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June 23rd, 2015:

Climate change could undermine the last 50 years of health advances

Without major reforms climate change could trigger a discontinuity in the long-term progression of humanity, academics warn in The Lancet.

Waves like these at Ilfracombe are likely to become more common Photo: Paul Grover/Telegraph

Waves like these at Ilfracombe are likely to become more common Photo: Paul Grover/Telegraph

Climate change threatens to undermine the last 50 years of advances in medical health, scientists have warned as they published a major report outlining the threat of global warming.

The authors from University College London and the University of Cambridge called for major policy changes to cut pollution including phasing out coal-fired plants and investing in green cities, energy and transport.

Without major change they say climate change could be ‘sufficient to trigger a discontinuity in the long-term progression of humanity.’

In the report, published in The Lancet, the authors argue that the risk to human health posed by climate change has been widely underestimated and that flooding, droughts and heatwaves are likely to have a much greater impact.

Current predictions by the World Health Organisation suggest that 250,000 people a year could die worldwide by 2030 as a direct result of climate change but they do not take into account factors such as that the population is ageing and will be more vulnerable.

Food shortages or displacement of people is also likely to lead to civil unrest and wars.

“Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social mobility,” said Professor Anthony Costello, Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health.

Droughts like in California will become more widespread

Droughts like in California will become more widespread

Professor Hugh Montgomery of UCL’s Institute of Human Health and Performance added: “Climate change is a medical emergency. It thus demands and emergency response using technologies that are available right now.

“It’s not our grandchildren, it’s us and our children, and in this country as well as abroad.”

The report calls on governments to phase out coal-fired power plants and improve cities to promote healthy, greener lifestyles, making them better places to walk and cycle to cut pollution and obesity. They also recommend insulating more homes and buildings to cut energy use and cold-related deaths and disease.

Politicians should also bring in carbon pricing to push up the price of high carbon goods and services to make people change their behaviour, while reducing the cost of other taxes such as VAT, boosting investment or cutting the price of low-carbon technology.

This could mean the cost of flying going up, perhaps with a hike in air passenger duty for flights after the first flight a person takes in a year, pushing up the prices of the “short hop, short-term, leisure travel, stag-parties in Barcelona”.

Professor Paul Ekins, director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London, said: “That sort of thing could become quite a bit more expensive, such that people would think twice about doing that.”

People would have more money in their pockets from cuts to other taxes and if they “really valued those stag nights in Barcelona, they can still do it but they’d have to give up more in order to have it”, he suggested.

Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels during the 2014 floods

Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels during the 2014 floods

The health sector needed to take action too on clean energy, finding ways to deliver health services to patients without them having to drive to hospitals or switching asthma sufferers over to inhalers which do not use greenhouse gases, the commission said.

An estimated one trillion US dollars (£630 billion) would be needed each year up to 2050 to tackle climate emissions from energy, on top of the 105 trillion US dollars (£66 trillion) which would be required anyway for the energy system up to mid-century.

But with people spending 6.8 trillion US dollars (£4.3 trillion) a year on health, and with the “kind of health risks coming down the line if we don’t stick to 2C, that is a very good precautionary investment”, Prof Ekins said.

Cutting air pollution as part of efforts to tackle climate change, for example by reducing transport emissions or coal-fired power stations, in the EU alone could save 38 billion euro (£27 billion) a year by 2050 due to reduced deaths, the report said.

And the experts warned climate change was not a distant problem that would happen somewhere else but an “immediate and grave threat” that, like a patient who was gravely ill, needed action straight away with the technology available.

The new Lancet report on health and climate change, which follows on from a previous commission convened on the issue in 2009, is published in the build-up to key United Nations talks in Paris in December on securing a new global climate treaty.