New report warns climate change will threaten millions of children’s lives

New research by The Lancet outlines the far-reaching health effects that infants born today will face without concerted action on climate change and air pollution. Reducing short-lived climate pollutants is the kind of dramatic and fast-acting solution needed to save lives.

Without action, a person born today will live in a world that is, on average, over 4 ̊C warmer by the time they’re in their seventies. At these temperatures, crop yields will diminish, air pollution will intensify, and infectious diseases will proliferate. The health effects of global warming will dog these children for the rest of their lives. 

New research published by The Lancet last week shows that climate change and air pollution are threatening to unravel the remarkable global health gains made in recent decades, with the world’s poorest children bearing the worst of it.

“The Lancet Countdown 2019 is telling this story from the perspective of today's infants and I see this as a very compelling way to express the urgency with which we need to act,” said Drew Shindell, the Chair of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s (CCAC) Scientific Advisory Panel. The CCAC is a global partnership committed to reducing short-lived climate pollutants, which have dramatic effects on both climate change and air pollution.

The report outlines major health consequences children will face if action isn’t taken, including the fact that crop yields have already reduced by 4-6 percent. Food prices will increase as outputs continue to diminish, burdening children with malnutrition resulting in stunted growth and long-term developmental problems. Changing weather patterns caused by climate change have already created a more hospitable environment for cholera and dengue fever; climate change will continue to expand the areas in which they can thrive. Worsening air pollution means that children are more likely to suffer from reduced lung function, asthma, and increased risk of stroke and heart attack.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: 2019 report

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: 2019 report
Video: The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change 2019 report

These are dire predictions but they come with an important upshot: short-lived climate pollutants are an unparalleled opportunity to prevent the world’s poorest children from a life indelibly altered by the health impacts of climate change.

“Global assessments are providing mounting evidence for the need to simultaneously cut both greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants to stay below the 1.5 degree target,” said Shindell. 

These potent climate forcers include black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). They all stick around for less time than carbon dioxide (the biggest contributor to global warming) but have significantly greater warming potential. If no action is taken, it’s estimated they’ll account for up to half of warming caused by humans.

The toll these pollutants take isn’t just on climate change, however, they’re also responsible for many of the health effects the report warns of. Black carbon is a major component of fine particulate matter which is responsible for 7 million premature deaths every year. Methane is a precursor to the harmful air pollutant, tropospheric ozone, which is responsible for 1 million premature respiratory deaths globally.

Global assessments are providing mounting evidence for the need to simultaneously cut both greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants to stay below the 1.5 degree target.
Drew Shindell
Chair of the CCAC's Scientific Advisory Panel

The brief lifespan of these pollutants means reducing their emissions can have a  rapid and dramatic effect on the lives of the children the Lancet report warns will be most affected.

“People around the world will immediately feel local health and agricultural benefits from taking action - which will achieve both near-term and long-term benefits for the climate,” said Shindell.

In fact, acting on short-lived climate pollutants could prevent 0.6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050, 2.4 million premature deaths annually from outdoor air pollution, and 52 million tonnes of avoided crop loss every year.

“Seven million people die prematurely every single year due to a preventable cause - air pollution. We know the sources of air pollution, and we have the solutions to improve air quality,” said Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

Indeed, despite the report’s dire predictions, there are proven and cost-effective ways to intervene.

When it comes to black carbon, 58 percent is produced from residential cooking, domestic heating, and lamps which all contributes a significant share of ambient air pollution in the developing world. The CCAC’s Household Energy initiative focuses on key strategies, such as supporting clean technologies and fuels, developing standards and testing protocols to help evaluate emissions reductions, and lobbying policy makers and thought leaders to spread the word. 

Urban bus fleets are predicted to grow by nearly 50 percent over the next decade and because most of them are powered by diesel engines, which are responsible for a quarter of global black carbon emissions, the transportation sector is another place ripe for intervention. The CCAC is working to implement soot-free urban bus fleets around the world and the CCAC’s Global Green Freight Action Plan is helping to transfer to greener freight, like rail or coastal, and make existing freight more efficient.

There is already significant global buy-in on solving the problem. The BreatheLife campaign, a global network to improve air quality for health and climate founded by the CCAC, The United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and The World Bank, has more than 70 cities, regions, and countries representing more than 270 million people committed to taking action to improve air quality. That support needs to scale, however, and it needs to scale fast: over 80 percent of the world’s urban population lives with unsafe levels of air pollution.

“My prescription to prevent non-communicable diseases is to dramatically reduce air pollution across a large number of sectors to provide healthy choices for people around the world - this is required for the future of our lungs and planet,” said Neira. 

Reducing short-lived climate pollutants is therefore something all countries need to do in order to protect the health and quality of life of children born today. Acting now will rapidly reduce the rate of warming, helping prevent dangerous climate feedback loops and giving vulnerable communities time to adapt. The benefits to air quality, food security, and development provide even more reasons to act urgently. These reductions must occur at the same time as efforts to reduce long-lived greenhouse gases because, as this report makes clear, our children’s lives are at risk.

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