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Public health faces a critical climate deadline


Global emissions are reaching record levels and the last four years were the four hottest on record, with winter temperatures in the Arctic rising by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, forests are burned and we are increasingly seeing the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, storm surges, heatwaves, risks to food security, and more.

Less than two months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that, without major, transformative changes to our food systems and how we manage our forests, complementing a rapid transition of our energy systems away from fossil fuels, we will not be able to limit global warming to the 1.5°C needed to protect human health. This followed on the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5, which identified the critical timeline we must meet: annual emissions begin to decrease by 2020; are cut in half by 2030; and we achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Governments are now preparing to meet in New York for the United Nations Secretary General’s special Climate Action Summit, to boost ambition and accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the last window of opportunity to do something about it. Current national commitments to reduce carbon emissions will lead to at least 3°C of warming; and even these commitments are not yet being fully met. Meanwhile many national leaders have been distracted by a range of issues from trade wars to internal politics.

Around the world, the impacts of climate change are no longer distant or deniable. A European heat wave this summer drove temperatures in France to an unprecedented 45 (113), while temperatures in India hit 50 (123). Months-long drought in India has left villages empty, drought in Central America is driving desperate farmers to migrate northward, and across 14 countries in Africa, prolonged drought left 45 million people hungry. Cyclones in 2019, exacerbated by climate change, also affected tens of millions of people, with particularly severe impacts on children in already vulnerable communities. Just this month Dorian hit the Bahamas as a category 5 hurricane, leaving devastation in its wake.

Climate action and public health are intertwined
Deaths, injuries and displacement, malnutrition, and the spread of water- food- and vector-borne diseases follow these climate impacts. Indeed, the health fallout can last months or even years after an extreme weather event or sustained, climate-driven changes.

The causes of climate change -- fossil fuel-based energy and transportation, and industrialized food systems, as well as land use that burns or plows or paves over the earth’s recovery systems -- have health impacts themselves, including the extensive health harms of air pollution on respiratory, cardiovascular, and infant and child development. Mitigating climate change offers tremendous opportunities to improve health, through reduced air pollution, improved diets, and more equitable communities that support healthier, more active lives.

Late in 2018, health organizations from around the world representing over 5 million doctors, nurses and public health professionals, issued a Call to Action on Climate and Health, including 10 priority actions:
1. Meet and strengthen the commitments under the Paris Agreement
2. Transition away from the use of coal, oil and natural gas to clean, safe, and renewable energy.
3. Transition to zero-carbon transportation systems with an emphasis on active transportation.
4. Build local, healthy, and sustainable food and agricultural systems.
5. Invest in policies that support a just transition for workers and communities adversely impacted by the move to a low-carbon economy
6. Ensure that gender equality is central to climate action.
7. Raise the health sector voice in the call for climate action.
8. Incorporate climate solutions into all health care and public health systems.
9. Build resilient communities in the face of climate change.
10. Invest in climate and health.

UNSG paves the way to COP25

We need an urgent, wholesale transformation across multiple systems -- energy production, our food systems, transportation, urban planning and economic systems. We must transition rapidly away from fossil fuels to clean energy. We need to transform our food systems so that they build and protect soil health and ecosystems, reduce food waste and food processing, and ensure everyone has access to a healthful diet. We need to move away from combustion engine vehicles to active transportation, public transportation, and where needed, electric vehicles.

Our cities can be designed to be solutions to the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change, while providing healthier places for people to live. And we need financial mechanisms and economic systems that reward, rather than undermine to the benefit of a few, these needed approaches.

Such changes, if pursued ambitiously and urgently, offer the opportunity to keep climate change within the 1.5 limit the nations of the world agreed to in Paris, and to usher in far greater global health, equity, and resilience -- in short, a healthier world.

The UNSG Summit aims “to showcase a leap in collective national political ambition and demonstrate massive movements in the real economy in support of the agenda.” Governments have been challenged to come to New York with concrete commitments. The Summit is a crucial step to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. It will set the tone for the discussions that will be had at COP25 in Santiago, Chile in December.

COP25, in turn, lays the groundwork for COP26 in 2020, when countries are to deliver their new Nationally Determined Contributions [their emissions reductions commitments, NDCs], as required under the Paris Agreement. The Summit, therefore, will reveal clearly which countries are stepping up with the kind of climate leadership this challenge requires, and which prefer denial and delay over action at this critical juncture in the history of the world.

