by Amalie Holmgaard Mersh
Despite an increase in EU policies on health and climate, there are calls to link the two even further as almost 25% of excess mortality in Europe can be traced back to the health impacts of fossil fuel burning with a new Lancet Countdown report underscores this need.
The report is the result of an international research collaboration that monitors the impacts of climate change on health. It includes 11 recommendations for a health-centred response to the climate crisis, which the authors argue are urgent, life-saving measures following years of insufficient action.
“There is a tremendous potential for health and climate co-benefits across many policy actions, which is currently not always reflected in EU frameworks,” Cristina Pricop, policy manager at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), told Euractiv following the release of the report Lancet Countdown 2023, on Tuesday (14 November).
Its publication comes just weeks before the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), which will dedicate the first day to health and hold a climate-health ministerial meeting- something the health community has been calling for.
At the presentation of the report on Wednesday (15 November), World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus warned of more severe extreme weather events, increased food insecurity, exacerbating respiratory diseases and fuelling the spread of infectious diseases.
“The world is moving in the wrong direction, unable to curb its addiction to fossil fuels and leaving vulnerable communities behind in the much-needed energy transition,” Tedros said, adding that it is necessary to reach the Paris Agreement’s goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C to protect public health, goals that the UN warned in September, we are at risk of missing.
Europe has become increasingly aware of the consequences of the climate crisis following several years of summer heat waves resulting in excess deaths – an estimated 62,000 in the summer of 2022 – and raging wildfires.
Other major consequences include rising sea levels, threatening many Europeans living in low-lying coastal areas.
On top of that, there is an increased risk of diseases spreading in Europe. The Lancet report highlights the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus (WNV) and that “hotter seas are making coastal brackish waters increasingly suitable for the transmission of some Vibrio pathogens”, which can cause cholera or vibriosis.
The EU can make more of an effort
There has been a surge in health policies at an EU level since the COVID-19 pandemic, with many European health policymakers fond of the term “One Health” – an approach that recognises the interdependence of human, animal and planetary health.
This has been mainly used when discussing pandemic prevention and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), including at a European Commission conference on Monday (13 November).
Within this mandate, the European Commission has also proposed many new climate and environmental policies under the European Green Deal, including the European Climate Law, which aims to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050.
EU institutions are revising the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directives and the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. Both significantly impact human health, with the European Environment Agency (EEA) reporting air pollution as Europe’s number one environmental health risk and seven million premature deaths globally every year.
Despite this increased focus, Pricop argues that it is important to bring health and climate action closer together.
“The health implications of climate-driven actions must be fully understood to ensure that no opportunities are missed and that factors such as health equity are adequately addressed,” she said.
Pricop expressed her disappointment that there continues to be high levels of investments and subsidies channeled into fossil fuels, leading to devastating impacts on health.
“Many files in the sectoral legislation have health and environmental impacts that need to be considered in the decision-making process, in consultation with civil society and academic experts,” said Pricop.
“High emitting sectors, such as transport, buildings and agriculture, need to see urgent and committed leadership towards robust action to guarantee a shift towards healthy and decarbonised systems, together with justice and affordability,” she added.
Increased EU focus on health and climate
“We have been clear from the very beginning of the European Green Deal that tackling climate change and pollution is also essential from a health perspective,” a European Commission spokesperson told Euractiv.
“Extreme heat is a major health threat, as are air, soil and water pollution, and the increasing spread of infectious diseases to give just a few examples,” he added, adding that they are pleased about the increased focus on health at COP28.
However, it is not only Pricop who is calling to merge health and climate even further.
Most recently, several participants at the European Health Forum Gastein in September urged for a more comprehensive approach to health in all policies. In December last year, the Wellcome Trust’s director of climate and health, Alan Dangour, called for the EU Global Health Strategy to raise its ambition on climate change.
When asked about whether there is enough focus on climate adaptation to protect health, the spokesperson highlighted a number of actions, such as adopting guidelines to help member states update and implement national adaptation strategies, plans and policies in line with the European Climate Law and the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change, with references to public health.
The Commission is also planning to adopt a Communication on climate adaptation in March 2024, which will “cover a broad range of policy areas, including health,” the accompanied by the EU Climate Risk Assessment by the EEA.
On the health side, the initiatives under the European Health Union “support the capacity and resilience of the health sector in dealing with the impacts of climate change that have a cross-border dimension, with a focus on infectious diseases,” the spokesperson said while also emphasising that much of Europe’s health policy is decided on a national level.
*first published in: Euractiv.com