Only one in five countries has a healthcare strategy to deal with climate change

© UNICEF/James Oatway A mother and her baby sit in an ambulance at an accommodation centre in Beira, Mozambique, where her 2-year-old daughter is being treated for malaria.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Protecting people’s health from climate change dangers such as heat stress, storms and tsunamis has never been more important, yet most countries are doing too little about it, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

In its first global review of more than 100 countries, the UN agency found that while around half of them have developed a strategy on the issue, fewer than one in five is spending enough to implement all of their commitments.

“Climate change is not only racking up a bill for future generations to pay, it’s a price that people are paying for now with their health”, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “It is a moral imperative that countries have the resources they need to act against climate change and safeguard health now and in the future.”

Of the countries that conducted an assessment of climate risks to people’s health, the most common risks were heat stress, injury or death from extreme weather events.

Food and water security issues, along with vector-borne diseases, such as cholera, dengue or malaria, also featured.

Risks are clear

Despite the countries’ findings, about 60 per cent reported that the data had “little or no influence” on the allocation of human or financial resources to make the changes needed to protect people’s health.

Mainstreaming health in national and international climate processes could help access the necessary funds, WHO suggested.

It noted that while two-thirds of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the 2015 Paris Agreement mention health as part of efforts to combat climate change and accelerate actions needed for a sustainable low carbon future, “this has not resulted in the necessary level of implementation and support”.

One million lives saved, through air pollution reductions alone

Previous research from WHO has found that reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement could save about a million lives a year worldwide by 2050 through reductions in air pollution alone.

But many countries are not able to take advantage of this potential, the UN agency insisted, based on data showing that fewer than one in four can demonstrate collaborations between health and the key sectors driving climate change and air pollution, namely transport, electricity generation and household energy.

By way of contrast, the highest level of collaboration on health and climate policy issues is in the water, sanitation and wastewater sector (45 out of 101 respondents), followed by agriculture (31 out of 101 respondents) and social services (26 out of 101 respondents).

Prioritize health, resilience

The health gains that would result from cutting carbon emissions are rarely reflected in national climate commitments, WHO also noted, with only one-fifth of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), mentioning health in the context of emissions reductions and only one in 10 NDCs citing the expected health gains.

“For the Paris Agreement to be effective to protect people’s health, all levels of government need to prioritize building health system resilience to climate change, and a growing number of national governments are clearly headed in that direction”, said WHO’s Dr Maria Neira, Director at the Department of Environment for Climate Change and Health.

“By systematically including health in NDCs – as well as National Adaptation Plans, climate finance pledges, and other National Communications to the UNFCCC (the UN Climate Change Secretariat) — the Paris Agreement could become the strongest international health agreement of the century.”

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