There were 2.9 million premature deaths globally from outdoor air pollution in 2016, and over 440,000 of those deaths were from coal emissions alone, according to a new analysis, which warns that the impact of air pollution will worsen, and children will be among the worst affected.
Exposure to ambient air pollution, and most importantly fine particulate matter, constitutes the largest global environmental risk factor for premature mortality, and results in several million premature deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases every year, says the 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change.
More than 90% of children are exposed to PM 2.5 concentrations that are above the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, which can affect their health throughout their life, with an increased risk of lung damage, impaired lung growth, and pneumonia, and a subsequent risk of developing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, says the analysis.
The project is a collaboration between 120 experts from 35 institutions, which includes the WHO and World Bank, among others. The team reports on extensive health damage from climate change and sets out the lifelong health consequences of rising temperatures for a child born today, should the world fail to meet Paris Agreement targets to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, by following a business-as-usual pathway.
The report warns that a child born today will experience a world that is more than four degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average by the time he/she turns 71, with climate change impacting human health from infancy and adolescence to adulthood and old age.
"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 Dr. Nick Watts, Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown.
Dr. Watts says: "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."
The carbon intensity of the energy system has remained unchanged since 1990, and the total global energy supply from coal increased by 1.7% from 2016 to 2018, reversing a downward trend. The global fossil fuel consumption subsidies increased by 50% over the past three years, reaching a peak of almost $430 billion in 2018, says the analysis.
While the dominant contribution varies between and within world regions: in Africa, household cooking primarily contributes to fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 concentrations, whereas, in other regions, industry, transport, electricity generation, and agriculture are the primary contributors.
"In 2016, there were 2.9 million premature deaths globally that were associated with ambient PM 2.5 pollution, with minimal improvement in global mortality from 2015. On a decadal scale, improvements are seen in some regions because of efficient emission controls, particularly from industrial processes and power generation. However, worldwide, more than 440,000 premature deaths are still estimated to be associated with coal burning," says the study.
This might only be the tip of the iceberg, researchers says. For example, if Europe were to experience PM 2.5 at 2016 levels over the lifetime of the current population, economic losses and health costs of air pollution-related disease and premature death could reach €129 billion a year.
Outbreaks and crop failures impact children most
Children will also be particularly susceptible to infectious diseases that rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will leave in their wake. Over the past 30 years, the number of climatically suitable days for Vibrio bacteria (that cause much of diarrhoeal disease globally) has doubled. The threat is particularly high in the Baltic (with a record high of 107 suitable days in 2018) and in Northeast USA where the sea has been warming rapidly.
Similarly, changing weather patterns are creating favorable environments for Vibrio cholerae bacteria, says the team, with global suitability rising almost 10% since the early 1980s. This has increased the likelihood of cholera outbreaks in countries where the disease does not regularly occur.
The report says that spurred on by climate change, dengue is the most rapidly spreading mosquito-borne viral disease in the world, with around half of the world's population now at risk. Nine of the 10 most hospitable years for dengue transmission have occurred since 2000, allowing mosquitoes to invade new territories across Europe.
"Children are among the most susceptible to diarrhoeal disease and experience the most severe effects of dengue fever. Trends in climate suitability for disease transmission are particularly concerning, with 9 of the 10 most suitable years for the transmission of dengue fever on record occurring since 2000," says the study.
The researchers say that as temperatures rise, infants will also be vulnerable to the burden of malnutrition and rising food prices. When grain prices spiked in 2007-2008, for example, Egypt's bread prices rose 37%. The average global yield potential of maize (-4%), winter wheat (-6%), soybean (-3%), and rice (-4%) has declined over the past 30 years, shows analysis.
"Infants and small children are among the worst affected by malnutrition and related health problems such as stunted growth, weak immune systems, and long-term developmental problems," it says.
The experts argue that through adolescence and into adulthood, a child born today will be breathing more toxic air, driven by fossil fuels and made worse by rising temperatures. This is especially damaging to young people as their lungs are still developing.
"Through adolescence and beyond, air pollution principally driven by fossil fuels, and exacerbated by climate change—damages the heart, lungs, and every other vital organ. These effects accumulate over time, and into adulthood, with total global air pollution deaths reaching 7 million," says the report from 35 global institutions.
Extreme weather events will also intensify, warn researchers. Later in life, a child born today will face increased risk from severe floods, prolonged droughts, and wildfires. The analysis says 152 out of 196 countries have experienced an increase in people exposed to wildfires since 2001-2004 -- with a financial toll per person 48 times larger than flooding.
According to the report, eight of the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the past decade. Such rapid change is primarily driven by the combustion of fossil fuels, consumed at a rate of 171000 kg of coal, 11600000 liters of gas, and 186000 liters of oil per second. Progress in mitigating this threat is intermittent at best, with carbon dioxide emissions continuing to rise in 2018, says the team.
The researchers say more frequent, and longer heatwaves will redefine global labor capacity, the report warns. In 2018, a potential 45 billion additional hours of work were lost due to extreme heat globally compared to 2000.
"Globally, 77% of countries experienced an increase in daily population exposure to wildfires from 2001-14 to 2015-18. Temperature rise and heatwaves are increasingly limiting the labor capacity of various populations. In 2018, 133.6 billion potential work hours were lost globally, 45 billion more than the 2000 baseline, and southern areas of the USA lost 15–20% of potential daylight work hours during the hottest month of 2018," the findings state.
Responding to climate change
Current progress is inadequate, say researchers, and the analysis is suggestive of a world struggling to cope with the warming that is occurring faster than governments are able or willing to respond.
The experts call for bold new approaches to policymaking, research, and business in order to change course. According to them, an "unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response," and 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 researchers recommend that high-income countries must meet international climate finance commitments of $100 billion a year by 2020 to help low-income countries. They suggest making major investments in health system adaptation to ensure health damage of climate change does not overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services to treat patients.
"The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation. With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can't afford this level of disengagement. The clinical, global health and research community needs to come together now and challenge our international leaders to protect the imminent threat to childhood and lifelong health," says Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet.