The latest global report on the climate and health crisis was released this week, underscoring the critical urgency of stepping up climate action, as Australia made some long overdue steps towards national action on climate and health in the Albanese Government’s first budget.
Melissa Sweet writes:
The world is on track for catastrophic global warming and nations must urgently boost mitigation and adaptation efforts, according to the latest annual report in The Lancet Countdown series.
Existing policies put the world on track to reaching 2·4–3·5°C above pre-industrial times by 2100, with a 48 percent chance that the 1·5°C threshold proposed in the Paris Agreement will be exceeded within five years, the report says.
It says “the grossly insufficient decarbonisation, compounded by geopolitical conflict, has made it vastly more challenging to limit the temperature rise to 1·5°C, and the window of opportunity to limit the temperature rise is rapidly closing”.
“In its seventh iteration, the 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown shows the direst findings yet,” write 99 experts from 51 collaborating organisations. The report provides an independent assessment of progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement, investigating progress on 43 indicators.
“After 30 years of UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] negotiations, the Lancet Countdown indicators show that countries and companies continue to make choices that threaten the health and survival of people in every part of the world.”
As oil and gas companies are registering record profits, their production strategies continue to undermine people’s lives and wellbeing, the report says.
“At 1·1°C of heating, climate change is increasingly undermining every pillar of good health and compounding the health impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical conflicts.”
The experts warn that the world is at “a critical juncture”, and urge countries to take a health-centred response to climate and other crises.
“With countries facing multiple crises simultaneously, their policies on COVID-19 recovery and energy sovereignty will have profound, and potentially irreversible consequences for health and climate change.”
The report urges governments to redirect support from subsidising fossil fuels to low-carbon power generation, health protection, public health promotion, and healthcare.
“Fossil fuel dependence is not only undermining global health through increased climate change impacts, but also affects human health and wellbeing directly, through volatile and unpredictable fossil fuel markets, frail supply chains, and geopolitical conflicts,” it says.
Accelerated climate action would deliver cascading benefits, with more resilient health, food, and energy systems, and improved security, minimising the health impact of health shocks.
“With the world in turmoil, putting human health at the centre of an aligned response to these concurrent crises could represent the last hope of securing a healthier, safer future for all.”
The experts say the COVID-19 response showed that decision makers in higher income countries are willing and able to rapidly raise and allocate vast sums of public money to tackle what they perceive as a clear and present danger to the health of their population and economy.
By contrast, the paucity of international climate finance revealed that climate change “is not yet viewed as a crisis by the decision makers who could most effectively address it”.
“With the window of opportunity for keeping temperatures below 1·5°C rapidly closing, averting the catastrophic health impacts of climate change depends now on political will,” says the report.
It is published as the world confronts profound and concurrent systemic shocks, including the health, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a persistent fossil fuel overdependence has pushed the world into global energy and cost-of-living crises.
During 2021 and 2022, extreme weather events caused devastation across every continent, adding further pressure to health services already grappling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Floods in Australia, Brazil, China, western Europe, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, and South Sudan caused thousands of deaths, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and caused billions of dollars in economic losses. Wildfires caused devastation in Canada, the USA, Greece, Algeria, Italy, Spain, and Türkiye, and record temperatures were recorded in many countries, including Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Oman, Türkiye, Pakistan, and the UK.
In 2022, unprecedented global health, economic, and conflict events have critically worsened public health, with climate change exacerbating the impacts of many of these events.
“Without global coordination, transparency, and cooperation between governments, communities, civil society, businesses, and public health leaders, the world will remain vulnerable to international emergencies. The gap between the health impacts of climate change, and adaptation investment and implementation continues to increase, to the detriment of all.”
However, some indicators in the report provide “a glimmer of hope.”
Government engagement with health and climate change reached record levels in 2021, with 60 countries committing to developing climate-resilient and/or low-carbon or net zero-carbon health systems at COP26 [Australia was not one of these countries, although we will be watching for further developments at COP27].
The Australian iteration of the report was also published this week, titled ‘Australia unprepared and paying the price’, and will be reported upon in more detail by Croakey in another story.
