Reports chart impact of climate change on health

  • October 25, 2022
Reports chart impact of climate change on health

Kim van Daalen is co-author of two major reports on the impact of climate change on health in Europe and globally

Our report highlights the urgent need to accelerate action in line with climate targets; to support a healthy, climate-resilient future for all people.

Kim van Daalen

Europe is facing unprecedented and overlapping crises that are detrimental to human health and livelihoods which continued investment in fossil fuels is exacerbating, according to the first indicator report** of a new continent-wide collaboration.

The 2022 Lancet Countdown in Europe Report, published today in The Lancet Public Health journal, is the result of a newly established collaboration of 44 European researchers. Lead author is Kim van Daalen [2018], a Gates Cambridge Scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge who has been  coordinating the project with ICREA Professor Rachel Lowe from the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) in Spain, who is the Director of the initiative.

The project describes both the health impacts of climate change in Europe and the health co-benefits of climate action. Another report, published today by the Lancet and also co-authored by van Daalen, looks at the global picture.

The European report says the health impacts of climate change include increased exposure to extreme weather and climate events, increased risk of infectious disease transmission, heat-related diseases,  and deaths from exposure to ambient air pollution. 

The report charts that:

  • Between the first and second decades of the 21st century (2000-2009 vs 2010-2019), heatwave exposures increased by 57% on average, with local increases of more than 250%. 
  • Heat-related mortality has increased by 15 annual deaths per million inhabitants per decade between 2000-2020. 
  • 184 of 334 NUTS2 European regions [55%] have faced extreme to exceptional summer drought events in the years 2011-2020, in which one-third has experienced more than 40% of the drought events recorded over seven decades (1950-2020) in the last decade (2011-2020).  
  • Climate suitability for the spread of infectious diseases including dengue, malaria, non-cholerae Vibrio and West Nile virus is growing in Europe.
  • The continuing burning of fossil fuels led to 117,000 deaths in 2020 from exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution, with the transport sector being the main contributor.  

Moreover, over the last 41 years, the warming climate has resulted in the flowering season of major European allergy-relevant trees (birch, alder and olive) starting 10–20 days earlier. 

Furthermore, 59.9% of cities reported that climate change threatened health services or public health, with heat-related illnesses most prominently identified as a climate-related health hazard (identified by 87 cities). 

“Europe has historically been one of the major contributors to the climate crisis, placing lives and health at risk globally. Importantly, such impacts are experienced unequally, exacerbating entrenched between-country and within-country inequalities. Europe’s delayed response means people are increasingly feeling the health impacts of climate change regionally and globally, while also missing out on the direct and indirect health co-benefits that ambitious climate action could deliver. Our report highlights the urgent need to accelerate action in line with climate targets; to support a healthy, climate-resilient future for all people,” says van Daalen. 

Energy and economic dimensions

Other impacts charted by the report include the energy and economic dimensions of health-related climate change impacts.

It shows that over the past decade, the highest economic losses due to climate-related extreme events were observed in 2021, with an absolute economic loss totalling €47,962 million. The vast majority of economic losses were experienced by Germany; €30,280 million (63% of total European losses). 

Yet the report notes that coal remains a substantial fuel in the European energy mix at 12% of total energy supply in 2020 and says that current rates of reduction are incompatible with reaching net-zero by 2050.  It says the share of zero-carbon total energy supply in Europe is only 21% and the share of renewables in electricity was 17% in 2020, despite rapid growth in electricity generation from wind in Denmark, Ireland and the UK and solar power in Germany, Greece and Italy. Just 15 countries provided net fossil fuel subsidies exceeding one billion euros each year. 

Our first Lancet Countdown Europe indicator report tracks the health impacts being felt across Europe as well as the health co-benefits of action. After the hottest European summer on record, Europe is waking up to the realities of a warming world, and what this will mean for our health. Our report highlights the wide-ranging health impacts already being felt across Europe. These are warning signs that European governments, health systems, and communities must work towards a climate resilient future,” says Professor. Rachel Lowe, Director of the Lancet Countdown in Europe and ICREA research professor and global health resilience team leader at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), Spain. 

Despite the worrying indications laid out in the report, it notes that opportunities for transformational and rapid change exist through health-centred climate action.  For instance, energy generation from renewable sources is increasing at a rate of 16% per year. If this pace is maintained, the report notes, Europe’s energy system could almost fully decarbonise within 10 years. 

Global health impact

Another report, published today by the Lancet, highlights other broader, global health impacts caused by climate change, including food insecurity and mental ill health and it underlines the role of fossil fuels in exacerbating climate change.

New and updated indicators reveal that governments and companies continue to prioritise fossil fuel extraction and burning, despite the severe and compounding health harms of climate change, with many governments and companies ‘backsliding to coal’ as a result of the energy and cost of living crisis.

On food security, it shows that climate change is affecting every pillar of food security. It states that rising temperatures and extreme weather events threaten crop yields directly shortening the growth season of crops by 9.3 days for maize, 1.7 days for rice and 6 days for winter and spring wheat. It says extreme heat was associated with 98 million more people reporting moderate to severe food insecurity in 103 countries in 2020 than annually between 1981 and 2010. On average, 29% more of the global land area was affected by extreme drought annually between 2012–2021, than between 1951–1960, putting people at risk of water and food insecurity. 

Exposure to extreme heat also exacerbates underlying conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease and causes heat stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes, worsened sleep patterns, poor mental health and increased injury-related death. It also affects health indirectly by limiting people’s capacity to work and exercise, with vulnerable populations most at risk from extreme heat, such as children, older people and those in lower-income countries or regions.

Like the European report, the Lancet publication shows the impact on the spread of infectious diseases and how this affects already stretched health systems. The length of time suitable for malaria transmission rose by 32.1% in highland areas of the Americas, and 14.9% in Africa in 2012-2021, compared to 1951-1960. The influence of the climate on the risk of dengue transmission rose by 12% globally in the same period. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, it says the rise of infectious disease due to climate change has led to misdiagnosis, pressure on health systems and difficulties in managing simultaneous disease outbreaks.

The report calls for a unified cohesive approach to the health threats of climate change in order to create equitable solutions for all – and says doing nothing will worsen overall health outcomes and create dangerous living conditions. It estimates that less than a third of the $3.1 trillion spent on the COVID-19 pandemic response could reduce greenhouse gas emissions or air pollution.

“Across the Lancet Countdown’s research findings this year, the opportunity to save lives and improve public health is clear. Accelerated action will protect peoples’ lives and wellbeing from climate impacts, not only in Europe but also in those countries that have historically contributed the least to climate change. Europe has the opportunity of becoming global leaders in the low-carbon, just transition and can today ensure a future in which populations all around the world not only survive, but thrive,” says Dr Marina Romanello, Lancet Countdown Executive Director and contributing author to the Lancet Countdown Europe report. 

*Picture credit: John Dinan/J P Treggett and Wikimedia commons.

**The indicator report is the second report of the Lancet Countdown in Europe initiative.  A scoping report that set out the structure and goals of the initiative was published last year.

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