TACKLING climate change will save up to one million lives a year by 2050 through reductions in air pollution, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.
In Ireland, some 1,200 premature deaths occur each year due to air quality issues, but the figure rises to seven million deaths globally, the WHO said.
A report launched at the UN climate conference in Poland (COP 24) highlights that ambitious climate action will result in better health outcomes across the world.
It says that exposure to air pollution leads to mass fatalities and costs up to $5.1 trillion (€4.5bn) in welfare losses. In the 15 countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, health impacts are estimated to cost 4pc of GDP.
The WHO says actions to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals to restrict rises in average global temperatures to no more than 2C will cost around 1pc of global GDP, suggesting it is cheaper to take action than pay for poorer health outcomes.
“The Paris Agreement is potentially the strongest health agreement of this century,” WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“The evidence is clear that climate change is already having a serious impact on human lives and health. It threatens the basic elements we all need for good health – clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter – and will undermine decades of progress in global health. We can’t afford to delay action any further.”
He said the main driver of climate change was burning of fossil fuels which was also a major contributor to air pollution.
In Ireland, emissions from transport and burning of fuels including turf and coal for home heating are linked with premature deaths.
“The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs. The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high, that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself,” WHO director public health Dr Maria Neira added.
“When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost.”
The Department of Health is working on priority actions needed to adapt to climate change, including completing vulnerability assessments of healthcare facilities to ensure they can continue to function during extreme weather events.
It is also developing a ‘baseline climate epidemiology’ system, where conditions associated with weather and climate change can be measured and monitored.
The WHO says that switching to low-carbon energy sources both improves air quality and provides additional health benefits. Cycling, for example, helps increase physical activity which can help prevent diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
The ‘WHO’s COP-24 Special Report: health and climate change’ says while countries are taking action, the scale of support remains “woefully inadequate”.
Among the requirements include healthcare facilities and improved warning systems for extreme weather events and infectious disease outbreaks.
Countries should account for health in any cost-benefit analysis of mitigation measures to prevent climate change, it adds, which taking steps to reduce emissions.
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