Clean Air as a Human Right: Health at the UN Climate Action Summit

Some people say that our medical practitioners – doctors and nurses – are the best advocates for social issues. They witness the best and the worst of humanity on a daily basis, and that turns doctors and nurses into motivated actors for change. We trust our medical practitioners to provide advice and cautions on health issues. Now, the medical community is warning the world that climate change is threatening human health and the global community must enact urgent action to combat climate change.

Climate Impacts on Public Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes climate change as one of the greatest public health threats in the 21st century. Some of the climate impacts on health include an increase in vector-borne disease risk, respiratory diseases, heart diseases, fertility, diabetes, obesity, mental health consequences, and premature death. A study by the WHO found that breathing polluted air is equivalent to smoking. To be precise, if your city’s air pollutant concentration level is 22 micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter air (22 µg/m3), you are basically smoking one cigarette every hour. Dr. Arvind Kumar from the Association of Surgeons of India gave an example: the average particulate matter concentration in New Delhi, India is 143, so in total, Dr Kumar smoked 2372 cigarettes last year just by breathing in the polluted air. Therefore, there are no non-smokers in a polluted country.

According to the WHO, 91% of the people living in urban areas are not breathing safe or clean air. And this caused immense human casualties last year:

  • 8 million deaths occurred due to lung cancer and lung diseases
  • 4 billion deaths occurred due to heart diseases partially caused by air pollution
  • 5 million deaths occurred due to stroke partially caused by air pollution

In fact, the WHO calls air pollution the Invisible Killer; it is linked to or responsible for 25-50% of deaths a year. Last year, there were 7 million premature deaths, partially due to air pollution. Also, health researchers found that air pollution can lead to slower or lower IQ development in infants and children.

As a practicing respiratory diseases doctor, Dr. Kumar provided a shocking first-hand account of the increase of lung diseases in India. In 1988, the majority of the lung cancer cases (90%) were due to cigarette smoking, and the average patients were men ages 50-60. Today, over 50% of the lung cancer cases are caused by air pollution, and the patients’ ages are mostly 30-40 years old. Even small children’s lungs are getting darker and darker.

“Air pollution is a public health emergency,” declared the WHO and various panelists at the UN Climate Action Summit’s Social and Political Drivers Coalition Meeting. Air pollution knows no borders and the air pollutants from one place can travel with the wind around the world and contribute to global warming. Norway’s Deputy Minister of Climate and Environment Sveinung Rotevatn emphasized the importance of multilateralism and international cooperation in solving this public health emergency, along with the climate crisis. Addressing the health impacts of climate change is about clean air and water, sufficient food, and mitigating the increased risk of intensified natural disasters. But how can we address this important issue?

Financing to Address Climate Change and Health

Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted that the world community must scale up the financing to fund health initiatives that aim to improve air quality around the world and address the health impacts of climate change. Currently, less than 1.5% of the global climate funding is allocated to health initiatives (9 million dollars out of 1.5 billion total available funding), and the places that need this funding the most (Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries) receive only a fraction of that amount. Minister of Climate and Environment from the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, emphasized that addressing climate change’s health impacts has the co-benefit of saving 200 billion euros in healthcare spending every year; and if the world community achieve the Paris Agreement target, it would save 1 million lives annually around the world from diseases and premature death.

For Peruvian Minister of Environment, Ms. Lucia Ruiz, the key to multilateral funding rests on three pillars: clear information and evidence-based decision making, multi-stakeholder-level rules and synergy establishment, and monitoring. Providing transparent information and information-sharing amongst all of the stakeholders are essential to assess global needs, establish synergies between issue areas, and have clear rules and expectations to rule out vulnerabilities. And the system requires continuous monitoring for adjustment and assessment of impacts to improve service delivery and policy development.

Minister Ruiz also emphasized the importance of the perspectives from developing countries in global financing processes. She is convinced that the world community needs to encourage developing countries to come up with their own solutions that fit their respective national circumstances, and that multilateral development banks must work with developing country partners and coordinate efforts on the local level.

Actions to Address Climate Impacts on Health

On the macro-level, the world community needs research and investment into improving fuel efficiency and standards, technical revisions, systemic change, and support for sustainable transportation. These actions require strong infrastructure and technological innovation, and robust institutional will and support towards this cause.

On the local level, representatives from the Spanish Network of Cities for the Climate presented a number of solutions that Spanish municipalities are undertaking to address health and climate impacts. The three overarching actions the Network promotes are: 1) Internal awareness-raising activities that promote climate science and solutions to politicians and local leaders; 2) Awareness raising and public campaigns for the broader citizenry; and 3) Exchange of knowledge and expertise, best-practices, and lessons-learned.

Although different municipalities have different difficulties and challenges facing them, there are a set of common projects that the Network conducts. These include circular economy, promotion of renewable energy and increasing their efficiency, ensuring local housings are built or renovated with sustainable materials, and easier access to green and renewable energies. In addition, one of the most important common projects is the promotion of sustainable mobility and transportation. Cities in Spain are focusing on prioritizing pedestrian needs by building more public pathways and bike lanes to incentivize walking and cycling. The municipalities are also focusing on improving and expanding public transportation options not only to large- and medium-sized cities but also small and remote communities. Also, decentralization planning is underway to ensure that a local commercial area can be reached by foot for everyone in a city to further incentivize citizens to take public transport and walk.

Cities and local governments are an important part of the solution to address climate health impacts, but we need to tackle this issue on all levels of governance. The public and private sector must come together to establish partnerships and find synergies to act. Development banks and other financial institutions must have funding and budgets in place for local actors to enact change. And lastly, local actors should show their support and commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030 to demonstrate ambition and solidarity with the world community.

In conclusion, the world community need to increase resiliency in the face of climate change and ensure that healthcare services are able to meet the challenges of evolving and increasing climate impacts. The healthcare sector needs prevention and response policies in place to mitigate or reduce harm by climate impacts and protection for physical losses. Addressing health impacts due to climate change addresses health equity and human rights. The world community has an obligation to take measures, attend to and help the vulnerable population, especially Indigenous peoples, women, children and youth, persons with disabilities, and residents of small island developing states and the least developed countries. To achieve this goal, we need sufficient investment in adaptation and sustained funding for climate action around the world.

Addressing the health impacts of climate change is about questioning what kind of a world we want to leave for our children? Clean air is a human right and if we want to continue to afford our children the freedom to play outside and enjoy nature, we need to act today.

This article is a part of BCCIC Climate Change’s coverage on the United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019 and the New York Climate Week 2019. This article is produced by BCCIC Climate Change’s Multilateral Affairs Division, written by Jeffrey Qi with the support from YOUNGO, the Children and Youth NGO Constituency to the UN Climate Change Processes.


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