Serious health effects and high mortality rate from burning fossil fuels and climate heating

By: Anna-Carin Olin

The report is supported by the leading medical organisations in Sweden, as well as three medical institutions in collaboration with AirClim, and highlights the threat of climate heating for Scandinavia, Europe and the world as a whole.

Covid-19 has highlighted fundamental aspects of the way our society is organised and the requirements for handling threats and crises, as well as our shortcomings in doing so, especially when it comes to prevention. Let’s learn from this! Climate change poses a much greater threat to our health and has far more serious consequences than the current pandemic. Powerful and rapid action is essential to 

avert the worst climate scenarios. It is becoming increasingly clear that the actions of individuals are not enough, yet it still seems that decision-makers are hiding their heads in the sand. Courageous, long-term political decisions and action are needed now to stop climate change in time, and Covid-19 has shown that it is possible!

The greatest immediate threats to our health globally are lack of food and clean water, the effects of which can already be seen in growing numbers of refugees and conflict around the world. Access to drinking water in large parts of Asia is threatened by the continued melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, and in the South American Andes. The effects are very unevenly distributed around the planet, and rising temperatures will hit poor countries the hardest, while the effects in the Nordic region will probably be more limited from a global perspective. Nevertheless, we are already seeing the effects of a warmer climate, with an increased risk of heatwaves and forest fires. So we too have a lot to gain from limiting climate impact as much as possible!

One of the more local effects is heatwaves. A European academy of scientists recently compiled the effects of various future scenarios. If we continue to emit carbon dioxide at the current rate, a sharp increase in heatwaves is expected in Europe, and by the year 2100 it is forecast that about 132,000 people in Europe may die of heat-related causes each year if temperatures continue to rise at the current rate. There are naturally some uncertainties in this figure and it is difficult to put it into perspective, but it can be compared with the mortality figure for Covid-19, which has so far claimed the lives of about 202,000 people in Europe (30 July).

In addition we are already seeing effects on the panorama of disease; viral diseases that did not previously exist in Europe are spreading, and the occurrence of allergies is rising, which now affect around 30 percent of our population.

Seen together, these examples show that the effects on our health are considerable, and could have widespread and financially costly consequences for healthcare, as well as causing enormous suffering. This threat is now being highlighted by Sweden’s largest medical organisations – the Swedish Medical Association and the Swedish Association of Senior Hospital Physicians – which are backing a report that summarises the current state of knowledge on the effects of climate change on health (link).

The good news is that if we act now these effects can still largely be prevented.

The key measures for reducing climate impact also contribute to better health, so this is a win-win situation. The air pollutants associated with carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere also have very serious health effects. Carbon dioxide is mainly produced by the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, petrol, oil and natural gas). When these fuels are burned they produce particles containing soot, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals and gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. All these compounds can have adverse effects on our health, and exposure to them increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, while recent research also shows impacts on cognitive functions and increased risk of dementia.

Current estimates indicate that the use of fossil fuels globally leads to around 3.6 million premature deaths per year. Again, this can be compared with Covid-19, which to date is estimated to have caused around 670,000 deaths globally (likely to be an underestimate).

Further measures will also be needed to limit climate change. For example, we must reduce our intake of red meat. This will also have benefits for our health.

Taken as a whole, this information shows that, for a large proportion of the population, society has in many ways so far failed to create living conditions that are sustainable and acceptable in the long term. Economic interests have been allowed to rule, but there are opportunities to change our energy and transport systems if only the will exists.

Let this pandemic give us time to think about how important prevention really is. To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we must now redesign our energy and transport systems so that they are sustainable, with the added benefit that we eliminate a large number of deaths that are associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

Anna-Carin Olin

Anna-Carin Olin is Professor and Chief Physician in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and Vice Director of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Gothenburg University, and Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Sweden.

Link to APC report: https://www.airclim.org/sites/default/files/documents/factsheet-climate-and-health.pdf

 

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