WHO Calls on Countries to “Drastically Reduce” Climate Emissions to Improve Global Health
climate emissions
Fossil fuel combustion is a leadng source of global warming as well as of health harmful air pollution emissions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for focused  action to address global warming and climate change to promote health outcomes. Recommendations include concerted efforts to reduce carbon emissions, build climate-resilient and sustainable health systems and protect health from the impacts of climate change.  

There is also a decline in the treatment coverage for tuberculosis between 2019 and 2021, and a stall in the world’s progress to tackle non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like hypertension and adult obesity.

“Climate and Health” is featured as a separate chapter in the latest edition of the World Health Statistics Report, published by the WHO on Friday. This underlines its importance as a major driver of   health outcomes in coming years, WHO officials said. 

The 131-page annual compilation of health statistics, while providing a birds-eye view on the progress made on global health metrics, also highlights how the world is  not on track to achieve the targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030. 

“The world is off track to reach the sustainable development goals,” said Dr Samira Asma, assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery for impact at the WHO during a press briefing on Thursday. “Unless we pick up the pace, we risk losing countless lives that could have been saved, as well as failing to improve the quality of life for all”. 

Spotlight on climate change

“For the first time, we have a dedicated section on climate change, recognizing its crucial role in shaping the global landscape,” Asma said, underlining the role climate plays in global health. 

The global average temperature during 2021 was around 1.20°C higher than levels observed during the pre-industrial years. The report added that it’s unlikely the world will be able to limit the rise in average temperature to the 1.5°C level agreed in the 2015-Paris Agreement, so as to avoid  “irreversible and catastrophic changes to our natural and human systems”. 

“In order to stay within the 1.5˚C global warming limit set out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the world will need to drastically reduce emissions through large-scale transformation across social and economic systems,” the report emphasized. 

WHO’s spotlight on climate change and its connection to health comes at the heels of the Annual to Decadal Climate update released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Wednesday. The WMO report stated that the world is likely to breach the 1.5°C limit set by the Paris Agreement  before 2027 – although if drastic mitigation measures were taken now they could still bring temperatures down again later.

Apart  urgent measures to reduce carbon emissions, countries should also concentrate on building climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems to mitigate the effects of climate change on health. 

“At the global level, the health sector generates 4-5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Adopting sustainable practices brings benefits like improved accessibility, reliable services, and lower costs,” Dr Haidong Wang, the WHO unit head of monitoring, forecasting & inequalities, said. “Climate change has challenges to countries already dealing with non-communicable disease burdens. It may also lead to resurgence of infectious diseases”.

Infectious diseases and NCDs

The report revealed that in the past few years, the progress made by the world in combating infectious diseases like TB, HIV and malaria, and NCDs, have been reversed. 

Around 10.6 million people were diagnosed with TB in 2021, which is a 4.5% increase in numbers when compared with 2020. The global TB incidence rate increased by 3.6% between 2020 and 2021, reversing the progress made in the past two decades.

Tuberculosis treatment coverage dropped from 69% in 2019 to 61% in 2021,” Wang pointed out. 

The situation around NCDs are equally grim.

NCD burden
Probability of dying from the four major NCDs (ages 30–69 years), projection versus SDG
target, WHO regions and global, 2000–2048.

If targeted efforts are not taken by countries, the objectives set out in the SDGs around tackling NCDs will remain unachieved.

“The share of deaths caused annually by NCDs has grown to nearly three quarters of all deaths and, if the trend continues, is projected to reach about 86% globally by WHO’s 100th anniversary in 2048,” the report cautions. “The United Nations projects that total annual deaths will reach nearly 90 million globally in 2048; consequently, 77 million of these will be NCD deaths – a nearly 90% increase in absolute numbers over 2019”.

COVID-19 pandemic: A medley of crises 

It is known that the COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented damage to health systems across the world. Not only did it kill millions of lives, it also caused considerable backsliding in decades-long efforts taken to address diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, and even changed the pattern of care-seeking across the world. 

“So the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just a health emergency, it was also a statistical crisis across the world,” Dr Dr Stephen MacFeely, WHOs director of data and analytics said. He added that several countries suspended longstanding surveys due to pandemic-related restrictions, making it impossible to acquire real data on issues like population and housing. 

“This shock interrupted the flow of data from already weak and fragile data systems.”

Emphasizing on the need to have robust, disaggregated, good quality data for monitoring and surveillance purposes, MacFeely said  that  WHO will be launching a “Data Dot Portal”, as part of the agency’s World Health Data Hub project, to serve as a “one-stop shop for health data”.  

The portal will be launching at the end of next week, as curtains fall on the 76th World Health Assembly, after being in development for nearly four years.

Image Credits: Chris LeBoutillier, World Health Organization.

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