The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change Policy brief for Australia says that our healthcare systems are largely under-prepared for the impacts of climate change, and are showing signs of strain from increases in climate change-related healthcare demand adding onto the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The briefing present three recommendations, as below, to guide policymakers, and urges governments to seek, fund, and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in their implementation.
“This should occur in recognition of the positive outcomes that are generated through First Nations-led approaches to climate and health challenges; and of the fact that climate-related impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Countries and cultures are pervasive, complex, and compounding,” says the brief.
Federal budget news
The Countdown report is timely for Australian policymakers and health advocates, with this week’s Federal Budget papers showing $3.4 million allocated over the next four years to develop a National Climate and Health Strategy and establish a National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit.
Health advocates who have been lobbying for such an initiative for several years welcomed the move as “a real milestone”, but Croakey notes that it is just a drop in the ocean relative to the immense task ahead and Australia’s ongoing subsidy of the powerful fossil fuels industry.
Roland Sapsford, CEO of the Climate and Health Alliance, said the investment is a good start, but a lot more needs to be done.
“At least two people have died in the most recent flooding, on top of the 23 people who died in floods earlier this year in southeast Queensland and northern NSW,” he said in a statement.
“Hundreds died during the bushfires in 2019-20 and thousands are dying in our cities during extreme heat.”
Doctors for the Environment Australia Chair Dr John Van Der Kallen said he looked forward to working with the Government as it established the unit and to contributing to the National Health and Climate Strategy.
Establishing this unit and a strategy is a first step towards the healthcare system achieving net zero emissions by 2040, with an interim goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2030, he said.
All health departments needed to be working together to reduce emissions and elevate sustainable practices in healthcare.
“There is rapidly growing support in the health profession for the Australian healthcare sector to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and be a leader in environmentally sustainable healthcare,” he said.
“This is not limited to decreasing energy use and waste, but extends to better procurement decisions, improved infrastructure and planning, public and preventive health care, and innovative care pathways.”
Calling for feedback
Meanwhile, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care is calling for feedback on a Sustainable Healthcare Module that aims to support healthcare services become sustainable, adaptable and resilient.
The Module contains five actions to support healthcare services to include sustainability measures and targets when setting priorities and strategies. It is designed to support improvements in the safety and quality of health care, reduce waste and drive reductions in low value care and unwarranted variation across the healthcare system.
The Module draws upon this systematic review of sustainable healthcare, as per the tweets below.
Wider budget news
The Climate Council said in a statement that the 2023 Federal Budget has delivered more cash for climate initiatives than any other in the last decade, but Australia must ramp up its renewables transition.
Nicki Hutley, Climate Councillor and leading economist, said the big investments in climate action make for a ‘refreshing change’.
“This really is the first budget in a decade to take climate seriously as both an opportunity and a threat,” she said.
“From a climate perspective, this Budget is a refreshing change from what we have had to endure for many years now. Climate change was mentioned 220 times – it’s not front and centre – but it’s a vast improvement on recent years.
“For a start, there is a detailed discussion around the fiscal and economic risks of climate change, with confronting figures such as the potential 7% drop in GDP over the remainder of this century if we fail to act.
“Reassuringly, the Government is living up to its pre-election climate commitments with investment in renewable energy, the grid, electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, and a cornucopia of other measures, which all add up.
“There are state and federal partnerships and there’s also funding to help our Pacific neighbours in the fight against climate change. Plus more much-needed measures for disaster resilience.
“This is a most welcome step forward, but far more still needs to be done. We need to land a detailed, workable Safeguard Mechanism. We need to go harder and faster on the energy transition. And, we need to stop subsidising fossil fuels and approving new developments.”
More from Twitter
See an interactive display of the The Lancet Countdown findings.
At The Conversation: ‘Labor’s ‘sensible’ budget leaves Australians short-changed on climate action. Here’s where it went wrong’, by Timothy Neal
Save the dates
- 5pm AEDT, 8 November: Health policy and the Federal Budget
- 5pm AEDT, 15 November: Health in All Policies and the Federal Budget
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