First-Ever COP28 Health Day Unfolds Amidst Uproar Over COP President’s Fossil Fuel Remarks
Delegates convened for the first-ever Health Day at a UN climate summit in Dubai.

DUBAI, UAE – The inaugural Health Day at COP28 on Sunday saw a strong push by some global leaders, led by US Climate Envoy John Kerry, for a swift transition away from the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. While some ministers of health among the 50 countries gathered for the day also echoed Kerry’s call for a fossil fuel-free future, others were more hesitant.

The high-level Health Day, the first in 27 years of climate conferences, unfolded amidst an uproar over the revelation of remarks by COP President Sultan Al Jaber, who also serves as CEO of the United Arab Emirates national oil company Adnoc.

Al Jaber, whose dual role as COP28 President and oil barron is viewed by many observers as a serious conflict of interest, was quoted on Sunday saying that there is “no science” behind the claim that phasing out fossil fuels is required to slow global warming, suggesting it could send society “back into caves.”  He made the remarks in an online event 21 November with former UN Special Climate Envoy Mary Robinson, reported Sunday by The Guardian.

At the morning opening of the Health Day plenary, United Arab Emirates Assistant Minister of Health Dr Maha Barakat delivered the opposite message, affirming the Gulf state’s commitment to combatting climate change.

“On this first-ever Health Day, we must call upon the world to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and keep 1.5°C within reach,” declared Barakat.

In a lineup that included the heads of the World Health Organization, the International Energy Agency, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, and Brazil’s Minister of Health, it was US Special Climate Envoy John Kerry who issued the most powerful call for change at Health Day. 

“If you poison our land, then you poison our water and you poison our air,” said Kerry. “The fact is that our bodies are ecosystems, the world is an ecosystem, and everything has an impact on everything.”

“It’s astonishing to me that it has taken as long as it has to have health as the centrepiece of the climate discussion because the reality is that it is killing people around the planet,” he added. “We should not measure progress on the climate crisis just by the degrees averted but by the lives saved.”

“I do not understand how adults who are in a position of responsibility can be avoiding responsibility for taking away those things that are killing people on a daily basis,” said Kerry. The reality is that a climate crisis and health crisis are one and the same, totally connected, totally converging at this moment in time.”

Tackle coal first of all says Kerry

US Climate Envoy John Kerry (center) speaks at the inaugural COP Health Day in Dubai.

Kerry criticized, in particular, the world’s continued reliance on coal, citing its disproportionate impact on air pollution, climate and health, even in comparison to other fossil fuels.

“Coal, in fact, doubles the number of deaths over the other sources of air-carrying pollution … we ought to be transitioning out of coal,” said Kerry. “There shouldn’t be any more coal-fired plants permitted anywhere in the world. That’s how you can do something for your health.  And the reality here is that we are not doing it.”

Coal has always been a high priority target for climate mitigation, emitting 75% more CO2 per unit of energy than natural gas, for instance, and more than half of health-harmful PM2.5 emissions from fossil fuels globally.

But the US Climate Envoy’s impassioned appeal on coal carried sharp geopolitical undertones as well. While the United States remains the world’s largest producer and consumer of oil and gas, it has been winding down coal production, which is no longer a vital part of its energy mix, setting a 2040 target date for phasing it out altogether. 

Comparison of US and China fossil fuel production and use indicators for 2022.

China, a leading geopolitical rival, remains heavily reliant and coal, accounting for 52.7% of global consumption. China also continues to expand coal production planning and building new coal plants both domestically and abroad, despite pledges to reduce its use starting in 2026.

Health must remain a ‘permanent feature’ of the climate agenda

The first Health Day must not be the last, WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Despite the controversy surrounding the COP28 President, the Health Day plenary session saw a consensus among speakers on the urgent need to address the health impacts of climate change.

World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the recognition of the climate crisis as a health crisis as “long overdue”, highlighting that 27 COPs (Climate Conferences) have come and gone without a serious discussion of the topic.

