Breathing Life into Paris Agreement: Health Can Drive Action

Co-authored by Jessica Korsh

“The world will not end poverty or hunger, or meet the health targets, without addressing climate change. And it will not solve the climate problem without addressing energy, and air pollution,” said UNFCCC Deputy Executive Secretary Richard Kinley at the Second Global Conference on Health and Climate. The Conference was held July 7 and 8 in Paris and emphasized how protecting public health can drive implementation of the Paris Agreement. 

The Conference launched the BreatheLife Campaign to raise awareness about the single biggest environmental health crisis—air pollution, which is responsible for about 7 million premature deaths annually and contributes to global warming. The BreatheLife Campaign, a joint effort of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Climate and Clean Air Coalition, aims to raise awareness about the dangerous climate and health impacts from air pollution

The Campaign stresses that actions taken now to reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP), can lead to substantial, immediate gains in public health, save millions of lives, and slow climate change. Estimates show that reducing SLCP emissions from key sources could singlehandedly reduce global warming by about 0.5°C by 2050. Reductions in SLCPs and associated air pollutants can have particularly large benefits for those more vulnerable to air pollution’s health harms, such as the elderly and individuals with pre-existing lung or heart diseases.

Air pollution is the ‘invisible killer’ in many urban areas and almost all large cities in low-income regions suffer from unhealthy air quality. Outdoor air pollution causes an estimated 3.7 million premature deaths each year and contributes to millions of cases of lung cancer, pulmonary disease, stroke, and heart disease combined. Air pollution impacts the economy, as air pollution limits time at and productivity at work and healthcare costs rise.

WHO key facts:

  • Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress
  • The direct damage costs to health are estimated to be between US$2-4 billion/year by 2030
  • Areas with weak health infrastructure—mainly in developing countries—will be most affected
  • Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport and energy-use choices can significantly improve public health by decreasing air pollution

While air pollution is the ‘invisible killer’, extreme heat is the ‘silent killer.’ June set a record for the warmest monthly global temperature, continuing a streak of 14 consecutive months that the previous high has been surpassed. These temperatures are already just 0.2⁰C below the target set by world leaders in the Paris Agreement to limit the most dangerous effects of global warming. Like air pollution, extreme heat will have severe economic impacts—extreme temperatures may cost global economies more than US $2 trillion by 2030. Low and middle income countries are more likely to be affected.

The health impacts of climate change become more and more evident on a daily basis; climate change is an emergency today and will only continue to affect us all. But taking action now drives the opportunity to protect our health today and our children’s health in the future.

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