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Climate change: Earth could lose capacity to sustain life – WHO

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that records for extreme weather events are being broken at an unprecedented rate, and that there is a real risk for the world to lose its capacity to sustain human life if the Earth’s climate is further altered by adding ever more heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, lead scientist on climate change at WHO. Photo credit: graduateinstitute.ch

WHO officials expressed the warning whilst presenting new data at the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn shows that nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants and that around seven million people every year die from exposure to fine particles in polluted air.

This figure could be far surpassed by deaths caused by rising global temperatures and extreme weather if emissions, primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are allowed to rise at their present rate.

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“We see the Paris Agreement as a fundamental public health agreement, potentially the most important public health agreement of the century. If we don’t meet the climate challenge, if we don’t bring down greenhouse gas emissions, then we are undermining the environmental determinates of health on which we depend: we undermine water supplies, we undermine our air, we undermine food security,” said Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO Team Lead on Climate Change and Health.

A main cause of the deaths mentioned in the new WHO report is indoor cooking with inefficient stoves.

Around three billion people – more than 40% of the world’s population – still do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in their homes, the main source of household air pollution.  Cooking with wood and coal is also main driver of deforestation, which in turn negatively affects the world’s climate.

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Each year, close to four million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with dirty solid fuels and kerosene, emissions from which add to the growing climate challenge.

“We have a unique opportunity to get these two things, climate change and health, right if we get air pollution right. The health benefits of climate mitigation will pay for the costs of climate mitigation,” said Campbell-Lendrum.

The second main cause of the seven million annual deaths mentioned in the report is the burning of fossil fuels for power, heating and transport which leads to outdoor air pollution.

Fighting climate change by investing in energy-efficient power generation and renewables, planning greener cities with energy-efficient buildings, and providing universal access to clean, affordable energy technology are key ways in which regions can decrease ambient air pollutants, the report finds.

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The good news is that countries are increasingly taking up the opportunity to fight climate change and air pollution at the same time. More than 4,300 cities in 108 countries are now included in WHO’s ambient air quality database, making this the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution.

The report points to Mexico City’s 2016 commitment to cleaner vehicle standards, including a move to soot-free buses and a ban on private diesel cars by 2025.

This year WHO will convene the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health (October 30 – November 1, 2018) to bring governments and partners together in a global effort to improve air quality and combat climate change.

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