The Weekend Read: Snapshot of a sicker planet ahead of COP26

A week before the start of the climate negotiations, the Lancet Countdown report pieces together the health impacts of climate change and a missed green recovery

The Weekend Read: Snapshot of a sicker planet ahead of COP26

Welcome to the weekend edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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At the UN climate talks in Glasgow beginning next week, delegates are expected to discuss how to ramp up their climate ambition and unlock new financial flows to support developing economies in their transition. These efforts boil down to an attempt to keep the planet liveable, but like in previous years many will fail to recognise that climate change is already making our lives shorter. The Lancet Countdown 2021 is the sixth annual report tracking the health impacts of climate change, this year with the unique perspective of the pandemic recovery.

It sets the context with a reminder that despite a flurry of climate pledges, the world continues to subsidise fossil fuels. In 2018, the report says, 65 of the 84 countries analysed, responsible for around 92 percent of global emissions, had carbon prices so low that they amounted in practice to incentives. The consequences are immense, and the Lancet Countdown sets out to capture them in ever increasing detail, this year through 44 indicators.

I caught up with report author Shouro Dasgupta, a Bangladeshi researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change (CMCC) who teaches at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy. Last year, he spoke with Lights On about the previous iteration of the Lancet Countdown, and today he takes stock of what has changed since then.

Lights On: This year’s Lancet Countdown report comes out just before what could be the most important climate meeting of the decade, and after the worst global health crisis since the 1930s. What’s your focus in this new edition?

Shouro Dasgupta: This year, we've tried to focus on inequalities and inequities. Both have been accelerated by climate change and Covid. As we've seen, the responses required to address Covid are not too dissimilar from those that may be required to address climate change issues. One issue in both cases is the distribution of resources. In the face of the Covid crisis, lower income countries have suffered more because, of course, there are fewer resources, but on top of this the global response has been geared towards providing vaccines to the developed world.

What we're seeing today is that climate impacts on human health are getting worse. And we're now able to track this across time and space.

What’s new in the report’s methodology, compared to previous editions?

The new indicator this year addresses the intersection of climate change and food security, or access to food. We have analysed 80 countries and what we're seeing is that heat stress is leading to worsening of food security at a global level. Globally, the probability of severe food insecurity has increased from 6.5 percent in 2014 to 10.9 percent in 2019, and we are able to attribute this increasing food insecurity to heat stress. This is partly because of failing crops, but also due to the fact that people can’t work outdoors for as long as before.

The report points out how old diseases are spreading in parts of the world where they had long died out. How does this change the landscape of disease burden across the world?

The risk of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue, and water-borne diseases such as vibrio [a group of bacteria, one of which causes cholera] is increasing. In Europe, many diseases that we thought had been eradicated are coming back, which is problematic, but you also have to consider that most European countries have the health infrastructure in place to address this. Instead, if you look at the seasonal dengue spread currently going on in Bangladesh, it's worse than ever and very soon our public health infrastructure will be overwhelmed.

To assess how climate change increases the risk of vector-borne diseases, we have looked at the climate ‘suitability’ for infectious disease transmission. What we are likely to see in the future is that changes in climate stressors are going to make more and more countries and regions more suitable for the transmission of diseases, and transmission seasons are getting longer due to warming and changes in rainfall patterns. For example, the number of months suitable for malaria transmission increased by 39 percent between 1950–59 and 2010–19 in highland areas of the low Human Development Index (HDI) group. So countries which already have poor health systems are suffering from increasing trauma and suitability for malaria.

What is the message that you're hoping countries and negotiators will take on board from the Lancet Countdown 2021? Are there any practical, achievable goals that you hope will come out?

The time is nigh. I don't want to sound like a doomsayer, but we are getting to the point of no return. It's important that these findings are taken into account during the negotiations, and that countries fully adhere to their pledges made in Paris, because not all of them have put enough effort into reducing emissions.

It's very easy to write things on paper, and then forget about it for a year, and you come back next year, and we discuss the exact same things. So what we hope with the Lancet Countdown and all the research we're doing is to provide robust evidence to the world leaders who hopefully will take these impacts into cognisance and make concrete pledges in terms of emissions reductions and financing to the most vulnerable countries.

Do you feel that there is enough attention given to the health aspects, for example in terms of money being allocated to forms of adaptation that encompass health infrastructure?

Even without talking about climate change, just look at what the pandemic has done in multiple countries. It has pointed out the fact that even in developed countries, public health infrastructure is lagging. So unless the resilience and adaptive capacities of public health infrastructure are  improved, climate change is going to cause a lot more damage than what Covid has done in the last 18 months. We do need dedicated climate financing to improve the adaptive capacities of public health institutions.

Can you give us a couple of real life examples of these improvements?

Early warning systems should be a primary area of investment. Something as simple as sending text messages to doctors, warning them that over the next week or two we're likely to see more heat waves. So they can take appropriate actions and of course warn their patients.

We also know we can expect more heart related diseases or morbidity in the form of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory issues, even heat related stroke in the very near future. These things are already happening, and public health infrastructure is a broader issue as well. Businesses and employers also need to be involved in this discussion, so that they can provide adequate breaks to their workers when it gets too hot, especially if they are working outside.

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