Health On The Line: A Plea For A Clean Break From Fossil Fuels At COP28

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Investments in clean energy technologies are charting an unprecedented trajectory, outpacing traditional fossil fuel spending. The current global energy crisis, coupled with heightened concerns about affordability and security, is catalysing a decisive shift towards more sustainable alternatives. Behind the scenes, the momentum of clean energy is swiftly outstripping expectations, evident in the divergence of investment trends from fossil fuels.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol underscores this shift, stating, “For every dollar invested in fossil fuels, about 1.7 dollars are now going into clean energy.” A notable example is the escalating investment in solar energy, poised to surpass funding directed towards oil production for the first time.

This year, as world leaders converge in the UAE for COP28, a paradigm-shifting element is introduced—official programming devoted to health. Global health organisations, rallying under an open letter addressed to COP 28 President-Designate Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, fervently call for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.

The signatories of this impactful letter advocate for placing health at the forefront of COP28, aligning with their commitment to achieving health and well-being for all. The Paris Agreement, encapsulating the “right to health” as a core climate action obligation, sets the stage for this collective stance. Yet, the harsh reality is that communities, health workers, and systems globally are already grappling with the severe impacts of a changing climate.

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Extreme weather events, intensified by climate change, are imposing dire health consequences, ranging from heatwaves to storms, floods, and displacement. To transform COP28 into a true “health COP,” the root cause of the climate crisis must be addressed—the persistent extraction and use of fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and gas.

In addition to climate-related health impacts, the insidious effects of air pollution, primarily stemming from burning fossil fuels, claim seven million premature deaths annually. The staggering economic toll of air pollution-related health impacts amounts to over US$8.1 trillion, equivalent to 6.1% of global GDP in 2019. Prioritising clean energy investments not only saves billions in healthcare costs but also mitigates economic losses from extreme weather events, with damages totaling US$253 billion in 2021.

The fossil fuel industry, with its decades-long history of obstructing climate action, faces an imperative reckoning. Drawing a parallel with the tobacco industry’s exclusion from the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, it becomes crucial to safeguard global collaboration on climate progress from the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby.

The burden on healthcare systems and workers becomes insurmountable without ambitious climate action. Health gains achieved in recent decades teeter on the brink of being in vain, with the harmful impacts of climate change jeopardising the realisation of a safe, equitable, and just future.

The global health organization’s letter, backed by entities representing 46.3 million health professionals, emphasizes the urgent need to protect human health by reducing fossil fuel dependence, accelerating investment in clean energy technology, and curbing air pollution. The letter, endorsed by medical journals such as the British Medical Journal, transcends rhetoric and outlines a roadmap for a healthier world.

The call to exclude representatives of the fossil fuel industry from climate negotiations mirrors the restrictions placed on the tobacco industry. As climate talks embrace an entire day dedicated to health for the first time, the opportunity arises to address the direct health impacts of climate change on individual well-being and healthcare systems.

Health professionals assert that solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS) risk exacerbating harmful emissions, straining overburdened communities, and impeding meaningful climate progress. The imperative is clear—actions must be taken immediately to address the root cause, reduce carbon emissions, and pave the way for an accelerated, fair, and just transition.

Aggrey Aluso, Africa Director of the Pandemic Action Network, emphasises, “Immediate actions are crucial to prevent pandemics and address the root cause by reducing carbon emissions through an accelerated, fair, and just transition.”

The overarching demand is for a clean break from fossil fuel dependence—a prerequisite for a healthier world. Beyond choking our people and our planet, the effects of climate change amplify the risk of emerging pandemic threats. As the narrative unfolds, the urgency of swift and resolute action echoes louder than ever.

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