Climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children, reports The Lancet medical journal.
The yearly Countdown on Health and Climate Change Research has charted the lifelong health consequences for children born today if action is not taken.
From birth through to adulthood, the air breathed by a child born today will be more toxic, made worse by rising temperatures if we do not take action.
Exposure to toxic air in developing, as opposed to adult, lungs is more damaging, and reduces lung function, worsens asthma, and increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.
“Whilst the UK has recognised the urgency to respond to climate change, it is already lagging behind its commitment to net zero emissions by 2050,” said co-author Professor Elizabeth Robinson from the University of Reading.
“Urgent action is needed to cut emissions in hard to decarbonise sectors such as agriculture. Ways in which individuals can contribute to these efforts, improve their own health, and support UK farming, include eating a more seasonal plant-based diet and choosing locally sourced products.”
Authors of the report said committing to the Paris Agreement would limit global warming to below 2˚C, allowing a child born today to see an end to coal use in the UK by their sixth birthday. The world would reach net-zero emissions by their 31st birthday.
They are calling for the health impacts of climate change to be top of the agenda at next month’s UN Climate Conference.
Sandy Robertson, chairperson of the Environmental Specialist Interest Group of the UK’s Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “Our expertise is in recognising and treating emergency situations, and there is no doubt that climate breakdown is a healthcare emergency.
“We treat patients who have strokes, heart attacks and life threatening asthma caused by the toxic air that we breathe and the heat waves that are becoming ever more frequent. To truly tackle the root cause of these issues we need systemic change. The recommendations made by the Lancet Countdown are an excellent first step to tackle this health and climate emergency.”
The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change annual report is a collaborative project involving 120 experts, across 35 organisations including the World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, University College London, and Tsinghua University. It tracks the impact on human health across 41 indicators – on both taking action to meet the Paris Agreement, and carrying on as usual.
The report underlined that infants are the worst effected by crop failures as harvests shrink, threatening food security and driving up food prices. Children are also more susceptible to the increases in infectious diseases, that rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will create.
The number of clinically suitable days for the Vibrio bacteria that causes diarrhoea, for example, has doubled over the past 30 years. Diarrhoea kills 2,195 children worldwide daily, more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Transmission rates of the mosquito-carried dengue infection has also rapidly increased since 2000.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants,” said Nick Watts, executive director of the Lancet Countdown.
“The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime. Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.”
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, called on clinical and global health communities to mobilise: “The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation.
“With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can’t afford this level of disengagement. The clinical, global health and research community needs to come together now and challenge our international leaders to protect the imminent threat to childhood and lifelong health.”