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New Report Examines Effects of Climate Change and Air Pollution on Human Health

Researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) have contributed to a new, significant report that looks at the impacts of climate change on human health, and the consequences they hold for society. The study has been published in The Lancet medical journal.

Health impacts of exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in 2015, by key sources of pollution. Coal as a fuel is highlighted by hatching. (Image credit: IIASA)

According to the 2018 Report of the research coalition The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, people are already being exposed to greater health risk because of rising temperatures caused by climate change; and for the first time, the report also warns that older people in the East Mediterranean and Europe are especially susceptible to extremes of heat, significantly higher than in South-East Asia and Africa. The risk in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe is attributed to aging populations living in cities, where 43% and 42% of people over 65, respectively, are vulnerable to extremes of heat. In Asia alone, 34% are believed to be vulnerable, whereas in Africa, it is 38%.

The report even states that ambient air pollution was responsible for causing several million premature deaths, especially from ambient fine particulate matter across the globe in 2015. This was the conclusion reached by IIASA researchers that confirmed previous assessments. Since common sources are often shared by greenhouse gases and air pollution, mitigating climate change represents an important prospect for direct human health benefits.

In this context, top policy professionals, academics, and doctors from 27 organizations have not only contributed their analysis but also mutually authored the report. In addition to IIASA, the partners behind the study include the World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, Tsinghua University, University College London, among others.

Gregor Kiesewetter, an IIASA researcher, headed a research team from the Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases research program that predicted the hazards of air pollution to human health. Furthermore, worldwide attribution of deaths to a source was a new, major finding this year.

Kiesewetter and the team discovered that coal alone contributes to 16% of pollution-related premature deaths, about 460,000, which according to them makes phasing out coal-use a “crucial no-regret intervention for public health.”

Along with the team, Kiesewetter applied the IIASA-developed GAINS model, which is capable of calculating the emissions of precursors of particulate matter on the basis of a meticulous breakdown of economic sectors and fuels utilized.

It was observed that major contributions to ambient air pollution stem from the residential sector, largely from solid fuels like coal and biomass. Other important contributors are electricity generation, industry, agriculture, and transport. Although coal should be a major target for early phase-out in homes and electricity production as it is extremely polluting, much more needs to be done.

The attribution shows that unfortunately an approach targeting a single sector or fuel won’t solve the problem—air pollution is a multi-faceted issue that needs integrated strategies cutting across many sectors, which will differ from country to country. This is what we typically do with the regional and local GAINS model: giving advice to policymakers on the most efficient approaches to tackle air pollution in their specific settings.

Gregor Kiesewetter, Researcher, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The report also includes the following headline findings:

  • As much as 157 million more vulnerable people were exposed to a heat wave in 2017 than in 2000, and 18 million more than in 2016.
  • In 2017, 153 billion hours of work were lost because of extreme heat caused by climate change. India lost 75 billion hours, which are equivalent to 7% of its overall working population, and China lost 21 billion hours, which are equivalent to a year’s work for 1.4% of its working population.
  • Heat considerably aggravates urban air pollution, with staggeringly 97% of cities in middle- and low-income nations not meeting air quality guidelines set by the WHO.
  • Heat stress—an early and extreme effect of climate change—is very common and the society and the health systems that are depended upon are not well prepared to handle this.
  • Unseasonable warmth and increasing temperatures are responsible for spreading dengue fever and cholera, with vectorial capacity for their transmission growing across several endemic regions.
  • Humans are exposed to the mean global temperature change, which is more than twice the global average change, with temperatures increasing by 0.8 °C versus 0.3 °C.

According to Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change and director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance, University College London, “Heat stress is hitting hard - particularly amongst the urban elderly, and those with underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. In high temperatures, outdoor work, especially in agriculture, is hazardous. Areas from Northern England and California, to Australia are seeing savage fires with direct deaths, displacement and loss of housing as well as respiratory impacts from smoke inhalation.”

According to the report, which looks at 41 individual indicators across an array of themes, urgent measures are required to safeguard people from the effects of climate change. Especially, stronger labor regulations are required to safeguard workers from extremes of heat, and the health systems and hospitals people depend on have to be better prepared for extreme heat so that they have the ability to cope such conditions. However, the report also stresses that there are limits to adapting to the rise in temperature, and if this not abated, heat and climate change will overpower even the sturdiest of systems, and therefore, it is very critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In many regions of the world, 2018 has been an even hotter year. In fact, the World Weather Attribution Study for northern Europe revealed that heat wave this summer was twice as likely to have occurred due to human-induced climate change. Among the 478 worldwide cities surveyed in the report, 51% anticipate climate change to severely affect their public health infrastructure.

The world has yet to effectively cut its emissions. The speed of climate change threatens our, and our children’s lives. Following current trends we exhaust our carbon budget required to keep warming below two degrees, by 2032. The health impacts of climate change above this level above this level threaten to overwhelm our emergency and health services.

Anthony Costello, Co-Chair, The Lancet Countdown.

The report also included other findings: a novel indicator mapping extremes of precipitation that detects South-East Asia and South America as among the areas most exposed to drought and flood, and with regards to food security, the report indicates that 30 countries have experienced downward trends in crop yields, changing a decade-long trend that had earlier witnessed global improvement. As extremes of weather become more severe and more frequent, yield potential is predicted to decline in every region.

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