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World’s children to bear brunt of health impacts of climate change

Posted on 13 November 2019

Climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children and is set to have lifelong health consequences for future generations, according to a new report.

The authors of the report are calling for the health impact of climate to be at the forefront of the agenda at the UN Climate Conference next month.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change has found that, if carbon emissions and climate change continue at the current rate, a child born today will face a world on average 4˚C warmer by their 71st birthday, threatening their health at every stage of their lives.

Key concerns

The findings of the report, which is a collaboration between 120 experts from 35 institutions including the University of York, highlight the ways in which climate change is set to shape the wellbeing of an entire generation.

Key areas of concern include:

  • Infants will be among the worst affected by malnutrition and rising food prices: The average global yield potential of maize (-4%), winter wheat (-6%), soybean (-3%), and rice (-4%) has declined over the past 30 years.
  • Children will be among the most likely to suffer from a rise in infectious diseases: 2018 was the second most climatically suitable year on record for the spread of bacteria that cause much of diarrhoeal disease and wound infection globally.
  • Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen, further damaging heart and lung health. Fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) contributed to over 20,500 premature deaths in the UK in 2016, and coal is linked to 60 deaths a week.
  • Throughout their adult lives, extreme weather events will intensify. A record 220 million more over 65s were exposed to heatwaves in 2018 compared with 2000—63 million more than in 2017.


Healthier future

The authors of the research are calling for the health impact of climate to be at the forefront of the agenda at the UN Climate Conference (COP25) next month.

Pursuing the Paris Agreement pathway to limit warming to well below 2˚C could allow a child born today to see an end to coal use in the UK by their 6th birthday, and the world reach net-zero emissions by their 31st birthday—securing a healthier future for coming generations, the researchers say.

Professor Hilary Graham, a member of the Lancet Countdown and an author of the report from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, said: “The Lancet Countdown report on Health and Climate Change makes clear that climate change is taking a heavy toll on people’s health, and the toll is heaviest on those who have contributed least to changing our planet’s climate.

“The report details how children will bear the brunt of these health impacts as they grow up and grow older – and the costs will be even greater for the generations yet to be born.”

Drastic change

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a comprehensive yearly analysis tracking progress across 41 key indicators, demonstrating what action to meet Paris Agreement targets—or business as usual—means for human health.

For the world to meet its climate goals and protect the health of the next generation, the energy landscape will have to change drastically, and soon, the report warns. Nothing short of a 7.4% year-on-year cut in fossil CO2 emissions from 2019 to 2050 will limit global warming to the more ambitious goal of 1.5°C.

Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, called on clinical and global health communities to mobilise: “The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation.

“With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can’t afford this level of disengagement. The clinical, global health and research community needs to come together now and challenge our international leaders to protect the imminent threat to childhood and lifelong health.”

Cautious optimism 

Despite the scale of the challenge, the report offers some reason for cautious optimism—growth in renewables accounted for 45% of total growth in power generation in 2018 (27% from wind and solar power), and low-carbon electricity accounted for a third of total electricity generation worldwide in 2016. In the UK, use of electricity as a fuel for road transport grew by almost a third between 2015 and 2016.

The Lancet Countdown authors call for bold action to turn the tide on the enormous health impact of climate change in four key areas:

1)            Delivering rapid, urgent, and complete phase-out of coal-fired power worldwide.

2)            Ensuring high-income countries meet international climate finance commitments of US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help low-income countries.

3)            Increasing accessible, affordable, efficient public and active transport systems, particularly walking and cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes and cycle hire or purchase schemes.

4)            Making major investments in health system adaptation to ensure health damage of climate change doesn’t overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services to treat patients.

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About this research

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is available here .

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