Phase Out Fossil Fuels, Urges Tedros on Eve of COP27
Severe air pollution in Anyang, China in January 2022.

Ahead of the global climate talks in Egypt, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged governments to expedite fossil fuel phase out and transition into clean energy. 

“Climate change is already impacting health in many ways, through more frequent and extreme weather events, more disease outbreaks, and more mental health issues,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, the director-general of WHO said in a press briefing on Wednesday. 

Flagging the impact of climate change on various aspects of human life, including diseases and malnutrition, Dr Tedros called for governments “to lead a just, equitable and fast phase-out of fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy future”.

The 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt from 6 to 18 November. At the conference, world leaders are expected to assess the progress in limiting global warming to 1.5 º Celsius above the pre-industrial levels. 

“Meeting that target will have massive benefits for human health. Failing to meet it comes with massive risks,” Dr Tedros warned. 

Impact of climate change on food security

Martin Griffiths, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told the briefing that the world is in the grip of hunger crisis and that the pandemic and vast inequality are partly to blame.  

Listing the different crises happening across the world – the drought in the Horn of Africa, Somalia and Kenya, the floods in Pakistan, the civil war in Tigray, Ethiopia – the OCHA chief called for immediate action to control global warming. 

“This is the world at 1.2º Celsius [above pre-industrial levels]. But we’re on track to double that. And unless we act now, we’re heading for a future full of droughts, diseases and climate disasters across the whole world,” he added. 

In 2009 at the Copenhagen Summit, G20 countries pledged that they will channel $100 billion a year to less wealthy countries to mitigate the effects of climate change. Referring to this promise, Griffiths pointed out that the wealthy countries have not kept their word. “We need to come out of COP27 with clarity [about the missing money] and ability [to ensure the promise is kept].” 

He also referred to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres´ proposal to impose a windfall tax on the profits earned by fossil fuel and gas companies, saying that 18 days’ worth of such profits can cover the entire sum of UN’s humanitarian appeal for the year. 

“COP27 is going to be a major test for all of us to see if those commitments made so boldly in years gone past finally made land for the people who are staring climate [change impact] in the face,” Griffiths said. 

Adopt WHO 2021 air quality guidelines

In line with the theme in the coming weeks, spotlight was also put on the role air pollution plays in public health and climate change. Around 1.1 million people in Africa died from diseases related to air-pollution in 2019. 

The WHO estimates that seven million people across the world stand to lose their lives to air pollution in a year. 

But Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, founder and trustee of the Ella Roberta Family Foundation,  says that need not be the case. “Cleaning up the air will save lives and it will also reduce health healthcare costs to increase productivity, and it will save trillions of dollars from governments,” she said. 

Kissi-Debrah called for all the countries participating in COP27 to immediately adopt WHO’s air quality guidelines 2021, describing them as “achievable” and life-saving.

She further said that governments must invest in solutions to tackle air pollution and raise public awareness about the adverse effects of rising air pollution on health. 

Pointing to the example of global cooperation to develop and deliver COVID-19 vaccines, Kissi-Debrah called for a similar level of cooperation to tackle air pollution. “We definitely believe seven to 9 million people every year are definitely worth saving. I urge everybody who goes into COP27 to not forget about public health.” 

Image Credits: Chris LeBoutillier, V.T. Polywoda.

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