The Paris Agreement Will Save Our Lives | Opinion

As parties gather this week in Poland at the annual United Nations climate change conference, the health sector is making a loud and strong argument for health to be at the heart of ALL discussions and policy decisions on climate change.

Though the focus of the Paris Agreement is on rising temperatures and increased carbon dioxide, at its core, it is a safeguard for human health worldwide. The Paris Agreement is not only an historic climate pact, but also an unprecedented health treaty.

Every year that we ignore the warnings and continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy our environment, we are further endangering the lives and livelihoods of current and future generations. As a physician who has worked in public health for nearly three decades, I don't make such a claim lightly.

This week at COP24, the World Health Organization launched a Special Report on Health and Climate Change. If world leaders and policy makers were not convinced of the health argument before, our report provides the clearest argument yet. It brings together several studies that show that the value of health gains from climate action would more than cover the cost of climate change mitigation worldwide, and the benefit-to-cost ratio is even greater in high-polluting countries such as China and India.

Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement is forecast to save about a million lives a year by 2050 through reductions in air pollution alone. Air pollution currently kills around 7 million people every year, from diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections.

Burning fossil fuels is the main source of the carbon emissions driving climate change and also a major contributor to air pollution. Black carbon, from sources such as cookstoves and diesel engines, is the second greatest contributor to global warming. Over 90 percent of the world's urban population breathes air that exceeds WHO's guideline levels.

The true cost of climate inaction is already being felt in our hospitals. Doctors living in polluted cities are seeing more and more young people coming in with black lungs that look like they have been smoking all of their short lives. Many more non-smokers are presenting with lung cancer. It's unacceptable that so many children are breathing toxic air from the moment they are born.

The health burden of polluting sources is now so high that moving to cleaner, more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food supply effectively pays for itself. When health is considered, climate change action is an opportunity, not a cost.

Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement is forecast to save about a million lives a year by 2050 through reductions in air pollution alone. iStock

The health benefits of switching to low-carbon energy sources are not just felt in improvements in air quality. When cities promote active transport methods—such as biking or walking as alternatives to using private vehicles—not only can they reduce carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, but also decrease traffic injuries and encourage increased physical activity which helps prevent diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

While these more immediate health benefits may be more convincing for politicians to take urgent action, we must also stress the urgency of acting to the longer-term goals of slowing global warming and reducing its impact on health and human livelihoods.

WHO's new report makes strong recommendations on how governments can maximize the health benefits of tackling climate change and avoid the worst health impacts of this global challenge. Health implications must be part of the equation every time governments discuss climate change mitigation and adaptation measures and policies. When the full value of health is taken into account, the case for investing in cleaner technologies is clear.

Currently, polluting sectors are not paying their proportion for the damage they cause to the environment, and the clean energy sector is not appropriately rewarded. Countries must consider using fair fiscal incentives such as carbon pricing and energy subsidies to incentivize sectors to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

We have the health community's strong backing for action on climate change. They are witnessing first-hand the health effects of air pollution and climate change. In the same way that they raised public awareness about the health effects of smoking, these are the people who are also the best placed to call for clean air and action on climate change. At COP24, organizations representing over 5 million doctors, nurses and public health professionals and 17,000 hospitals in over 120 countries issued a call to action on climate and health.

The health community can measure how many lives are saved if countries fulfil their Paris commitments. We have millions of reasons to keep the promises that have already been made—and even more reasons to go further and faster to a clean energy transformation. What reasons do we have not to?

Dr Maria P Neira is Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​