COP26 must address effects on health of climate change

by Latifa Patel

Global warming is exacerbating health inequality – COP26 is an opportunity and perhaps the last chance to halt or reverse this trend

Location: International
Last reviewed: 26 October 2021
Latifa Patel

The climate crisis is a health emergency. As a paediatric respiratory junior doctor, I have seen the devastating impact of climate change and air pollution firsthand. Air pollution is associated with an estimated 40,000 excess deaths a year in the UK, and 3.3m yearly excess deaths worldwide. In a landmark case last year, a coroner ruled that air pollution was a leading factor in the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl from London with severe asthma. 

The Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change, an annual report dedicated to monitoring the evolving health profile of climate change, emphasises that key climate change trends such as air pollution, flooding, and drought are getting worse and exacerbating existing health and social inequalities. Strong leadership is needed from governments worldwide to ensure future sustainability, improved health, and greater equality.  

Addressing health at COP26

The UK will host the 26th UN COP26 (Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November. The event has four objectives: secure global carbon net zero by 2050 and keep the 1.5°C limit on warming within reach; adapt to protect communities and natural habitats; mobilise finance; and work together to deliver the rules and regulations of the Paris Agreement. 

The BMA has worked with leading health organisations and medical bodies to emphasise the need for a health focus at COP26. We recently joined over 450 organisations in signing an open letterto government leaders and national delegations ahead of the event, warning that the climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity and calling on world leaders to deliver climate action.

This letter will be presented to world leaders along with a video at the opening of the COP26 session on health, which will be on 9 November. The letter’s publication coincides with the release of a new report by the WHO (World Health Organization), which argues that countries can only ensure long-term recovery from the pandemic by implementing ambitious climate commitments. 

We have also lobbied the UK Government to introduce a legally binding commitment to reduce fine particulate air pollution (PM 2.5) across the country; specifically, to bring it below the WHO’s maximum recommended level.

In a letter to all MPs, as a founding member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, we emphasised that the UK’s current legal limit for PM2.5 is five times higher than the WHO’s latest guidance, hence the need to take action and ensure the UK’s newly drafted legislative framework on the environment is based on the highest health standards.

This influencing work complemented our close engagement with parliamentarians through oral and written evidence to a key select committee, thereby informing their recommendation to Government that the Bill should align with WHO guidance. Unfortunately, despite support from Lords, this amendment was rejected due to the Government exercising its majority on a key vote in the Commons, and so will not feature in the final bill. This was deeply disappointing as PM 2.5 has devastating impacts on the health of people and the planet, and tackling it requires urgent action.  

The need for a sustainable healthcare system

The BMA has repeatedly called for improved sustainability practices in the healthcare system. Our ‘Sustainable and environmentally friendly general practice’ report explores sustainability practices within GP surgeries and how this can be developed and improved. Our ‘Climate change and sustainability: The Health Service and Net Zero’ report examines the state of play for sustainability in NHS trusts and health boards and suggests steps that can be taken to make the NHS a less carbon-intensive system. 

Our members have also voiced their support for climate action, passing several motions around the issue at the recent BMA annual representative meeting. These included campaigning for improved access to reusable personal protective equipment, investment in public transport infrastructure, and for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.  

I am proud that our membership has come together to recognise the leading role medical students and doctors can take in the response to the climate crisis. As healthcare providers and patient advocates, we have a unique position in calling for the change necessary to protect future health within the healthcare system and wider society. In the coming decades, climate change and air pollution pose the greatest threat to a sustainable future. Tackling them is fundamental to protecting the health of people and the planet. 

Dr Latifa Patel is interim chair of the BMA representative body