Health, Climate and Air Pollution: Side Event at the World Health Assembly

Geneva, Switzerland, 20 May 2014 – The Permanent Missions of France and Norway to the United Nations in Geneva sponsored an event here yesterday on one of the most important emerging human health issues. With the room overflowing with representatives of governments, international organizations, nonprofit organizations and the private sector, high-level speakers spoke repeatedly of the need for the health sector to become engaged on the interrelated issues of health, climate change and air pollution.

Speakers included:

  • Margaret Chan, Director General, World Health Organization
  • Maria Neira, Director, Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, WHO
  • Marisol Touraine, Minister for Social Affairs and Health, France
  • Bent Høie, Minister of Health and Care Services, Norway
  • Kirk Smith, Coordinating lead author for health, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Professor of Environmental Health, University of California, Berkeley
  • Mariyam Shakeela, Minister of Health and Gender, Maldives
The following are summaries of comments made at the event:

The relationship between health and climate change is complex and multisectoral, and it should be an important agenda item for the health community. Health ministries should work with environmental ministries on this important issue. In the plenary earlier in the day all participating health ministers referred to the importance of the interconnection between climate change and health. Governments need to make sure that the COP 20 meeting in Lima in December and the COP 21 meeting in Paris in 2015 are successful. WHO is also hosting a meeting in August in Geneva that will explore the relationship between health and climate.

Margaret Chan, Director General, World Health Organization

The connection between health, climate change and air pollution is clear. Some 3.7 million people died in 2012 from outdoor (ambient) air pollution, and some 4.3 million died from household air pollution, mainly from cooking with inefficient cookstoves using biomass and coal as fuel. Air pollution accounts for one in eight deaths overall, and addressing it will result in lower childhood pneumonia and lower risk of NCDs . The negative impact of climate change on health is also important – and preventable. Slowing the rate of climate change reduces risks, including from infectious disease and extreme weather events. The health community has a major role to play in gathering evidence of climate impacts and strengthening climate resilience, and health ministers are encouraged to take up the issue, including by promoting clean energy, supporting sustainable cities and greening the health sector. Climate change is not just an environmental issue!

Maria Neira, Director, Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, WHO

Climate change is an issue that has been with us over the past 20 years, regularly on the front pages of newspapers. The issue, however, has not really been understood as a health issue. There is no longer any place for climate change skepticism. The impact of climate change on environment and health is obvious. The question is, What do we do about it? France is committed to dealing with it. The COP 21 meeting in 2015 in Paris will be a decisive step, aiming to ensure that all countries sign a binding agreement on climate. Countries can no longer deal with the problems of climate change alone. Not only health and environmental ministries, but also ministries of agriculture, transportation, energy and others need to be involved. It is vital to deal with this in a cross-cutting manner. France has created inter-ministerial bodies to draw up national plans to address climate change. On the international level, European states are working together in areas such as transportation to reduce emissions that can jeopardize health and standards of living. International coordination is also needed because changing temperatures can contribute to the spreading of viruses to new areas of the world. We have a responsibility to mobilize our colleagues in government because the future health of our people, as well as the future of climate change, may depend on our cooperation. 

Marisol Touraine, Minister for Social Affairs and Health, France

Air pollution is a leading risk factor in climate change, and we need to cut both carbon dioxide and short-lived climate pollutants to keep temperature increase under two degrees Celsius. As shown by the fact that only 12% of cities monitored by WHO fall under recommended air pollution levels, health ministers must step up their efforts on air pollution and climate. The threats to health from abnormal weather conditions and other sources are obvious. WHO guidelines are a help, as are early warning systems, but we also need stronger global connections. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition has the potential to increase the scale of action on short-lived climate pollutants through action by its more than 90 partners . Norway has shown how important it considers the fight against climate change and air pollution by its commitment of $20 million dollars to the work during the last three years. Women and children in developing countries are the hardest hit by climate change and air pollution, and joint work by ministries of health and environment is important in dealing with this issue.

Bent Høie, Minister of Health and Care Services, Norway

Earth and its inhabitants are sensitive to changes in the atmosphere. Climate change and health are linked directly, such as through floods, storms, water quality issues, malnutrition, and problems in refugee camps and medical care delivery systems. A cubic meter of air weighs about one kilogram.  Adding just half a gram more of carbon dioxide per cubic meter will dramatically alter the climate, and this will happen well before the end of this century because of human actions. Adding just one ten-thousandth of a gram of small particles to the air we breathe increases the rates of cardio-pulmonary and other major diseases by factors of two or more. Air pollution is a serious health problem, up there with the “big boys” such as tobacco, blood pressure, alcohol, obesity and child malnutrition.  The impact is especially large in developing countries, and the largest health risks will apply in populations that are currently most affected by climate-related diseases. It’s difficult to assign a significant burden of disease to human-caused climate change. From now until 2050, growing health impacts can be expected if adaptation measures are not taken, but could be greatly reduced if they are.  After 2050, the risk in higher emission scenarios is major impacts on health, particularly of the poor. Many people will be unable to work outdoors due to heat and humidity. But efforts to solve the problem can’t wait until 2050. Household air pollution from cookstove smoke is equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes an hour. How do we get poor people to use cleaner fuels? Over the last 25 years, the absolute number of people using biomass fuels has not changed. We need to promote cleaner fuels. We also need to reduce air pollution from energy systems, shift consumption away from animal products and design transit systems that reduce use of motorized vehicles. This is an issue traditionally taken up by environmental ministries, but health ministries need to become involved.

