More than 1 million deaths in a year: How fossil fuels affect health

The persistent dependence on fossil fuels endangers the health of current and future generations, says a report by The Lancet magazine, which warns that both governments and companies continue to apply strategies that threaten “increasingly” the health and survival of people.

“World leaders have seriously underestimated the scale of the climate changes we have to embark on.” The Lancet magazine presented the findings of the seventh edition of The Lancet Countdown report, which brings together the conclusions of 99 researchers on the effects of climate change on human health.

In a year in which droughts in Europe and the United States and floods in Pakistan, South Africa and South Sudan dominated the headlines, the effects of climate change on human health are increasing.

1.2 million deaths related to burning of fossil fuels

The results of this year’s report are the most “dire” so far, since 2016 when the document began to be published. In an analysis of 43 health-related indicators, the researchers tracked how heat waves, droughts, floods, and pollution have affected death rates, pressures on health systems, and even mental health.

For the first time, moreover, the report monitored the effects of climate change on food security. Heat wave days were found to be associated with 98 million more people experiencing food insecurity in 2020 than in the period 1981-2010.

More than 90 researchers from around the world have published a revealing report showing the effects of climate change on human health. According to analysis, dependence on fossil fuels is putting future well-being at risk. In 2020 alone, 1.2 million deaths were directly related to the burning of fossil fuels.

This produces a greater risk of food insecurity, the transmission of infectious diseases, conditions related to high temperatures, energy poverty and deaths due to exposure to pollution, summarizes the document entitled “Countdown on health and climate change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels”.

The document, which has been prepared by 99 experts from 51 institutions from all continents on the eve of the UN Climate Summit COP27, to be held in November in Egypt, notes an increase in deaths from heat, hunger and infectious diseases as the climate crisis progresses. intensifies In this context, the report denounces that governments continue to give greater priority to subsidies for fossil fuels, compared to the poorest countries that suffer the effects of global warming.

According to the text, 69 of the 86 countries examined had injected a total of 400,000 million dollars in fossil fuels in 2019, with subsidies that exceed 10% of national spending on health in 31 countries and more than 100% in five nations.

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Food safety and infectious diseases

It also warns that climate change is affecting food security, reducing growing seasons and crop yields, pushing more areas into drought, and exacerbating the risk of malnutrition and access to food.

Extreme weather has spread hunger to nearly 100 million people and increased heat deaths by 68% in vulnerable populations around the world. In addition, the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and biomass generates air pollution that costs the lives of 1.2 million people a year.

The report also reveals the impact of the climate crisis on the incidence of infectious diseases and concludes that the periods in which malaria could be transmitted were lengthened by 32% in the mountainous areas of the Americas and 15% in Africa. during the last decade. Meanwhile, the probability of dengue transmission increased by 12% during the same period.

Extreme weather events

During 2021 and 2022, extreme weather events caused devastation on every continent, increasing pressure on health services dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic.

Floods in Australia, Brazil, China, Western Europe, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, and South Sudan have killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and caused billions of dollars in economic loss.

Meanwhile, forest fires raged in Canada, the United States, Greece, Algeria, Italy, Spain and Turkey, and record temperatures were recorded in Australia, Canada, India and the United Kingdom.

By indicators, the text recalls that exposure to extreme heat directly affects health: it exacerbates basic diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, negative pregnancy outcomes or mental health problems.

Children under one year of age collectively experienced 600 million more days of heat waves (4.4 more days per child) and those over 65, 3.1 billion more days (3.2 more days per person) between 2012 and 2021, compared to the period 1986-2005.

Heat-related deaths increased 68% between 2017 and 2021, compared to 2000-2004; while exposure to very high or extremely high fire danger days increased in 61% of countries from 2001-2004 to 2018-2021.

Additionally, exposure to heat led to the loss of 470 billion potential working hours worldwide in 2021.

Spread of disease

Climate change affects the spread of disease; time to malaria transmission increased by 32.1% in the highlands of the Americas and 14.9% in Africa between 2012 and 2021, compared to the period 1951-1960.

In the short term, climate change is affecting all the pillars of food security: rising temperatures and extreme weather events directly threaten crop yields by shortening the growing season for crops.

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On average, 29% more of the global land area was affected annually by extreme drought between 2012 and 2021, compared to 1951-1960, leading to food and water insecurity.

The carbon intensity of the global energy system has fallen less than 1% from 1992 levels when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, the report says.

69 of the 86 governments analyzed actually subsidize fossil fuels, for a net total of $400 billion in 2019. These subsidies exceeded 10% of national health spending in 31 countries and 100% in five.

At the current rate, the total decarbonization of the energy system would take 150 years, far from the demands of keeping global warming at 1.5 degrees, as established by the Paris Agreement.

“Our report reveals that we are at a critical moment. We see how climate change is seriously impacting health while the persistent global dependence on fossil fuels compounds these damages in the midst of multiple global crises”, says Marina Romanello, executive director of Countdown Lancet.

There’s still hope

Despite the worrying signs, there are still “glimpses of hope”: the answer has to be centred on health.

For example, improving air quality would help prevent deaths from exposure to air pollution from particulate matter derived from fossil fuels, which in 2020 alone were 1.3 million.

Accelerating the transition to more balanced plant-based diets would not only reduce 55% of emissions from the agricultural sector of red meat and milk production, it would also prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths annually and reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.

In response to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres (who was not involved in drafting it) lamented: “The climate crisis is killing us.”

“It is killing not only the health of our planet but also that of people through air pollution, decreased food security, increased risks of infectious disease outbreaks, record temperatures, droughts and floods”.

“The science is clear on this: massive and sensible investments in renewable energy and climate resilience will ensure healthier and safer lives.”

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