To date, the impacts of climate change on health have been relatively neglected in EU policy. Now, a landmark study by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) has raised important concerns about the potential negative effects of climate change on human health. Moreover, the authors emphasise the importance of integrating health and climate policies.
The report entitled “The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe” was released on 3 June. The EASAC is an independent authority on health advice in Europe, comprised of scientists from 27 leading scientific institutions in Europe, and is aimed at guiding EU policy.
Current trends in greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase global temperatures by more than 3 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. Temperature increases over land will be even more dramatic, exposing the global population to unprecedented levels of climate change and therefore, increased disease and premature deaths.
Evidence suggests climate change is adversely affecting human health and health risks will only increase in a warming world. Therefore, stabilising the climate and mitigating further global warming should be a top priority in Europe to limit the disease burden associated with increased global warming.
Urgent actions are needed
To this end, urgent actions are required by governments so that temperature increases are kept below the target of 1.5 degrees Celcius set out in the Paris agreement. Otherwise, wide-ranging changes in the global climate could seriously affect human health, according to Professor Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Haines calls points to the important role of the scientific community “in generating knowledge and countering misinformation.” He adds, “We hope that this comprehensive report will act as a wake-up call and draw attention to the need for action, particularly by pursuing policies to decarbonise the economy.”
As the report highlights, the increase in human disease burden will mainly be owing to several key changes:
- Higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events
- Food security issues
- Forced migration
- A wider distribution of infectious diseases, including mosquito-borne, water-borne, and food-borne illnesses.
In addition, a number of key messages and directions are outlined in the report:
- For starters, a ‘zero-carbon’ economy could improve human health by reducing air pollution, which not only damages human health but also the health of the environment and crucial ecosystems. Pollution is already affecting the health of babies and children in Europe, as highlighted in another study published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Exposure to high levels of air pollution can affect brain development and cognitive function. In many cities in Europe, air pollution exceeds the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation.
- A healthier, more sustainable diet could offer both health and environment benefits by reducing the burden of diseases — such as the risk of heart disease, stroke and other conditions and at the same time, helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions — by up to 40 per cent. This could be achieved by altering agricultural practices to reduce water and land use demands. To this end, developing climate-smart food systems to ensure more resilient agricultural production and food security are vital.
- Finally, spreading knowledge on the potential health and economic benefits of climate change action could be instrumental in achieving the necessary rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, recognising and communicating information on the challenges climate change poses to global health will be key to promoting much-needed public engagement.