UN Climate Conference to Feature First Ever Official ‘Health Day’

More lives are being lost to climate change every year than in the Holocaust and World War II, warned US Special Climate Envoy in an address before World Health Assembly delegates

In a precedent-setting move, the UN’s annual Climate Conference of Parties (COP28) scheduled for 30 November – 12 December in Dubai will have a formal day in its calendar dedicated to health and climate change. The summit will also host a first-ever climate and health ministerial, WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday.

“The climate crisis is a health crisis, fueling outbreaks contributing to higher rates of non-communicable diseases and threatening to overwhelm our health workforce and health infrastructure,” Tedros said, speaking at a climate and health technical briefing event on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly, also attended by the Chief Executive of COP28, Adnan Z. Amin as well as by US Climate Envoy John Kerry, who appeared virtually. 

There have been worries among some health and climate activists that the United Arab Emirates which is hosting this year’s COP, and is a major fossil fuel producing country, could use health as a fig leaf to obscure the lack of progress on real reductions in climate emissions.   

‘Massive course correction’ is needed says COP28 CEO

However, the lead advisor to the COP28 President, CEO Adnan Z Amin, came out sounding bullish about the level of ambition for the event being planned.

The Kenyan diplomat and former director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), told the WHA delegates that a “massive course correction” will be required by countries at the annual meeting to rein in fossil fuel emissions sufficiently to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Adnan Z Amin, the CEO of COP 28, told the several hundred WHA delegates gathered for the briefing Wednesday.

“With the recent IPCC report, we have had very troubling news that there is a scientific consensus that we are way off track on meeting virtually every goal,” Amin said. “If we are to course correct, if we are to meet the ambition that [US Climate Envoy] John Kerry laid out, of meeting the Paris Agreement ambitions, we are going to have a massive correction and that course correction needs to happen at COP28. 

 “We will need to decarbonize, we will need to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030. This is the decade of action,” Amin said.

He added that the focus of COP28 will be on potential solutions ranging from finance to technology. “This COP must be a COP of solutions. Not a COP of wishful thinking,” Amin said.

Kerry – ‘make no mistake it is a battle’ 

Speaking on video, John Kerry, US’ special Presidential envoy on Climate Change told the group that “ignorance” and avoidance of facts – along with a shortage of funds for climate investments – continue to be the main barriers to climate progress. 

 “Make no mistake, folks. It is a battle,” he declared. “I’ve been involved in public life for more than 50 years …. and I’ve never seen people so willing to wrap their arms around ignorance… and be unwilling to do what the facts are screaming at us.

 “There’s really no polite way to put it, the climate crisis is killing people,” added Kerry. 

“Methane emissions, CO2 emissions, nitrous oxide and other emissions are escaping into the atmosphere, fed by the way in which we continue to choose to fuel our vehicles, propel our vehicles, heat our homes, light our factories and so forth. 

 “Those emissions result in disgraceful, polluted air quality, extreme heat, loss of water, loss of crops, loss of ecosystems. And at every stage, the loss of life. 

 More lives lost to Climate Change every year than in the Holocaust 

The consequent health impacts are not something for the future, but happening here and now. 

“We’re losing many more lives every year [to climate change] than we lost in the Holocaust and World War II, maybe three to four times as many lives – now that extreme heat is now increasing around the world” he said, referring to trends that experts say will also make large swathes of the earth uninhabitable within decades. 

“There are millions of people who are sleeping outdoors in India right now, because they can’t find relief because even at nighttime, it’s 30 degrees centigrade,” he observed.

Private sector still turning a blind eye 

“And the truth is that responsible people, particularly economists, and people who make  enormous decisions about trillions of dollars and its allocation to the building of capital and investment around the world, ignore the real costs.

 “The cost of coal is not the cost of mine to burning. It’s the cost of black lung disease. It’s the cost of increases in emphysema, heart disease, all the other downstream causes and the ash that is filling up lakes and rivers. 

 “It’s the warming of the ocean –  90% of the heat on the planet goes into the ocean. And that heat is changing the chemistry of the ocean… in dangerous ways as we’re witnessing, not the least of which is the possible tipping point we may have reached with respect to the Arctic,  and the Antarctic, and the coral reefs and the Bering Sea, and of course permafrost which is thawing around the world, which releases massive amounts of methane. 

 “So if the consequences of what I’ve just described don’t don’t underscore a health crisis. I don’t know what will. And what adds insult to injury is that everything we are talking about is preventable. 

 US climate commitments aim to slash climate emissions by nearly half

On the positive side, some 20 nations, representing 76% of the world’s climate emissions, have committed to meaningful reductions, he said. That includes new US commitments to reduce its emissions by 45%, or more, by 2030. 

“But we have a lot of other countries in the world that continue to build coal fired power plants, and continue to burn that coal fired power,” he added. 

More finance is key to climate progress

To push the curve further, more finance is needed, he stressed, saying that “this finance gap,  it’s really the greatest stumbling block of all.”

The US recently announced that it would invest $1 billion into the Green Climate Fund – which has suffered from a lack of resources to effectively finance a clean energy transition in developing countries. 

But the private sector needs to be mobilized more aggressively too, he said. 

“We are working on releasing tens and hundreds of billions of dollars from the private sector by bringing them to the table, creating blended finance mechanisms and other ways of investing solutions.  

“We now have more venture capital money moving into green hydrogen, battery storage, direct air carbon capture, carbon capture storage and utilization. The possibilities of new energy coming from sources that we’ve never been able to tap like fusion, small modular nuclear reactors,” he said.

“It’s really hard. It’s being made harder by the day by all of this new gas and oil and fossil fuel burning that is taking place despite the realities that we face. 

“But we can change this,” he concluded.

Health sector also needs to decarbonize

The health sector, which is responsible for about 5% of annual global carbon emissions, also needs to shoulder its share, said Dr Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Climate, Environment and Health, and moderator of the panel discussion. 

She added that while most of the emissions come from high-income countries, solarizing  health services in low and middle income countries also help improve healthcare access in rural areas along with putting them on a green trajectory. 

 The cost of solar and wind energy has dropped by 85% when compared to 2010 prices – making small-scale solar more affordable. 

 And insofar as a considerable share of air pollution is caused by fossil fuel burning, reducing global carbon emissions will lead to reduction in the estimated 7 million premature deaths a year from unsafe air, she added.

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