Climate change risks ‘unprecedented implications’ on human health

The EU must urgently address the impact of climate change and fossil fuel consumption on human health, according to research published in a leading medical journal.

In a briefing directed at EU policymakers, researchers have warned that rising temperatures are increasing the range of disease-bearing mosquitos, while estimating that air pollution caused primarily by fossil fuel consumption costs EU nations between €330-940bn a year.

The data is taken from the 2019 Lancet Countdown, a global study that examines the links between climate change and human health. 

It observes that the potential for mosquito-borne diseases is on the rise in Europe, with Malta most acutely affected, followed by Greece, Romania, Spain, Bulgaria, Italy and Croatia. 

“Vectorial capacity of the Asian tiger mosquito to transmit dengue is nonetheless increasing in all countries for which data is available,” the EU briefing states, “and that warmer temperatures create favourable conditions for transmission.”

On air pollution, the new research calculates that small particulate matter - known as PM2.5 - would cost Europe €129bn a year if emissions remained at 2016 levels. When all air pollutant types are taken into consideration, that cost could be as high as €940bn a year. 

The researchers recommend that EU policymakers promote the transition to clean transport, with a particular emphasis on walking and cycling. The European Green Deal should seek to update air quality standards to align them with the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization, the briefing states. 

It adds: “The EU should integrate health considerations throughout proposed interventions, with particular consideration to policies regarding coal and energy, transport, and the adaptation of health systems to respond to mosquito-borne diseases and other health threats, and step up in CO2 emissions reductions goals for 2030.”

Commenting on the findings, Anne Stauffer, a director at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), said they show “we’re at a crossroads”.

“The next few months will be ‘make or break’ time for the new EU institutions,” she added, calling for more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction goals, incentives for clean transport and proposals for meeting the WHO’s air quality guidelines by 2030.

At a global level, the Lancet study paints a bleak picture of the health impacts of climate change. It warns that children are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change, suffering increased malnutrition from falling crop harvests, extreme heatwaves and the worse outbreaks of wound infections and diarrhoeal disease.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate,” said Dr Nick Watts, the executive director of the Lancet Countdown. “Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants. The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.

Follow up: Lancet Countdown full report, EU policy brief.

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