Humanitarian agencies call for urgent climate action

On the first day of the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a coalition of humanitarian agencies, including WHO and other United Nations organizations, Red Cross/Red Crescent and nongovernmental organizations, jointly emphasized the urgency of taking prompt adaptation action on climate change and called for a strong and binding global climate change agreement which protects the poorest and most vulnerable.

WHO, along with the other members of the Committee, is technically an observer of the climate change talks. WHO role is to support and encourage the negotiators from the Member States to ensure that health impacts of climate change are addressed in a strong climate change agreement. As with all such occasions, the inclusion of a word or a phrase in a sentence makes all the difference. In this case it could facilitate countries’ efforts to prioritize new health initiatives and health system reform in their plans to combat climate change and adopt mitigation measures.

At the talks, on the opening day, the IASC group made a joint statement at the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action under the Convention, as follows:

Inter-Agency Standing Committee observer statement at the COP15 Opening Day on 7 December 2009

  • On behalf of the agencies of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, including the United Nations, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement and the nongovernmental organizations, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak at this Opening day of COP15
  • As a coalition of humanitarian actors we have joined forces to raise awareness of the humanitarian impacts of climate change and to call for urgent adaptation action to climate change
  • Climate change is already affecting millions of people worldwide every year through increasingly frequent, intense and non-seasonal floods, storms and droughts. Those that suffer the most are the poorest and most vulnerable in risk-prone countries. These people lack the resources to adapt to, or cope with, the rapidly changing climate patterns
  • Humanitarian agencies are already seeing increased food insecurity, public health threats, migration and displacement, and other related consequences. We are deeply concerned with how we can urgently help the most vulnerable adapt to their changing reality
  • Current national and international humanitarian systems do not have the capacity to respond to increased demand from climate related impacts and therefore require additional resources
  • We need a strong and binding global climate change agreement, which protects the poorest and most vulnerable. Such an agreement must help us avert or reduce the worst humanitarian consequences of climate change.
  • We must also look beyond Copenhagen to the critical early measures, commitments and resources needed now to help national governments help their people adapt
  • Disaster risk reduction, disaster preparedness and response are vital front-line defenses for vulnerable communities, especially in risk-prone parts of the world. While humanitarian organizations will continue to respond to weather and climate related crisis and disasters, we can also help to reduce the impacts of extreme weather and climate change through disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness systems.
  • Immediate action is urgent and daunting. We call on you to come to an agreement in Copenhagen that will give better protection of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.


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Climate change mitigation should bring large, direct health benefits

In May, the front cover of The Lancet stated that “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century“.

The current front cover makes more encouraging reading.  “This series makes clear that health co-benefits can accrue as a direct result of many mitigation activities for greenhouse-gas emissions.  If societies change their energy systems, change their methods of transport, and modify intensive food production practices and consumer choices, then many positive health consequences will result“.

This special issue includes a series of studies by a group of leading public health researchers, on the likely health implications of policies in a range of sectors, that would be necessary to reach ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation targets.  They conclude that more sustainable and lower-carbon choices in all of these sectors would bring substantial benefits to public health.  In India, for example, a proposed programme to introduce 150 million low-emission cooking stoves would reduce both the warming effect of black carbon, and indoor air pollution.  It would therefore be expected to gain approximately 12 500 years of healthy life per million population by the year 2020 – roughly equivalent to eliminating half of the total cancer burden in the country.  In the United Kingdom, for example, introduction of selected policies aimed at reducing transport emissions by 60% by the year 2030, would be expected to bring major health gains: 10–20% reductions in heart disease and stroke, 12–13% in breast cancer; 8% in dementia, and 5% in depression.

These health gains are more local and immediate than the long-term and globally distributed benefits of reduced damage to the global climate, and should therefore be of direct interest to policy makers and the general public.  The study also shows that putting an economic value on the health benefits, even in the sector that gives the lowest health returns (electricity generation), would be large enough to cover the cost of mitigation in some large rapidly developing countries.  This supports the conclusion of the last IPCC report, that  the costs of many mitigation interventions would be partly or wholly compensated for by health benefits.  This strongly indicates that these health benefits should be included in any cost-benefit analysis of new technologies or policies relating to energy use.

This is, of course, far from the end of the story.  Although the analysis is the best possible given current data, the authors document a series of research questions that should improve future estimates.  More fundamentally, while the work describes the very large pay-offs from greener practices, it does not directly address what policy measures could bring about these changes.  Promoting new technologies, or getting people to change their behaviour is never going to be easy.  Barriers include the large vested interest in current ways of doing things, and the fact that the potentially large health benefits are largely “off the balance sheet” for the relevant sectoral decisions.

These new studies show, however, that doing things differently would be very good for health, as well as for the environment.

An Executive Summary, the full papers, and accompanying editorials, are available for download from The Lancet.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these posts are those of the staff members working most closely on the relevant issues, but are not necessarily formal positions of WHO.

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Public health impacts of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Different mitigation strategies are likely to have different implications for health. For example, how much would a move to low carbon sources of power improve public health by reducing air pollution? What could be the health benefits of encouraging people to cycle and walk rather than take the car? Could improved biomass cook stoves in developing countries have impacts on child and maternal health as well as greenhouse gas emissions?

In the first major study of its kind, an international team of researchers in collaboration with WHO, have been modelling the health effects of different policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in high and low-income countries. Case studies focus on four key sectors: power generation, transport, household energy, and food and agriculture. The study findings will be published in a special issue in the Lancet in November 2009.

The results will be launched at events in London and Washington on 25 November 2009.

For further information, please consult our website.

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