Kirk Smith, Coordinating lead author for health, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Professor of Environmental Health, University of California, Berkeley

In a country of nearly 1200 tropical islands stretching over 750 kilometers, with 80 percent of the land just over a meter above sea level, climate change is of deep concern to the Maldives. We are dependent on the ocean and the reef system for 89 percent of our GDP, and our sea livelihood is threatened by the rising ocean temperatures from global warming. We have had record heat, extended dry periods, frequent bursts of volatile and violent storms of frightening magnitude. We fear the related possible increase of vector borne diseases (such as dengue) and non-communicable diseases, which account for 78 percent of the country’s disease burden. Predictions that the world is headed for irreversible climate change in five years if we continue the current trend of emissions has sent the Maldives racing to maintain a strong foothold among those in the front line to combat climate change. What happens in the Arctic does not stop at its borders. It has devastating effects on all of us, although in differing degrees. Global problems require global coordinated solutions and action. We need strong leadership, political commitment and the making of difficult choices.  But if we take the forecasts of climate research seriously, the next years are crucial, and we must take action.

Mariyam Shakeela, Minister of Health and Gender, Maldives

A year ago President Obama unveiled a climate action plan and made it a high priority. He asked that high-level officials in the US, including in energy, state, agriculture, health and others, work together to implement the plan. More recently, the Obama administration released the US national climate assessment, and the effect of climate change is evident in many regions. We need sustainable climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, in a large degree because climate change is a major threat to human health in a variety of ways. For example, the major storms Katrina and Sandy rendered some health facilities in the US nonfunctioning because of flooding. Hospitals need to be made climate resilient. The US Department of Health is putting together a resource packet of best practices for health facility designers. The Department is also incorporating climate change planning into public health plans, and the Centers for Disease Control is making national data available to officials. We are encouraging healthcare providers to make issues more concrete to patients. Everyone talks about tobacco, diet and exercise. Few people talk about the effect of climate change on health. 

Howard Koh, US Assistant Secretary for Health (comment from the floor)

WMO and WHO have established a joint project office in the last few weeks to work together to create a global framework for climate services. The intent is to make information and the best science available for ministries and other actors on changing climate, for use during epidemics. We encourage ministries to be part of the global movement to create a framework for climate services and bring health to center stage.

Jerry Lengoasa, Deputy Secretary-General, World Meteorological Organization (comment from the floor)

It should not only be ministries of health that care for health. Ministries of environment need to work with ministries of health to develop and implement actionable science. And the health sector needs to become a bigger player to influence air quality and air pollution measures. Sources of pollution, such as diesel fuel, domestic cooking and heating stoves and fuels cookstoves and household fuels, the oil and gas production sector and other areas, need to be addressed. Together with WHO and Norway, who are active partners in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and leading a CCAC Health Task Force, we are about to launch an awareness-raising campaign on health and air pollution, with a special focus on short-lived climate pollutants and measures with multiple benefits to health, climate and ecosystems, seeking practical ways to turn science into policy. Health ministries need to be in the forefront on the issue of health and air pollution.

Air pollution is a major health issue and risk factor for non-communicable diseases, such as stroke, heart disease, respiratory illnesses and cancers. Children and women are particularly at risk from indoor air pollution, while children, the elderly and poor populations may be more at risk from outdoor air pollution. WHO and member states need to respond accordingly. Implementation of policies aimed at reducing emissions at the national and local/urban level is key. Half of the urban population is exposed to air pollution at least 2.5 times higher than WHO recommended levels. Short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon or soot, tropospheric ozone and its precursor, methane, not only impact health but are also powerful climate forcers affecting on global warming. Taking appropriate measures can slow global warming by up to 0.5°C between 2010 and 2050, and hence help to stay within the global warming target of 2°C in the near-term. Due to the enormous health impacts of air pollution, the health sector should become a driving force for air pollution reductions, including convening and informing stakeholders about health risks, and informing about strategies that optimize pollution reductions with maximal health benefits.  And it is important that WHO as the health cluster leader also become an effective leader in mobilizing support for the global effort to tackle air pollution. 

Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the Secretariat, Climate and Clean Air Coalition (comment from the floor)

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants is a partnership of governments, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector, the environmental community, and other members of civil society. The Coalition is government-led but is highly cooperative and voluntary. Short-lived climate pollutants are agents that have a relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere—a few days to a few decades—but also a warming influence on climate as well as, in many cases, detrimental impacts on human health, agriculture and ecosystems.

For more information on the CCAC, please see www.unep.org/ccac or contact the CCAC Secretariat at ccac_secretariat@unep.org.