Loss and Damage Added to Climate Agenda; WHO Calls for Fossil Fuels ‘Non-Proliferation Treaty’
On right: Sameh Shoukry, COP27 President, center: UN Climate Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell at opening day press conference

¨Loss and damage´ from climate change gains a formal place on the COP27 agenda, as conference gets underway, while the World Health Organization issues urgent appeal to world leaders to negotiate a treaty to phase out fossil fuels altogether. 

Sharm el Sheikh – In a historic first, the issue of ¨loss and damage¨ finance for developing countries suffering from impacts of climate change was added to the formal negotiating agenda, as the 27th UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP27) opened here on Sunday – albeit after a delay of several hours as delegates tussled over the final wording of the agenda item.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a grim warning that the climate crisis is increasing illness and deaths at an increasing pace – with hundreds of millions of people already affected and trillions of dollars in direct and indirect economic losses.

And the World Metereological Organization said the world is on track this year to record it´s eight warmest years ever, between 2015-2022.

The final text of the disputed agenda item calls for delegates to discuss, “matters relating to funding arrangements responding to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including a focus on addressing loss and damage.”

Speaking at a press conference shortly after the agenda was finally approved after a days of late night talks, Egypt´s Foreign Minister and COP 27 President Sameh Shoukry, said it was ¨too soon to speculate on the substantive content¨ of the charged loss and damage issue.

Loss and damage agenda item creates ´space´ for discussion

Climate-related events such as Pakistan´s recent floods displacing 33 million people helped push loss-and-damage onto COP27´s agenda.

But Shoukry said that the mere inclusion of the item in the formal negotiating agenda – after years when it was largely just a  civil society talking point, means that ´´political will has been demonstrated¨ to take the issue seriously.

¨This does open the door for a more in-depth, transparent consultation and negotiation process.¨  He cautioned, however, that the ¨landing zone for whatever conclusions we will have, we will have to arrive at through consensus building, building bridges, through accommodation, through flexibility.¨

Demands to include loss and damage formally on the COP negotiating agenda have escalated particularly as developing nations in the global south experience the fallout of more frequent and extreme weather events – from flooding in Nigeria and Pakistan to droughts in the Horn of Africa and hurricanes in the Caribbean.

There had been fears that increased polarization between rich and poor countries over climate priorities, as well as mounting geopolitical tensions between China, Russia and the United States and its allies, the approval of the COP27 agenda could become an even uglier sticking point. Fortunately, despite Sunday´s last minute stalls, that did not prove to be the case.

Observed Simon Stiell, UN Climate Executive Secretary, ¨The space has been created for the discussion. This is about building trust between the parties, and the fact that the parties can come together and resolve whatever issues there were with regards to the agenda is a very positive and constructive sign.  But the real test will be the quality of the discussion that takes place now over the next two weeks.¨

Stiell also called upon countries to update last year´s climate pledges with more ambitious commitments; something less than three dozen countries have done in line wth pledges made at the close of COP26 in Glasgow.

“Only 29 countries had come forward with tightened national plans since Cop26 – 29 is not 194. So here I am now looking out at 165 countries that are due to be revisiting and strengthening their national pledges this year,” he said.

Health should be at core of negotiations

In a statement issued Sunday, WHO appealed for health to ¨be at the core of these critical negotiations¨ – even though the health topic is not formally represented among the thematics of the COP27 conference, or its formal negotiations.

“Climate change is making millions of people sick or more vulnerable to disease all over the world and the increasing destructiveness of extreme weather events disproportionately affects poor and marginalized communities,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “It is crucial that leaders and decision makers come together at COP27 to put health at the heart of the negotiations.”

Jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico

¨Our health depends on the health of the ecosystems that surround us, and these ecosystems are now under threat from deforestation, agriculture and other changes in land use and rapid urban development,¨ added the WHO Director-General.

¨The encroachment ever further into animal habitats is increasing opportunities for viruses harmful to humans to make the transition from their animal host. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

¨The rise in global temperature that has already occurred is leading to extreme weather events that bring intense heatwaves and droughts, devastating floods and increasingly powerful hurricanes and tropical storms. The combination of these factors means the impact on human health is increasing and is likely to accelerate.¨

World Metereological Organization report cites last eight years as warmest on record

Those statements were bolstered by a new World Metereological Organization report on the State of of the Global Climate, also released Sunday.  According to the report, the years 2015-2022 are on track to be the eight warmest ever on record. Meanwhile, the rate of sea level rise has doubled since 1993, with oceans rising by nearly 10 mm since January 2020 to a new record high this year, the report stated.

Global mean temperature increase in the 2022 WMO State of the Global Climate report.

¨We have such high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now that the lower 1.5°C of the Paris Agreement is barely within reach,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof Petteri Taalas of the findings, which confirm those of a spate of other recent reports by the UN Environment Programme and the UN Climat Secretariat on the steady pace of global warming in the face of inadequate mitigation measures.

