Climate change: Time for health care sector to do its part, says new report by the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change
Report also highlights the increasing impact of wildfires on Canadians
Canada’s health care sector is among the worst in the world in terms of greenhouse gas pollution, says the Canada-focused policy brief, issued alongside the latest Lancet Countdown international report, and the sector requires concerted efforts to chart a new course to be consistent with its mandate to ‘do no harm.’
The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a comprehensive yearly analysis produced by 120 experts from 35 institutions and tracks progress on key indicators of the impact of climate change on human health and the world’s efforts to minimize it. The associated policy briefs provide country-specific recommendations by leading domestic experts to highlight areas in which leaders and policy-makers should focus to develop a healthy response to climate change.
In Canada, the Lancet Countdown Policy Brief: Canada in 2019 was produced by a team of experts and researchers led by Dr. Courtney Howard, a wildfire researcher, recognized expert on the impact of climate change on health and Yellowknife emergency physician; the team also included Dr. Margot Parkes, Dr. Caren Rose, Dr. Andrea MacNeill and Dr. Chris Buse.
Published today, the report highlights four key areas where Canada can make the biggest difference to reduce the ever-growing impact of climate change on health:
Issue #1: Canada has the third highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions from health care in the world.
Recommendation: Develop a national evidence-based sustainable initiative designed to support the greening of the health sector, including waste reduction and greenhouse gas reductions, charting a course for net-zero emissions from health care by 2050, consistent with the health sector’s fair share of responsibilities under the Paris Agreement.
Issue #2: Of the 440,000 Canadians displaced due to wildfires since the 1980s, more than half were in the last decade.
Recommendation: Incorporate lessons learned from recent severe wildfires to strengthen a pan-Canadian emergency response approach.
Issue #3: Canada’s transport sector continues to be dominated by fossil fuels, and over 1,000 Canadians are estimated to have died in 2015 as a result of traffic-related fine-particulate air pollution. Electric and biofuels alternative vehicles are gaining ground too slowly, leaving benefits to Canadians’ health, health care expenditures and greenhouse gas reductions largely untapped.
Recommendation: Develop provincial and territorial legislation requiring automakers to gradually increase the annual percentage of new light-duty vehicles sold that are zero emissions, working toward a target of 100% by 2040.
Issue #4: The health of Canadians – particularly Indigenous populations, people in low-resource settings, and future generations – is increasingly at risk due to the growing number of climate change-related severe weather events, wildfires, changes to infectious disease patterns, and more.
Recommendation: Make health a key consideration in climate-related policy-making across sectors, including ensuring that Canada’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution commitments, due to be submitted in 2020, represent Canada’s fair share of emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement.
Overall, the 2019 Lancet Countdown reports on the extensive health damage from climate change, and sets out the lifelong health consequences of rising temperatures for a child born today:
- As temperatures rise, infants will bear the greatest burden of malnutrition and rising food prices—the average global yield potential of maize (-4%), winter wheat (-6%), soybean (-3%) and rice (-4%) has declined over the past 30 years.
- Children will suffer most from the rise in infectious diseases—2018 was the second most climatically suitable year on record for the spread of bacteria that cause much of diarrhoeal disease and wound infection globally.
- Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen—with premature deaths from outdoor air pollution (PM2.5) stagnating at 2.9 million worldwide in 2016 (over 440,000 from coal alone); the total global energy supply from coal rose 1.7% from 2016 to 2018, reversing a downward trend.
- Extreme weather events will intensify into adulthood, with 152 out of 196 countries experiencing an increase in people exposed to wildfires since 2001–2004, and a record 220 million more over 65 exposed to heatwaves in 2018 compared with 2000—63 million more than in 2017.
- A second path is possible: moving from the current high-emissions pathway to the low-emissions pathway, consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to well below 2˚C, will allow a child born today to grow up in a world which reaches net-zero emissions by their 31st birthday—and secure a healthier future for coming generations.
- Authors call for the human health impacts of climate change to be at forefront of the agenda at the UN Climate Conference (COP25) next month.
Quotes from Canadian authors:
Canadian health workers have three key responsibilities: First, we must prepare for inevitable climate-related impacts on health and health systems from wildfires, floods and more. Secondly, it’s time to own up to the health sector’s climate impact and do our fair share to reduce emissions. Finally, we must harness the unifying power of a response to climate change that prioritizes health to help us work across silos towards a future that keeps us and our children safe and well.
Dr Courtney Howard, wildfire researcher, Canadian spokesperson for the International Lancet Countdown report and Yellowknife emergency physician
Canada has shown it can be a leader when it sets goals—as it did when coal was phased out in Ontario. Health care accounts for approximately 4% of the country’s total emissions. It’s time to set a new goal and reduce this to zero emissions by 2050, consistent with our responsibility under the Paris Agreement.
Dr. Andrea MacNeill, co-author and Vancouver cancer surgeon
The impact of emissions is borne by some more that others. Today’s children, Indigenous communities, people in low-resource settings, and future generations are disproportionately impacted. Canada must increase its commitment to decreasing its own emissions for current and future Canadians, and must also support other countries, especially middle-and-lower-income countries, to protect health globally by increasing mitigation efforts and locally by preparing for the impacts of climate change.
Dr Margot Parkes, MBChB, PhD, co-author and Canada Research Chair in Health, Ecosystems and Society, UNBC
Air pollution from fossil-fuel-powered transport is associated with one quarter of new asthma cases in children in Toronto, as well as over a thousand deaths per year in Canada. We have made progress, most notably in British Columbia, but we need light-duty vehicles to be emissions-free by 2040 to truly have a positive impact.
Dr. Chris Buse, co-author and researcher
Canada is warming far too quickly. The rise in average temperature is putting the health of Canadians at risk. Maintaining the status quo is no longer a viable option. We all need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by increasing clean energy, improving public transit, cycling and walking rates, and adhering to a plant-rich diet. These measures are likely to produce concomitant health benefits. It’s a win-win for the health of our planet and for Canadians.
Mr. Ian Culbert, Executive Director of the Canadian Public Health Association
Canada’s doctors see the devastating health impacts of a changing climate first-hand. From wildfires to heat waves to new infectious diseases, we’re already treating the health effects of climate change. It’s time we had a comprehensive plan so that Canada meets our international climate change targets.
Dr. Sandy Buchman, President of the Canadian Medical Association
For more information, contact:
Eric Collard, Manager, Media Relations at the CMA
About the Canadian Medical Association
Since 1867, the Canadian Medical Association has been the national voice of Canada’s medical profession. We work with physicians, residents and medical students on issues that matter to the profession and the health of Canadians. We advocate for policy and programs that drive meaningful change for physicians and their patients.