More cycling, less meat, cleaner air: WHO's wish list for Cop26

UN agency says medics are already dealing with effects of climate change

Cyclists ride through thick wildfire smoke in Yakutsk, Russia. Health chiefs are calling for action to protect both the planet and public health. Getty
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Adopting greener lifestyles will not only help to rescue the planet but will save millions of lives in the process, the World Health Organisation has said.

Healthier diets, cleaner air and cycling to work would have the double benefit of reducing disease and poor health as well as tackling climate change, it said in a report called The Health Argument For Climate Action.

Delegates at the Cop26 summit were told that measures to slow global warming would have the knock-on effect of combating conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

Medics are already dealing with the effects of climate change, delegates were told in an accompanying letter, with health systems strained by natural disasters such as storms and floods.

“The health arguments for rapid climate action have never been clearer,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general.

“Protecting health requires action well beyond the health sector, in energy, transport, nature, food systems, finance and more.”

The WHO said a shift to plant-based diets, which would reduce methane emissions, would have the additional effect of tackling health problems such as obesity.

Political leaders have sought to play down suggestions that curbing meat consumption is necessary to save the planet.

But the WHO’s report said governments should use subsidies to encourage plant-based diets and sustainable agriculture at the expense of intensive meat farming.

Maria Neira, the WHO’s environment director, said such an overhaul could prevent more than five million deaths linked to poor diets each year.

She said additional lives could be saved by limiting air pollution, which is estimated to cause 13 deaths per minute around the world.

Striving for cleaner air would “reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80 per cent, while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change”, Ms Neira said.

Disaster risk

Rising global temperatures can increase the risk of diseases such as malaria, which flourishes in hot countries.

On top of that, scientists believe climate change will lead to more frequent natural disasters such as heatwaves, droughts and floods.

As well as killing people directly, such events can knock out health systems and leave people struggling to meet basic needs.

“Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change,” said the letter from doctors.

“We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at Cop26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5°C.”

The 1.5°C target was set out in the Paris Agreement six years ago. The Glasgow summit is aimed at implementing that goal.

A scientific report in August said the effects of climate change would be far more severe if the Paris target is missed.

This would lead to far more frequent heatwaves, droughts and episodes of extreme rainfall such as last summer’s floods in Europe.

The WHO’s 10 recommendations include a push to “reimagine urban environments” by opening up green spaces and improving transport links.

Encouraging walking and cycling would not only reduce emissions but also promote physical activity and the reduction of obesity and diabetes, it said.

Another demand is to help developing countries by ensuring access to coronavirus vaccines, thereby creating time and resources to tackle climate change.

Rich countries have been criticised for hoarding vaccines and failing to meet a target of $100 billion in annual climate funding for the developing world.

The letter to Cop26 delegates said developed countries should also deepen their cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to keep the Paris targets alive.

“The people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are the people who contribute least to the problem,” it said.

“Those people and nations who have benefited most from the activities that caused the climate crisis ... have a great responsibility to do everything possible to help those who are now most at risk.”

Updated: October 20, 2021, 12:11 PM