Climate change and health conditions are inextricably linked. Worsening air pollution and extreme heat increase the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Paradoxically, the health systems treating us for those diseases are strong contributors to greenhouse gases, which further facilitate climate change.
In a bid to limit global warming to 1.5°C (as described in the Paris Agreement) and move towards net-zero emissions, COP26 saw countries strengthen their emission-cutting targets with several new pledges. In response to growing evidence for the impact of climate change on health, countries have begun to prioritise cutting emissions from the health sector, with 50 pledging to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems. It appears that governments are beginning to realise the link between protecting global health and tackling climate change.
The impact of climate change on global health
Air pollution has been linked to myriad conditions, including asthma and heart disease. In 2015, an estimated nine million premature deaths globally were attributed to diseases caused by air pollution – three times the number of deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Long-term exposure to air pollutants has also been associated with depression.
Vulnerable people, such as children, older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, may be particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. In 2020, nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death, following a severe asthma attack in 2013. At the inquest into her death, a coroner stated that the nitrogen dioxide levels where she lived – only 25 metres from London’s South Circular Road – exceeded guidelines from both the World Health Organization and the European Union.