(CN) – Touting the benefits of cleaner air, a Wednesday report unveiled by the United Nations says reducing pollution could save the lives of a million people each year by mid-century.
The study from the U.N.’s World Health Organization was delivered this morning at the organization’s annual climate conference COP24. Three years ago at COP21 came the Paris Agreement, a landmark global negotiation to combat the changing climate. Wednesday’s report calls it “the strongest public health agreement of the century,” ratified by 183 countries.
President Donald Trump has said he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in 2020. But the authors of Wednesday’s study say that completion of the goals laid out there by other partners could see changes for the better and save millions of lives by the mid-21st century.
“Climate change is the greatest health challenge of the 21st century, and threatens all aspects of the society in which we live,” the report begins.
Warning that action is need to make sure that climate change does not undermine the global health improvements achieved over the past few decades by policy-makers, the authors of the study position the world health community as an increasingly crucial, trusted and committed player in the fight.
Put together by “organizations representing over five million doctors, nurses and public health professionals and 17,000 hospitals in over 120 countries,” some of the steps laid out in the report include humanizing the stakes by putting the health implications of mitigation and adaptation measures in official policy.
The report says air pollution is the “most direct link” between climate change and poor health, but that growing public awareness of this “health burden” could motivate change.
Air pollution is caused by burning fossil fuels — still the most popular energy method worldwide — and knows no borders, the report explains. It adds that over 90 percent of the world’s urban population breathes air that does not meet the WHO’s pollutant guidelines, causing deaths from heart and lung disease and stroke. And global warming makes air quality worse, the report notes.
Other health impacts from climate change include mental illness, undernutrition, respiratory disease and allergies, infectious disease, poisoning, water and mosquito-borne illnesses, and heatstroke. Flooding destroys health care facilities; drought causes famines. And the most affected are the already poor and vulnerable.
“The world has no time to waste, and with clean energy solutions readily available and accessible for a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels, the solution is clear,” said John Coequyt, global climate policy director at the Sierra Club, in a statement Wednesday. “World leaders must heed today’s report and accelerate meaningful climate action without haste.”
The report singled out coal as particularly bad, contributing “proportionally more to climate change” than natural gas. But coal plans worldwide are going full steam ahead, with plans for over a thousand new plants.
Katowice, Poland, which is host this year to COP24, is itself a coal-mining city. U.S. President Donald Trump built much of his campaign on the promise to bring back coal.
The report also estimates a quarter of a million additional climate-change-related deaths each year between 2030 and 2050. Nearly 100,000 of those deaths will be undernourished children.
“These are staggering figures and reinforce the urgency of rapidly and drastically cutting emissions,” Jens Mattias Clausen, Greenpeace’s head of delegation at COP24, said of the report. “Ending the age of fossil fuels saves lives – not only through a reduction in air pollution but also avoiding the worst impacts of climate destruction. Coal and oil are the largest contributors to poor air quality and coal’s role in pollution is very visible here in Katowice.
“The WHO has also clearly shown that the economic benefits of reducing air pollution far outweigh the costs of climate action,” Clausen added. “This should spur us to immediate action because the cost of delay is paid in human lives lost and worsening damage to our planet.”