The devastation caused by Covid-19 presents an opportunity for countries to rebuild their economies in a way that is environmentally responsible, researchers say.
“The only way you can meet the Paris agreement is by taking advantage of this moment … by combining the recovery from Covid-19 with the response to climate change,” said Dr Nick Watts, the chief sustainability officer for the NHS.
Watts is one of the authors of the annual Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, which tracks the impacts of global heating on health. The series has been running since 2015, when the Paris agreement was signed with the goal of holding global temperatures to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels.
Global emissions must fall by 7.6% each year from now until 2030 to keep temperature rises below the 1.5C ceiling that scientists say is necessary to avoid disastrous consequences.
“If you wait another three or four years that becomes 15.4%. I think we know that annually, 15.4% is more or less impossible,” said Watts. “And so, the world has to … start responding along those timeframes.”
The 2020 report – compiled by experts from more than 35 institutions including the World Health Organization and the World Bank, and led by University College London (UCL) – teases out parallels between infectious diseases such as Covid-19 and climate change, highlighting that climate change and its fossil fuel-powered drivers such as urbanisation and intensive agriculture tend to encroach upon wildlife habitats, thereby encouraging pathogens to jump from animals into humans.
As the catastrophic experience of Covid-19 spurs measures to reduce the risk of future pandemics, prioritising action on the climate crisis will be critical to achieving that goal, the report and an accompanying editorial argue.
“Climate change drives a cruel wedge, which widens existing health inequalities between and within countries,” said Prof Hugh Montgomery, a Lancet Countdown co-chair and an intensive care doctor based at UCL. “Our report shows that, just as for Covid-19, older people are particularly vulnerable, and those with a range of pre-existing conditions including asthma and diabetes are at even greater risk.”
The climate crisis is also creating conditions conducive to the spread of deadly infectious diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, the report says. For example, between 2015 to 2019 suitability for malaria transmission in highland areas was 38.7% higher in the African region and 149.7% higher in the western Pacific region compared with a 1950s baseline.
Five years since the Paris agreement, a number of indicators are showing an early but sustained reversal of previously positive trends identified in past reports, the authors say.
“The reality here is that the hottest five years on record have been across the last five years, and that’s why we continue to see the worst of the impacts coming through in terms of exposure to heat,” said Dr Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown.
Vulnerability to extreme heat continues to rise across the world, particularly in European and eastern Mediterranean regions, driven by ageing populations and high levels of chronic disease, the authors say, adding that there had been a nearly 54% increase in heat-related deaths globally in people over the age of 65 in the last two decades.
Rising heat also adversely affects productivity: in India last year, for example, it accounted for 40% of the total 302bn work hours lost.
The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events including wildfires, floods, storms and droughts have also changed with climate change. Since the early 2000s roughly 128 countries have recorded higher population exposure to wildfires, with the US seeing the sharpest increases, the report says.
But there are slivers of optimism, with many countries seeing a rise in renewable energy uptake, said Hamilton. “This report really is yet another indication of the reality that we’re facing, which is a future of health compromise,” he said. “We can take action today to stabilise and recover – this is not outside of our abilities. And the current situation lends itself towards taking action, which will lead us to a more sustainable future and the meeting of climate agreement goals.”