Political leaders who take action will be remembered as the moral authorities of their time.

Today’s leaders are the last politicians who still have the time and possibility to act. With clear evidence of the risks posed by climate change, they have a responsibility to take action and will be held accountable.
• Countries need to be prepared to bring more ambitious commitments under the Paris Agreement when they meet in 2020. This is the only way to ensure the “right to health” for people of all countries. The Climate Action Summit is a key stepping stone on a path that runs through COP25 in Santiago, and COP26 in Glasgow next year. Wealthier, more developed countries, which have benefited from years of fossil fuel use and thus contributed significantly to the climate change problem and which have greater resources with which to respond, must show greater ambition in their emissions reductions, and provide assistance to developing nations.
• US President Trump remains globally isolated as the leader who abandoned the Paris Agreement, putting him in opposition to how the majority of people in the US think about climate action, while emboldening a handful of other countries also to drag their heels on climate. The US administration’s rollback of an array of environmental and climate regulations puts the health of US residents, and rest of the world, at risk. As the country responsible for the most cumulative CO2 emissions and one that is financially prosperous, the US bears a special moral obligation to set and meet ambitious climate targets. While the US is unlikely to change its position at the Summit, internal pressure on US decision makers continues to grow, and climate change is on the table for the upcoming US presidential election in 2020.
• Despite internal distractions as it grapples with Brexit, Europe must sort out internal differences and step up with ambitious emissions reductions targets for 2030 and 2050. The region has the capacity to do more, and it must.
• Brazil's President Bolsonaro is due to open the UNSG meeting on 24 September, and must be held accountable for undermining the protection of the Amazon rainforest, and undermining, thereby, global efforts to achieve the 1.5 target.
• China has vowed to become a leader in global climate politics, and it has been overachieving its initial Paris Agreement commitments; however those commitments were only enough to limit warming to 2°C, not 1.5°C. This is a significant problem for the world’s climate goals, as China is the greatest current emitter of CO2. Both inside and outside the country, China is still investing in building new coal power plants. China must re-energize its commitment to being a climate leader, starting with a deadline for phasing out coal. Setting itself on a 1.5°C compatible path would pay for itself in health cost savings for the country due to reduced air pollution.
• In India, the world’s third largest emitter behind the China and the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sent mixed signals -- for example, by projecting the country as a global leader in renewables while also delaying health-protecting emissions regulations for power plants. With primary energy demand expected to triple between 2015 and 2040 while grappling with a widespread air pollution crisis and glaring vulnerability to climate impacts, India faces high expectations to enhance its NDCs and demonstrate proactive and ambitious climate action.
• Meanwhile numerous countries are showing real leadership, including some of the nations least responsible for climate change, and enduring the greatest impacts. Fiji, at serious risk from sea level rise and cyclones as are other Small Island Developing States has committed to net zero emissions by 2050. The Gambia, though a developing country, has set ambitious emission reductions goals compatible with 1.5°C and as such, is a global leader.

Turning commitments into action

The Paris Agreement is a visionary, viable, forward-looking policy framework that sets out exactly what needs to be done to stop climate disruption and reverse its impact. But the agreement itself is meaningless without ambitious action.

Countries must enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050. These targets are essential to protecting the “right to health”, a core commitment of the Paris Agreement.

At UN Climate Summit we expect governments to:
o Signal that, in 2020, they will commit to ambitious national emissions reduction that, collectively, put us on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, in alignment with the global scientific findings of the IPCC1.5 report.
o Announce new commitments in specific action areas under the 9 tracks of the UN Climate Action Summit that demonstrate concrete plans to achieve such emissions reduction.
o Demonstrate leadership in setting an agenda for COP25, and throughout 2020, that includes the bilateral, multilateral, and global discussions designed to enable 1.5-level ambition in 2020 NDC commitments.
o Include ministries of health and health civil society in their national climate decision making to ensure climate ambition and climate strategies are designed to maximally protect health and improve global equity.
o Commit appropriate levels of funding to finance climate and health research, resilience, adaptation and mitigation, and to enable health sector involvement in climate decision-making and implementation.
o Establish a norm of including health in their NDCs, highlighting the health co-benefits of mitigation strategies, and ensuring protection of health in mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.
o Recognize the higher capacity, and higher responsibility of wealthier countries (with more historical responsibility for total emissions to date) to set targets that are far more ambitious -- e.g. net zero emissions by 2030 or 2040.

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