“Undoubtedly health stands as the most compelling reason for taking climate action. The threats to health from climate change are immediate and present,” the UN health chief said. “For too long, health has been a footnote in climate discussions.”

That’s despite the fact that the evidence of health impacts are unequivocable, he said, noting that heat-related deaths among people over 65 have climbed by 75 percent over the past two decades.

“Every year, 7 million people die from air pollution. Changing weather patterns, driven by human activity and the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to record numbers of cholera outbreaks,” he added. “And our warming planet is expanding the range of mosquitoes, which carry dangerous pathogens like dengue, chikungunya, Zika and yellow fever into places that have never dealt with them before.

“This is the first COP Health Day, but it must not be the last,” he concluded. “Health must be a permanent feature of the climate change agenda from now on.” 

Non proliferation treaty support

In his Health Day remarks Tedros’ did not refer to the thorny issue of fossil fuel phase out  – although the WHO leader has spoken vigorously on the issue in the weeks leading up to the climate conference.  At a high level COP28 event Saturday championing a “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty” he compared the impacts of fossil fuel use on climate change to the impacts of tobacco use on cancer incidence, saying:

“Much like we cannot discuss lung cancer without acknowledging the impact of tobacco, it’s undeniable that over 75% … of greenhouse gas emissions stem from oil, gas and coal combined… which not only harm our planet but also pose a great threat to human health.

“Addressing climate change, necessitates addressing the role of fossil fuels,” he said at the event hosted by the small island Pacific nations of Tuvalu and Vanuatu, which face potential extinction from rising sea levels.

“When …oil, natural gas and coal combined contribute more than 75%, why can’t we name that major contributor?  Without addressing this… achieving the 1.5°C limit is baloney. It will not happen.

“The objectives outlined in the proposed treaty are clear, evidenced-based and equitable,” he said. “A rapid phase-out of fossil fuels is imperative to save island nations, preserve the integrity of our planet and protect the health and well-being of all.”

Gates dodges fossil fuel debate, urges adaptation to climate impacts

Also speaking at the Health Day event, Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist and one of the WHO’s largest donors steered entirely clear of the contentious issue of fossil fuel divestment, emphasizing instead the need for adaptation strategies to mitigate the health impacts of climate change.

Gates focused his address on the development and deployment of innovative technologies to counteract the detrimental effects of climate change, particularly in the agricultural sector. He advocated for enhancing food systems’ resilience against rising temperatures and drought to combat malnutrition, a major risk factor for childhood diseases.

Gates urged the global community to maintain its commitment to investing in combating poverty-related diseases like malaria alongside the ongoing climate crisis.

“Nobody would be better off in a world with fewer carbon emissions, where we are reducing our interventions to reduce illness, starvation and death,” he declared.  “Even in the face of climate, investing in these health interventions, are not to be pushed to the side.”

COP presidency defends record at the climate conference 

COP28 has seen a surge in attendance from every corner of the globe. Some 97,372 delegates registered to attend the summit, while COP officials reported  over 35,000 entries on Friday, 1 December, the second day of the conference.

At a a press briefing Monday, Al Jaber pushed back at the outrage over his comments on fossil fuels saying that as an economist, “I respect the science in everything I do. And I respect and trust numbers and figures.

“The science says that we must get to net zero emissions by 2050, and we must reduce emissions by 43% by 2030 in order for us to be able to keep 1.5 within reach. I have been very clear that my job and this mission, is to ensure that my North Star continues to be, and we stay laser focused on, keeping 1.5 within reach.

“I know that there are strong views among some parties about the phase down or phase out of fossil fuels. And allow me to say this again, this is the first presidency ever to actively call on parties to come forward with language on all fossil fuels for the negotiated task text.

“I respect facts, I respect numbers, and these are the facts on the ground. I have called on parties many times to find common ground, build consensus, and come to me with language that will work with all parties. This presidency is committed to delivering the highest ambition possible….Judge us on what we will deliver at the end of this COP.”

