Mar 18; 389(10074): 1151-1164. Doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)32124-9.