Many policies and individual choices have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce major health co-benefits. For example, cleaner energy systems, and promoting the safe use of public transportation and active movement - such as cycling or walking as alternatives to using private vehicles - could reduce carbon emissions, and cut the burden of household air pollution, which causes some 4.3 million deaths per year, and ambient air pollution, which causes about 3 million deaths every year.
In 2015, the WHO Executive Board endorsed a new work plan on climate change and health. This includes: Partnerships: to coordinate with partner agencies within the UN system, and disseminate information on the threats that climate change presents to human health, and opportunities to promote health while cutting carbon emissions.
Science and evidence: to coordinate reviews of the scientific evidence on the links between climate change and health, and develop a global research agenda.
Support for implementation of the public health response to climate change: to assist countries in building capacity to reduce health vulnerability to climate change, and promote health while reducing carbon emissions. Countries must set ambitious national climate commitments if they are to sustain a healthy and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, had launched this week also, in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, spells out the global health community's prescription for climate action based on a growing body of research that establishes the many and inseparable links between climate and health.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people. WHO calls on all countries to commit to decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C - not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's in our own interests. WHO's new report highlights 10 priorities for safeguarding the health of people and the planet that sustains us."
The WHO report is launched at the same time as an open letter, signed by over two thirds of the global health workforce - 300 organizations representing at least 45 million doctors and health professionals worldwide, calling for national leaders and COP26 country delegations to step up climate action.
"Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change," the letter from health professionals reads. "We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at COP26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions."
The report and open letter come as unprecedented extreme weather events and other climate impacts are taking a rising toll on people's lives and health. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, kill thousands and disrupt millions of lives, while threatening healthcare systems and facilities when they are needed most. Changes in weather and climate are threatening food security and driving up food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, while climate impacts are also negatively affecting mental health.
The WHO report states: "The burning of fossil fuels is killing us. Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. While no one is safe from the health impacts of climate change, they are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged."
Meanwhile, air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide.
The report concludes that protecting people's health requires transformational action in every sector, including on energy, transport, nature, food systems and finance. And it states clearly that the public health benefits from implementing ambitious climate actions far outweigh the costs.
"It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face," said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
"Bringing down air pollution to WHO guideline levels, for example, would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80% while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. A shift to more nutritious, plant-based diets in line with WHO recommendations, as another example, could reduce global emissions significantly, ensure more resilient food systems, and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050."
Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement would save millions of lives every year due to improvements in air quality, diet, and physical activity, among other benefits. However, most climate decision-making processes currently do not account for these health co-benefits and their economic valuation.