2019 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change

Climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children and is set to shape the well-being of an entire generation unless the world meets Paris Agreement targets to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees Celsius, according to the latest The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report

The report is a comprehensive yearly analysis that tracks progress across 41 key indicators, demonstrating what action to meet Paris Agreement targets—or business as usual—means for human health. The indicators are split into climate change a) impact, exposure and vulnerability; b) adaptation, planning and resilience for health; c) mitigation actions and health co-benefits; d) finance and economics; e) public and political engagement. 

The project is a collaboration between 120 experts from 35 institutions including the International Livestock Research Institute, World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, University College London and Tsinghua University.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change

Children will be most affected

The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change, with populations around the world increasingly facing extremes of weather, food and water insecurity, changing patterns of infectious disease, and a less certain future. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives. 

'Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants,' says Nick Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown. 'The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime. Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.'

Maintaining temperature rise below 2 degrees

A second path – which limits the global average temperature rise to 'well below 2ºC' – is possible, and would transform the health of a child born today for the better, throughout their lives. Placing health at the centre of the coming transition will yield enormous dividends for the public and the economy, with cleaner air, safer cities, and healthier diets.

However, the United Nations warns that we are on the brink of missing the opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5°C:

If we rely only on the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement, temperatures can be expected to rise to 3.2°C this century. Temperatures have already increased 1.1°C, leaving families, homes and communities devastated.

We need to close the ‘commitment’ gap between what we say we will do and what we need to do to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. Governments cannot afford to wait. People and families cannot afford to wait. Economies must shift to a decarbonization pathway now.

Urgent call to action

Bold new approaches to policy making, research and business are needed in order to change course. An unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response. It will take the work of the 7.5 billion people currently alive to ensure that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate.

The Lancet Countdown authors call for bold action to turn the tide on the enormous health impact of climate change in four key areas:

  1. Delivering rapid, urgent, and complete phase-out of coal-fired power worldwide.
  2. Ensuring high-income countries meet international climate finance commitments of USD100 billion a year by 2020 to help low-income countries.
  3. Increasing accessible, affordable, efficient public and active transport systems, particularly walking and cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes and cycle hire or purchase schemes.
  4. Making major investments in health system adaptation to ensure health damage of climate change doesn’t overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services to treat patients.

Indicator 3.5: emissions from livestock and crop production

Headline findings:

  • Total emissions from livestock have increased by 14% and emissions from crop production have increased by 10%, from 2000 to 2016, with 93% of livestock emissions attributed to ruminants
  • Obesity and undernutrition present two great challenges to global public health, and both these forms of malnutrition share many common systemic drivers with climate change.
  • Current dietary trends are contributing to both non-communicable diseases and greenhouse-gas emissions, with further planetary impacts including biodiversity loss and changes in water and land use. In particular, excess red meat consumption contributes to the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes as well as increased greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • Although total emissions from crops and livestock will need to substantially decline in the future, particular attention should be given to capitalising on low-carbon production processes, and reducing the consumption of ruminant meat and other animal source foods, particularly in high-income settings. Importantly, the nuance and complexity of any such indicator must be emphasised, and no one-diet-fits-all solution exists.