Global health at the mercy of fossil fuel addiction, scientists warn climate crisis

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According to a study, the health of the world’s people is at the mercy of dependence on fossil fuels.

The analysis reports increases in heat deaths, starvation and infectious diseases as the climate crisis deepens, while governments continue to provide more fossil fuel subsidies than to poorer countries suffering the effects of global warming.

The climate emergency is exacerbating the food, energy and livelihood crises, the report said. For example, in 2021 nearly half a trillion hours of work were lost due to extreme heat. This particularly affected farm workers in poorer countries, cutting food supplies and income.

However, according to the report, urgent, health-focused action to combat global warming could save millions of lives a year and allow people to thrive on cleaner air and better nutrition, rather than just surviving.

The Lancet Countdown group’s report on health and climate change is titled Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels. It was created by almost 100 experts from 51 institutions on all continents and published ahead of the UN climate summit Cop27 in Egypt.

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“The climate crisis is killing us,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres replied to the report. “It’s eroding not just the health of our planet, but the health of people everywhere — through toxic air pollution, declining food security, higher risks of infectious disease outbreaks, extreme heat records, drought, flooding and more.”

Human health, livelihoods, household budgets and economies would suffer as fossil fuel dependency spiraled further out of control, he added. “The science is clear: Massive, judicious investments in renewable energy and climate resilience will ensure healthier and safer lives for people in every country.”

dr Marina Romanello, head of the Lancet Countdown and at University College London (UCL), said: “We are seeing continued dependence on fossil fuels. Governments and corporations continue to favor the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of people’s health.”

The report tracks 43 health and climate indicators, including exposure to extreme heat. It found that heat-related deaths in the most vulnerable populations – babies under one and adults over 65 – have increased by 68% over the last four years compared to 2000-04.

“Not only are heat waves very uncomfortable, they’re deadly for people who are more vulnerable,” Romanello said.

Extreme heat also kept people from working, with 470 billion work hours lost globally in 2021. “This is an increase of about 40% from the 1990s, and we estimate the associated income and economic losses at about $700 billion,” she said. Compared to the 1950s, about 30% more land is now affected by extreme drought events.

These effects are leading to increased hunger, the report said. Heat waves in 2020 meant 98 million more people were unable to get the food they needed compared to the 1981-2010 average, and the proportion of the world’s population suffering from food insecurity is also increasing. “The biggest driver of this is climate change,” said Romanello.

Pump jacks in New Mexico. The strategies of the 15 largest oil and gas companies remain starkly opposed to ending the climate emergency, the report said. Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Prof Elizabeth Robinson of the London School of Economics said: “This is particularly worrying as this year has shown yet again that global food supply chains are highly vulnerable to shocks [such as the war in Ukraine]which is manifested in rapidly rising food prices.”

The report also charted the impact of the climate crisis on infectious diseases, noting that the periods during which malaria could be transmitted increased by 32% in mountainous America and by 15% in Africa over the past decade compared to the 1950s . The likelihood of dengue transmission increased by 12% over the same period.

The Lancet report also tracks the fossil fuel system. It found that 80% of the 86 governments assessed subsidized fossil fuels, providing a total of $400 billion in 2019. These subsidies were larger than national health spending in five countries, including Iran and Egypt, and more than 20% of health spending in another 16 countries.

“Governments have so far failed to allocate the smaller sum of $100 billion a year to support climate action in low-income countries,” the report said.

According to the report, the strategies of the 15 largest oil and gas companies remain at odds with ending the climate emergency, “regardless of their climate claims and commitments.”

UCL’s Prof Paul Ekins said: “Current policies by many governments and companies will lock the world into a deadly warmer future, locking us into fossil fuel use that is rapidly eroding the prospects for a livable world.”

Rapidly reducing fossil fuel burning would not only reduce global warming but also bring immediate health benefits, Romanello said, such as preventing a million or more early deaths from air pollution each year.

A shift to a more plant-rich diet in developed countries will halve emissions from red meat and dairy production and prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths a year, the report said.

“The world is at a critical juncture. We must change or our children will face a future of accelerated climate change that threatens their survival,” said Prof Anthony Costello, co-chair of the Lancet Countdown. “A health-focused response to the current crises would still offer the opportunity to create a low-carbon, resilient and healthy future.”

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