Medical Observer Opinion: Paris climate deal just a beginning

Medical Observer Opinion: Paris climate deal just a beginning

Dr Katrina Lyne

by Dr Katrina Lyne

YEARS of negotiations culminated as the Paris agreement on climate change was accepted last month, paving the way for ambitious action to protect the earth from catastrophic climate change.

At the conclusion of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 195 nations signed the accord.

Pending ratification, the Paris agreement is legally binding and will come into force in 2020, committing nations to decisive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Critically, the need for substantial and urgent reductions in global emissions is emphasised, as is the disparity between the effect of nations’ submitted mitigation pledges and the emissions reductions required to limit temperature increases to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.

Average global temperatures have already increased by about 1°C since pre-industrial times, and the impact of climate change on human health is ever more apparent. 

Direct effects include the increasing risk of floods, droughts, heat stress and intense storms, while indirect effects include those linked to vector-borne diseases, air pollution, food security, mental illness, population displacement and, potentially, conflict. Climate change will exacerbate disease burden and global health inequalities. 

The WHO has described the agreement as perhaps the most important health treaty of the century. Numerous health sector organisations worked tirelessly before COP21, with campaigns launched by WHO, the Global Climate and Health Alliance, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians among those representing over 13 million health professionals, and calling for strong action on climate change to protect public health. 

The agreement encourages parties to “respect, promote and consider” the right to health in addressing climate change, and recognises the value of mitigation and its co-benefits for human health. 

While these two references to health are far from comprehensive, dedicated implementation of the agreement will have profound implications for global health, reducing the risk of direct and indirect climate change impacts, and averting the reversal of decades of development. 

But such implementation requires determined commitment from governments around the world, including in Australia. Rather than limiting temperatures to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, current global pledges for emissions reductions are consistent with a 2.7—3°C rise. 

Specifically, Australia’s pledge to reduce emissions by 26—28% below 2005 levels by 2030 is consistent with a 3—4°C temperature increase. This is woefully inadequate. 

Importantly, the five-yearly review cycles required under the Paris agreement are a critical opportunity for the health and other sectors to maintain pressure on governments to enforce emissions reductions. 

Acknowledging observed, inevitable and projected climate change, we must push for strong plans for adaptation within health systems and continued optimisation of the health co-benefits of mitigation. 

Also critical is the mobilisation of resources for adaptation in developing countries, particularly in the Pacific. 

While the Paris agreement is a momentous achievement, it is vital that efforts continue and a sense of urgency is maintained.

Described as a milestone rather than an end point, the agreement marks a critical point in the transition away from fossil fuels and towards a future powered by renewable energy. 

Health is increasingly recognised as a determinant of efforts to combat climate change, and the health sector’s sustained engagement with climate change policy is essential to optimise opportunities for improvements to health and strengthening of health systems, in Australia and abroad.

First published in the Medical Observer on 19 January 2016.
Dr Katrina Lyne is a GP and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

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