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Image of people preventing planet earth from falling off a cliff to illustrate the danger of climate change.

Ahead of COP26, a global coalition calls for ‘accelerated action putting the health of people and planet above all else.’

Published annually, the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change is a collaboration involving over 120 leading researchers from 38 UN agencies and academic institutions, including Oxford Population Health. The 2021 report ‘Code red for a healthy future’, published today, tracks 44 indicators of health impacts that are directly linked to climate change - and shows key trends are getting worse and exacerbating already existing health and social inequities. The authors call for urgent, globally coordinated action to mitigate climate change and build a healthier, sustainable future for all.

Key findings from the report include

  • Many current COVID-19 recovery plans are not compatible with the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C and will therefore have long-term health implications.
  • Climate change and its drivers are creating ideal conditions for infectious disease transmission, including dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika, malaria, and cholera. In addition, northern European and US coasts are becoming more conducive to bacteria which produce gastroenteritis, severe wound infections, and sepsis.
  • The risk to human health from severe heatwaves is increasing. In 2020, adults over 65 were affected by 3.1 billion more days of heatwave exposure, compared to an average of 2.9 billion days a year over the previous decade. Chinese, Indian, American, Japanese, and Indonesian senior citizens were the most affected.
  • Malnutrition is set to rise as climate change is already accelerating food insecurity, which affected 2 billion people in 2019. Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields and increase the strain on food systems. For instance, maize has seen a 6% decrease in crop yield potential, wheat a 3% decrease and rice a 1.8% decrease, compared to 1981 – 2010 levels.
  • Healthcare systems are ill-prepared for current and future climate-induced health shocks. Only 45 (49%) of 91 countries in 2021 reported having a national health and climate change plan or strategy.

The report also highlights how health inequalities will be made worse by increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including droughts and storms. These threaten water security, sanitation, and food productivity, and increase the risk of wildfires and exposure to pollutants. Low-and middle-income countries, which already have the weakest healthcare systems, are the most at risk.

According to the report’s authors, as countries commit trillions of dollars to restart their economies in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these recovery plans must simultaneously address climate change and health inequalities. Promoting a green recovery and rapid decarbonisation would deliver better health for all through cleaner air, healthier diets and more active lifestyles. 

Dr Marco Springmann, a co-author of the report and lead researcher on the diet and health co-benefits of climate change mitigation, said: ‘Dietary changes towards healthier and more sustainable diets with lower proportions of animal source foods are urgently needed to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. However, our research for the report shows that we are currently heading in the opposite direction. Food-related emissions, particularly from meat and dairy, are rising, and more people are dying each year due to poor diets that include too much red meat, and too few fruits and vegetables and other health promoting foods.’

He added: ‘It is a matter of urgency that policymakers take the high environmental and health toll of our food system seriously. Current climate policies, such as the UK’s Net Zero strategy and many others around the world, fail to rise to the task. Decisive policies are needed to make healthy and sustainable diets available, affordable, and appealing to all segments of society.’