UAE Presidency recaps list of accomplishments at ongoing COP

Speaking at a press briefing Saturday evening, COP Director General Ambassador Majid Al Suwaidi recited a list of accomplishes made so far, including a new pledge signed by some 50 major fossil fuel companies to slash methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 90% by 2030.

Methane, climate pollutant more potent than CO2, remains in the atmosphere for about a decade, significantly shorter than CO2’s lifespan of a century or more. Therefore, swift action on methane can provide a crucial window for the implementation of CO2 mitigation strategies to kick in.

Additionally, this COP has witnessed a pledge to triple investments in renewable energy infrastructure and double energy efficiencies by 2030, backed by $2.5 billion in commitments, Al Suwaidi said. And the first two days of the conference saw the operationalization and capitalization of a historic new loss and damage fund, along with over $3 billion in new commitments to the Green Climate Fund and a UAE-led $2.7 billion commitment to a new health and climate fund.

“We took early and decisive action to fulfill our commitment to address loss and damage,” declared Suwaidi. “We have taken a significant step towards enhancing the availability, accessibility, and affordability of climate finance.”

The COP also played host to the Business and Philanthropy Climate Forum, where the the mobilization of $5 billion through blended finance structures aimed at accelerating the climate transition was announced Saturday. And the World Bank has pledged $9 billion.

“On negotiations, there is a sense of optimism and progress,” Suwaidi added, acknowledging that civil society groups and leading countries are still awaiting the final outcome documents to determine if and how commitments to fossil fuel phaseout will be incorporated.

5.1 million lives lost from air pollution generated by fossil fuel sources

Joy Phumaphi, co-chair of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, outlines the health gains that would be obtained from rapid energy transition at a COP28 Health Day Event.

In a side event following the Health Day plenary, Joy Phumaphi, former Botswana Minister of Health presented the findings of a recent Lancet Pathfinder Commission report, which concluded that rapid decarbonization of electricity systems could yield the most significant reduction in the health impacts of climate change, saving an estimated 5 million lives annually from related air pollution effects. She spoke at a side event on “How Ambitious Emission Reductions Can Prevent Illness, Improve Human Health and Save Lives.”

According to a major new BMJ assessment, some 8.3 million lives were lost to air pollution in 2019, including 5.1 million lives from pollution generated by fossil fuel burning.

Financing remains a major barrier

Pakistani Health Minister Dr Nadeem Jan.

However, financial constraints continue to pose a major obstacle for heavily indebted low-income countries seeking to transition to renewable energy sources, emphasized Pakistan’s Minister of Health, Dr Nadeem Jan, at the same event.

“We are solarizing health facilities and planning to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but we are in this debt trap,” lamented Jan, saying that Pakistan’s already high level of indebtedness limits its ability to finance capital investments in clean energy.  

“We contribute only 1% to the climate problem, but are bearing 78% of the burden, disproportionately suffering from climate impacts,” he added, referring to events like the recent catastrophic flooding seen in 2022. “We need debt relaxation in order to take this vision to concrete action…. We aren’t asking for compassion, we are asking for justice.”

Helen Clark to co-lead new commission on air quality policy and finance unveiled

The Clean Air Fund announced the establishment of a high-level Commission on international air quality policy and finance, to be led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan.  Clark has been extremely active on global health issues since co-chairing the Independent Panel on Pandemic Prevention Preparedness and Response, which in 2021 issued a scathing report on the world’s response to COVID.

The Commission, co-founded with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, aims to “address the political barriers to implementing actions on air quality… and strengthen the economic case to secure additional financing conditions and track progress,” Jane Burston, CAF’s Executive Director, stated at the Health Day Plenary.

She also welcomed the introduction of a new set of UNFCCC “Climate and Health Finance” principles, designed to facilitate increased financing for renewable energy projects that simultaneously mitigate air pollution.

Updated 4 December with details of press conference by COP President Sultan Al Jaber and WHO DG Tedros’ remarks at COP on fossil fuels phaseout.

Image Credits: WHO , Stockholm Environment Institute / UNEP, WHO, E. Fletcher .

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