Human health ‘at the mercy of fossil fuels’, climate change report warns

Another cloudless day hits southern Kenya, a region reeling from the effects of climate change. ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine reports on the real-life impacts on the ground

Governments and companies are continuing to prioritise the use of fossil fuels despite the severe damage to people’s health caused by climate change, a report has warned.

The Lancet Countdown, an annual report on climate change and health, said that the majority of governments it looked at were effectively subsidising fossil fuels - to the tune of a total $400 billion (£348 billion) in 2019.

That is despite climate change driving worsening food insecurity, causing extreme weather including heatwaves that are impacting health and ability to work, plus increasing the spread of infectious disease such as malaria and dengue fever.

The report said countries were still contending with the health, social and economic impacts of Covid, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and persistent over-dependence on fossil fuels had pushed the world into a cost-of-living and energy crisis.

As these crises unfold, climate change escalates with its impacts increasingly “affecting the foundations of human health and wellbeing”.

The study brought together the work of 99 experts from 51 institutions around the world, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Meteorological Society (WMO).

It is led by University College London (UCL) and described how people’s health is “at the mercy of fossil fuels”.

But the report, released ahead of the latest United Nations (UN) climate talks COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, said there was hope health-centred climate action could deliver a “thriving future”.

Speeding up the shift to clean energy and energy efficiency would not only curb climate change, but it would also improve energy security, cut air pollution that kills and boost low-carbon travel such as walking and cycling which would improve health, the report argued.

Meanwhile, accelerating the transition to balanced and more plant-based diets would reduce agricultural sector emissions and also prevent up to 11.5 million diet related deaths a year, “substantially” reducing the risk of diseases spread from animals.

A year ago at the UN COP26 Glasgow climate talks, countries pledged to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies as part of efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and shift to clean energy systems.

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But the Lancet Countdown report found 69 out of the 86 countries it looked at were effectively subsidising fossil fuels, with subsidies exceeding 10% of the national spending on health in 31 countries, and more than 100% of the health spend in five nations.

An analysis of the production strategies of 15 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies showed they would exceed their share of emissions consistent with curbing temperature rises to 1.5C - beyond which the worst climate impacts will be felt - by 37% in 2030 and 103% in 2040.

The UK's carbon pricing policies are an effective subsidy to the tune of £11 billion in 2019, or 4% of national health spend, the report argued, and around 70% of domestic energy comes from fossil fuels, particularly gas.

According to the report, fossil fuel dependence is not only undermining global health through increased climate change impacts, but is also leading to volatile prices, frail supply chains and conflict.

As a result, millions of people around the world do not have access to the energy needed to keep their homes at healthy temperatures and preserve food and medicine, the report said.

Climate change is hitting food security, reducing growing seasons and yields of crops, pushing more areas into drought, and worsening the risk of malnutrition, under-nourishment and access to food.

Extreme heat exacerbates underlying conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, causes problems including heat stroke, poor mental health, and limits people’s ability to work and exercise, as well raising the risk of dangerous wildfires.

Malaria and dengue are also on the rise, risking lives and putting extra pressure on health systems struggling with Covid.

Dr Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown at the University College London, said: “We see how climate change is driving severe health impacts all around the world, while the persistent global fossil fuel dependence compounds these health harms amidst multiple global crises, keeping households vulnerable to volatile fossil fuel markets, exposed to energy poverty, and dangerous levels of air pollution.

“Despite the challenges, there is clear evidence that immediate action could still save the lives of millions, with a rapid shift to clean energy and energy efficiency."

Professor Paul Ekins, from UCL added: “Current strategies from many governments and companies will lock the world into a fatally warmer future, tying us to the use of fossil fuels that are rapidly closing off prospects for a liveable world."