Climate change: Why the air you are breathing could send you to the grave

Sunday December 23 2018

Pollution of environment by combustible gas of a car. The transport and industry sectors are major contributors to health-damaging air pollution. FOTOSEARCH


Climate change is the single greatest health challenge that the world faces today, because it affects all aspects of human life and threatens to undo all the improvements made in health, warns a report by the World Health Organisation.

The COP 24 Special Report: Health and Climate Change, was launched recently at the United Nations negotiations on climate change in Katowice, Poland.

It paints a grim picture of the health sector, with the poorest countries such as those in Africa being the most affected.

The report shows that millions of people around the world die each year due to various climate change related impacts.

An additional 250,000 deaths annually are expected to occur between 2030 and 2050.

Out of these, 38,000 will be the elderly, who will die from exposure to heat; a further 48,000 are expected to die from diarrhoea, 60,000 from malaria and 95,000 from childhood undernutrition.


Air pollution

But the most direct link between climate change and ill health is air pollution.

Burning fossil fuels for power, transport and industry have been cited as the main sources of carbon emissions driving climate change, and a major contributor to health-damaging air pollution.

Each year, it kills more than seven million people due to exposure inside and outside their homes.

More than 90 per cent of the urban population across the world breathes air containing levels of outdoor pollutants that exceed WHO’s guidelines.

Air pollution inside and outside the home is the second leading cause of deaths from non-communicable diseases worldwide.

It is responsible for 26 per cent of deaths from heart diseases, 24 per cent of those from strokes, 43 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29 per cent from lung cancer.

“There is a strong linkage between air pollution, climate change and health, and it cannot be missed,” said Maria Neira, the director of public health at WHO.

“Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lung cancer, stroke... those words need to be incorporated in all the documents and decisions made that are related to climate change.”

Ms Neira was speaking at the launch of the report in Poland.


Prof Kristie Ebi, the lead author of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC Special Report on 1.5 Degrees Global Warming said that there is evidence that people are suffering and dying from climate change.

“The earth has already warmed by one degree Celsius and if nothing is done, the projection is that it will warm by another 0.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052. Each additional unit of warming is associated with higher health risks,” she said.

“As carbon emissions rise, there is a category of plants, particularly rice and wheat, that produce less protein, less iron, less zinc, fewer micro nutrients and have lower B vitamins.

“This will affect hundreds of millions of people who rely on rice and wheat as their primary source of calories. They include people in Africa.”

The transport sector is still heavily reliant on fossil fuel-based vehicles, accounting for 11 per cent of global carbon emissions.

The International Energy Agency reports that last year, emissions from the industry rose by 460 million tonnes, to hit a record 32.5 gigatonnes.

This was because at least 170 million fossil fuel-based cars were added to the global economy.

Compared with other regions, Africa experienced the second highest growth of absolute transport emissions (84 per cent) between 2000 and 2016, driven primarily by increases in passenger and freight transport activity.

Transport emissions in sub-Saharan Africa increased 75 per cent from 2000 to 2016 to 156 tonnes of CO2, while transport emissions in North Africa increased 95 per cent, though at a lower absolute level of 135 tonnes in 2016.

Total transport CO2 emissions increased in major African economies between 2000 and 2016, — 161 per cent in Algeria, 153 per cent in Ghana, 123 per cent in Kenya, 73 per cent in Egypt, 40 per cent in South Africa and 19 per cent in Nigeria.

In Algeria and South Africa, per capita emissions increased by 100 per cent and 13 per cent respectively, reaching levels of 1.0 and 0.89 tonnes CO2 per capita in 2016.