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In 2012, 7 million people died from air pollution-related diseases, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk
There is no doubt that climate change is one of the most debatable issues of the 21st century. It becomes more so when it directly or indirectly affects public health and causes premature deaths. According to an estimate by the World Health Organization, climate change alone is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year.
According to the international health agency, there is every reason to worry as people are dying as a result of heat waves, floods, deteriorating air quality, shortage of food and water supplies and poor sanitation—all brought about by climate change.
Against such a backdrop, the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris offers the world an opportunity to forge a strong international climate agreement, which can protect our environment and public health in the years to come.
Deaths and climate change
WHO estimated that in 2012 7 million people died from air pollution-related diseases, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
Further, it has been predicted that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year from malaria, diarrhoea, heat stress and under-nutrition between 2030 and 2050. The most vulnerable groups will be children, women and the poor in lower-income countries.
AK Ghosh, director of the Centre for Environment & Development, a Kolkata-based non-profit, admitted that climate change is a "major issue", particularly so in India, as there is a huge concern about the rise in vector-borne diseases due to it. He cited the instance of the housefly which can increase in number due to poor sanitary conditions and cause enteric diseases. As a result of climate change, "there is a high price to be paid in the public health sector", he said.
Under such circumstances, combating climate change can bring about health gains. By reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (black carbon and methane) and by achieving higher vehicle emissions and efficiency standards, approximately 2.4 million lives can be saved per year year.
Looking forward to climate action
In the backdrop of COP-21, countries have made important commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation measures to fight climate change, but more needs to be done.
WHO, in collaboration with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat and other partners, has launched the first set of Climate Change and Health Country Profiles for 14 countries.
The profiles show that a combination of emissions and weak protection measures will expose an additional 7 million people annually in Bangladesh to coastal flooding and its associated health risks between 2070 and 2100. In Nigeria, implementing measures to reduce pollutants can prevent almost 70,000 premature deaths per year from outdoor air pollution from 2030 onwards.
But there is also a way out. Declining carbon emissions will help reduce climate change, Ghosh said.
According to him, people also suffer from lack of nutrition due to climate change. He gave the example of Sundarbans where lands became fallow post Aila and were deemed unfit for paddy cultivation. People were forced to buy food which increased their debt burden. The situation gave rise to malnutrition due to food shortage and the former is linked to diseases. The risk of climate change is higher in tropical countries in terms of tropical cyclones.
According to experts, India's long coastline makes it vulnerable to climate change and it will subsequently affect the health of its people. As temperatures rise, the country will witness more floods and heatwaves.
A study conducted by the Columbia University researchers had focused on climate change and its negative impacts on human health, particularly in the coastal regions of the world.
Research also shows that climate variability invariably leads to conflicts, violence and migration, as people prefer to move away from those areas that fail to provide food, water and shelter.
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