The former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has warned world leaders at Cop26 that climate change will take many more lives than diseases such as Covid-19 over the next 50 years unless rich countries stump up billions to tackle global warming.
Mr Brown on Tuesday said immediate action was required to limit global temperature rises to within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels to save millions of lives. Countries least responsible for emissions are most likely to bear the brunt of drought, flooding and rising deaths from diseases.
One of the main themes of the Cop26 summit in Scotland is to “keep 1.5°C alive” but officials say they have to resolve a series of disagreements to strike a successful deal in the final days of the event.
Speaking at a health-focused session in Glasgow, Mr Brown – also formerly Britain's finance minister – said world leaders needed to make good on the promise to raise $100 billion to “ensure a world that will be habitable in the future”.
“If we don’t reach the target we have set of $100bn on climate finance for developing countries, we will deprive them of the opportunity not only to build coastal defences and renewable industries but build the healthcare systems necessary for resistance to droughts, famine and also pollution,” he said.
“Although Covid has been a deadly disease, climate change will take more lives in the next 50 to 100 years than anything that that disease will do.”
Industrialised nations pledged in 2015 to raise $100bn by 2020 to help poorer countries adapt and prepare but the target is not expected to be reached until 2023. The ex-prime minister noted that draft conclusions for Cop26 had said the target would not be met at the summit.
Mr Brown was speaking after a group of 50 countries committed to developing health systems that could cope with changes to the climate. The nations – from some of the world’s poorest to major emitters – included the UAE, US, UK and Fiji.
Health systems contribute up to 5 per cent of global emissions and 14 of the countries committed to becoming net zero by 2050. Britain's state-owned National Health Service hopes to be one of the first major healthcare systems to declare net zero for its own facilities and suppliers.
"As a health community, we cannot simply sit on the sidelines – we must respond to climate change through urgent action, with global collaboration at its core," said Sajid Javid, Britain's Health Minister.
The conference heard of the struggles of Fiji, which has been hit by major cyclones and flooding linked to climate change. It says it needs to work to keep hospitals open during “superstorms”, move medical centres to higher ground and ensure renewable energy supplies are in place in case of power cuts.
Satyendra Prasad, Fiji's ambassador to the United Nations, told the conference that early warning systems were saving lives – but more people were already dying from waterborne diseases brought by flooding and extreme weather than major catastrophes themselves.
A World Health Organisation survey launched this week shows that the majority of countries included health in their national climate plans but they lacked detail.
A record number of health leaders are participating at Cop26. More than 45 million health professionals, representing two thirds of the world’s healthcare workforce, have signed a letter urging governments to take stronger action.
“The future of health must be built on health systems that are resilient to the impacts of epidemics, pandemics and other emergencies, but also to the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events and the increasing burden of various diseases related to air pollution and our warming planet,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO.