On the road to Durban and beyond: are you with us?

Original post published 27 November 2011

I was in London on 17 October 2011 attending THE conference on health and security implications of climate change.  With over 300 delegates, the meeting brought together ‘soldiers and doctors’, scientists, politicians, business, industry, environmentalists and many others. This is a good indicator that joint efforts to raise awareness about health and climate change within the health sector have taken root. Even more exciting was the statement signed by many participants and many other concerned people calling the EU and other international leaders to take immediate action to address the health and security implications of climate change.

But, health representation both in terms of professionals and substance at international and local climate change debates, policies and outcomes remains poor. We are redressing this. We took a health delegation to the international climate change talks in BarcelonaCopenhagen and Cancun and will be going to Durban. The idea: make sure that health forms a cornerstone of climate change talks and ambitious, binding actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And bring the health voice forward. We are doing the same in Europe – work with other civil society groups to advocate for health in the European institutions and in EU member states. Things are moving, albeit slowly.

So why the fuss? Well, climate change is bad for your health. That’s putting it simply. For starters, the health impacts of climate change are generally known. Yes, science has shown that health impacts include increasing burden of malnutrition, cardiovascular disease, mortality and morbidity from heat waves, floods and drought, changes in distribution of some vector diseases (…). The European Respiratory Society’s report shows that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in summer temperatures above defined European city-specific levels, overall death rates increase by 1-3% and by 6% amongst people with existing respiratory conditions. Add to that: environmental degradation, food shortages, increasing poverty, misery and economic instability and you have a crisis.

Many citizens are concerned about this. A recent Eurobarometer poll shows that the European public is more concerned about climate change than the current economic situation, and many believe that tackling climate change can have benefits to employment and growth.  So do our elected politicians hear this?

Seriously.  We are a few weeks from the international climate change talks, the UNFCCC COP 17 in Durban (28 November – 9 December). Expectations are high that countries will agree to a clear, fair, legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. This is the only international legal instrument that sets binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, covering 37 so-called industrialised countries and the European Union member states. Canada, Russia, and Japan are on the opposition. The USA is not a signatory. Here we go.

On 1 November, the so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) meeting in China agreed to support a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and in their statement called upon the conference in Durban to establish a second Commitment Period to the Kyoto Protocol. Climate finance and the operationalisation of the Green Climate Fund set up in Cancun were other priority issues identified for Durban.  The BASIC countries also called on developed countries not Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to undertake comparable emission cuts under the Convention. They pledged to take measures to curb their own emissions.  These are good signs. On 4 November, leaders of the major economies, so-called developed countries, meeting at the G20 Summit in Cannes concluded by identifying the need to operationalise the Green Climate Fund as one of the priority outcomes for Durban. Let’s see what they DO in Durban.

What about the EU? Members of the European Parliament (MEPs)’s Environment Committee voted for a resolution on 26 October that calls for support to the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and called on the EU to work towards finding an agreement on the sources and management of the Green Climate Fund. The MEPs restated their call for the EU to increase its emissions reduction target for 2020, beyond the current 20% emissions reductions compared to 1990 levels. They also want to see new measures to cut aviation and marine emissions.  During a recent debate with the EU Commissioner for Climate in the same Committee on 7 November, MEPs called for bold EU action before Durban. These are wise words from MEPs.  The Commissioner hears this and talked of finding a common ambitious global solution.  The problem is that some EU member states, luckily not all, do not want bold action by the EU, nor for the EU to increase its climate target beyond 20% - for various reasons. But 20% is not enough[1]. And addressing climate change can have benefits to health, the environment and the economy.

Health co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as those from increasing the EU’s emissions reduction target from 20% to 30% compared to 1990 levels (a 10% increase), can save up to 30.5 billion Euros by 2020. These changes are mainly the result of improved air quality, which promote substantial improvements in respiratory and heart health. Reductions in healthcare costs can be an added incentive as several countries are struggling to balance their budgets and a healthier workforce can contribute to increasing productivity. No time to waste.

This year will see the first ever Climate and Health Summit at an international climate change conference. The Summit, on December 4, co-organised by Health Care Without Harm will take place parallel to the UNFCCC meetings at the Tropicana Hotel in Durban, South Africa. The event will bring key health sector actors from around the world together to discuss the impacts of climate change on public health and solutions that promote greater health, as well as economic equity between and within nations. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate finance, healthcare sector contribution, health co-benefits and many others will feature. One of the outcomes of this Summit is to contribute to the negotiations taking place in Durban, not only by ensuring health representation, but also by making sure that key policy solutions from the Summit make their way to the Conference.  Watch this space.

Durban is not the end of the road, said the EU Commissioner for Climate. Indeed, in mid-next year we have the Rio+20 Summit and its ‘green economy’ agenda.

Already the UNDP’s 2011 Human Development report highlights that health and income development in the so-called developing countries are hindered by inaction on climate change and environmental degradation and destruction. We have work to do! Please contact and join us.

[1] IPPC (International Panel on Climate Change) 4th Assessment Report, 2007, IPCC recommendations: collective greenhouse gas emissions reductions by and within industrialised countries of 25-40% by 2020 from 1990 levels are needed to give only a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees.
This post was written by Dr. Pendo Maro, Senior Climate Advisor for Health Care Without Harm Europe and the Health and Environment Alliance; Pendo will attend COP 17 in Durban.

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