“It’s already too late for many glaciers, and the melting will continue for hundreds if not thousands of years, with major implications for water security. The rate of sea level rise has doubled in the past 30 years. Although we still measure this in terms of millimetres per year, it adds up to half to one meter per century, and that is a long-term and major threat to many millions of coastal dwellers and low-lying states,” Taalas added.

“All too often, those least responsible for climate change suffer most – as we have seen with the terrible flooding in Pakistan and deadly, long-running drought in the Horn of Africa. But even well-prepared societies this year have been ravaged by extremes – as seen by the protracted heatwaves and drought in large parts of Europe and southern China.”

Direct damage to health in the billions, indirect of trillions

According to WHO estimates, the direct damage costs to health by 2030 (i.e., excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), is estimated to be between US$ 2–4 billion per year.

But indirect damage in sectors such as agriculture, critical to food security and nutrition, already rank in the trillions,  WHO officials told Health Policy Watch on the eve of the conference. And warming projections whereby large swathes of the planet will simply become uninhabitable sometime in this century make quantification of future damages exponentially larger.

Expansion of extremely hot regions in business-as-usual climate scenario. Black and hashed areas represent unliveable hot zones, home to 3.5 billion people in 2070.

Calling for just, equitable and fast phase out of fossil fuels – and non-proliferation treaty

Fossil fuel combustion is a leadng source of global warming as well as of health harmful air pollution emissions.

In its statement, WHO called for a ¨just, equitable and fast phase out of fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy future¨ to head off such scenarios. Its use of the term ¨phase out¨ contrasted sharply with the watered down reference to a ¨phase down¨ of fossil fuel use, which was used in the official outcome statement of last year´s COP26 in Glasgow.

WHO´s COP26 Climate Change and Health Recommendations

But the WHO call for a ¨fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty¨ goes even further.

¨There has also been encouraging progress on commitments to decarbonisation,¨ the agency noted, ¨and WHO is calling for the creation of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty that would see coal and other fossil fuels harmful to the atmosphere phased out in a just and equitable way. This would represent one of the most significant contributions to climate change mitigation.”

Beyond the formal negotiations, it called upon government at all levels, with civil society, to rethink the development of cities and rural areas in more sustainable ways.

¨Improvement in human health is something that all citizens can contribute to, whether through the promotion of more urban green spaces, which facilitate climate mitigation and adaptation while decreasing the exposure to air pollution, or campaigning for local traffic restrictions and the enhancement of local transport systems,¨ said the statement.

“Community engagement and participation on climate change is essential to building resilience and strengthening food and health systems, and this is particularly important for vulnerable communities and small island developing states (SIDS), who are bearing the brunt of extreme weather events.”

Scale of climate impacts accelerating visibly

The agency also referred to a warning from its African Regional Office, issued last week, about the acceleration of climate-related droughts and flooding in the conflict ridden Horn of Africa region. See our related story here:

COP 27: War, Inflation and Geopolitical Tensions Reduce Chances of Breakthrough

According to the new report by WHO´s African Regional Office, some 31 million people in the seven countries that make up the greater Horn of Africa are facing acute hunger, and 11 million children are facing acute malnutrition, as the region faces one of the worst droughts in recent decades. Climate change already has an impact on food security and if current trends persist, it will only get worse, the WHO statement said, some estimates put those costs as high as $12-14 trillion.

¨The floods in Pakistan are a result of climate change and have devasted vast swathes of the country. The impact will be felt for years to come. Over 33 million people have been affected and almost 1500 health centres damaged.

¨But even communities and regions less familiar with extreme weather must increase their resilience, as we have seen with flooding and heat waves recently in central Europe.

Investments in clean energy will yield health gains that repay costs twice over­

Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa decked with solar panels to support clean energy supply in the health sector- the most energy intensive commercial sector after the hotel industry.Climate-friendly policies could also generate health benefits simultaneously, the agency added.

¨Health-focused climate policy would help bring about a planet that has cleaner air, more abundant and safer fresh water and food, more effective and fairer health and social protection systems and, as a result, healthier people.

¨Investment in clean energy will yield health gains that repay those investments twice over,¨ the agency added.

¨There are proven interventions able to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, for instance applying higher standards for vehicle emissions, which have been calculated to save approximately 2.4 million lives per year, through improved air quality and reduce global warming by about 0.5 °C by 2050.

¨The cost of renewable sources of energy has decreased significantly in the last few years, and solar energy is now cheaper than coal or gas in most major economies.¨

At COP27, a WHO Health Pavilion will offer a 2-week programme of events, showcasing evidence, initiatives and solutions to maximize the health benefits of tackling climate change across regions, sectors and communities. Link here to see the calendar and watch the events on livestream.

Image Credits: Fletcher/Health Policy Watch, Rahul Rajput, Jami Dwyer, World Metereological Organization, PNAS, Chris LeBoutillier, WHO, Health Care Without Harm .

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