Climate Change

Unchecked emissions may double child mortality due to heat in Africa

Study estimates 38,000 child deaths due to climate warming could occur every year by 2049

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Monday 11 July 2022
Under the low-emission scenario, approximately 4,000-6,000 heat-related child deaths per year could be prevented in Africa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Reducing carbon emissions can prevent 4,000 to 6,000 child deaths due to heat in Africa every year, a study has found. Heat-related child mortality due to high emissions is projected to double in the continent by 2049, compared with 2005–2014. 

The study was conducted by a team of international scientists led by University of Leeds in collaboration with researchers at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). 

Limiting temperature increases to Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C targets through 2050 can prevent heat-related child deaths, found the study. 

It also estimated the impact of climate change on annual heat-related child deaths for the current (1995–2020) and future time periods (2020–2050).

A comparative risk assessment was conducted to project the numbers of heat-related child deaths under low, medium and high-emissions scenarios.

In the high-emission scenario, where carbon emissions were not reduced, heat-related child deaths can double by 2049 compared to 2005-2014. An estimated 38,000 child deaths can occur every year by 2049.  

Under the low-emission scenario, approximately 4,000-6,000 heat-related child deaths annually can be prevented in Africa. Rapid carbon emission cuts across sectors are required to achieve this and to remain in line with the Paris agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

The medium-emission scenario, which combines elements of the low and high circumstances, would still prevent 2,000-3,000 deaths per year.

The study co-author Cathryn Birch from School of Earth and Environment at Leeds said:

Temperatures are already increasing in Africa. Since 1980, temperatures have risen between 0.2-0.4°C per decade. As temperatures continue to increase due to climate change, so will heat-related deaths. Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of heat exposure. They have limited ability to thermoregulate and high temperatures can increase disease transmission and outbreaks.

The study emphasises the need for urgent child health-focused climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.

Minimal epidemiologic information is available on the relationship between temperature and mortality in children in African countries. The team used previous studies in Ghana and Kenya to represent high and low bounds of heat-related mortality burdens for the continent.

The researchers did not project heat-related child mortality beyond 2050 because of uncertainties in the socio-economic projections.

More than five million people die on average each year across the world due to extreme temperatures, according to a 20-year study. Of this, 4.6 million deaths on average occurred annually due to extreme cold, while 0.48 million deaths occurred due to extreme heat.

According to another study, more than a third of heat-related deaths (37 per cent) across the world between 1991 and 2018 were caused by the planet’s warming due to anthropogenic activities. The share of heat-related deaths attributable to warming was above 40 per cent in Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and Chile.

The researchers acknowledge the limitations of this study, which include the reliance on heat-mortality relationships from existing literature that allowed the use of only two regions — Ghana and Kenya. 

Population-specific temperature mortality relationships have been found to vary by latitude, altitude, socio-economic factors such as income inequality and factors relating to the built environment, such as the prevalence of air-conditioning use.

The study urged more research to understand how extreme heat affects the health of children and which interventions can effectively manage and mitigate heat impacts on vulnerable populations and save thousands of children from dying unnecessarily.

This study was published in Environmental Research Letters July 4, 2022.

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