World’s Earth Day: Call for Acting against Climate Change

WHO has declared that the climate crisis is a health crisis. Climate change is adversely impacting all aspects of life and sustainability. There is an urgent need to address climate change in a cost-effective and equitable way.

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The Planetary Health Alliance, based at the Harvard University, aptly summarizes our planet’s current plight. “Since 1950, the human population has increased by nearly 200 per cent; fossil fuel consumption by over 550 per cent; and marine fish capture by over 350 per cent. We’ve placed dams on about 60 per cent of the world’s rivers, we’ve cleared nearly half of temperate and tropical forests, we use nearly half of accessible freshwater every year, and we appropriate about half of the planet’s liveable surface to feed ourselves. Biodiversity is rapidly being lost as an estimated 150 species become extinct each day, which is 1,000 times higher than the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ rate.”

Earth has immense endurance but we must bear in mind that she is fragile too. We are reaping the benefits of using unsustainable energy sources and ephemeral actions while leaving the costs and consequences to our own future generations. This year, we witnessed the 50thanniversary of the World’s Earth Day (22 April 1970–2020) dedicated to acting against climate change urgently. At the start of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared ‘climate crisis is a health crisis’, with air pollution killing approximately 7 million people a year. UN Environment Program’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 noted that countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, meaning that urgent impactful action is needed NOW. In fact, GHG emissions have risen at a rate of 1.5 per cent per year in the last decade. To address this challenge, 175 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and agreed to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

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Why should we be concerned with this? Climate change presents a clear danger to human health, public nutrition and well-being. Climate change is already responsible for more heat waves, extreme weather, the spread of disease, increasing pollution and reduced productivity. In addition to direct effects like storms, floods, and fires, climate change also contributes to indirect effects such as decreased crop yields, overwhelmed water systems, hospitals shutting down, people losing their homes and a rise in mental health problems. Also, unmitigated climate change may result in 75 per cent lower income, relative to a temperature-neutral scenario, in the poorest nations by 2100.

In a low-economic-growth/rapid-climate-change scenario, 43 per cent of all countries in the world would be poorer in absolute terms by the end of the century.

If we talk about nutrition security, studies show that climate change is associated with increasing temperatures and more extreme rainfall; it alters relationships among crops, pests, pathogens and weeds. Climate change exacerbates several trends including declines in pollinating insects, increasing water scarcity, increasing ground-level ozone concentrations and fishery declines. The quantity and nutritional quality of agricultural production depend on balanced soil quality, water availability, sunlight, CO2, temperature suitability as well as pollinator abundance. High temperatures can depress yields by accelerating crop development and can induce direct damage to plant cells. Ozone formation increases with rising temperature, particularly above 32°C (90°F). In addition to being toxic for humans, ground-level ozone is also a plant toxin, hindering crop photosynthesis and growth, as well as reducing grain weight and yields. Globally, current levels of ozone pollution are estimated to have suppressed maize, wheat and soybean yields by 6–9 per cent.

Warming temperatures increase winter survival of insect pests and pathogens, etc., which reduce the yields of major crops by roughly 25–40 per cent. With elevated CO2, food grains note a 7–15 per cent reduction in protein content as well as 3–11 per cent decreases of zinc and iron concentrations. Also, increased heat stress in livestock and poultry decreases productivity, food intake and weight, chances of survival, and fertility. Thus, protein and micronutrient deficiencies among those already below this threshold (most Indians will qualify here!) will exacerbate.

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All the above implications will also result in increased food prices, thereby spiralling the vicious malnutrition poverty cycle. The IMPACT (International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade) model suggests that inflation-adjusted prices of the three most important staple grains in the world—wheat, rice and maize—would increase 31–106 per cent by 2050.

So where are we headed? The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for a new approach to health, environment and equity. By interlinking socio-economic development with environmental protection, health and well-being, it advocates for preventive and sustainable policies, rather than repeatedly dealing with adverse impacts and inequalities. Political and societal focus on the climate crisis is rising, with global youth ambassadors holding us to account. There are many ambitious efforts from governments, cities, businesses and investors. Some of the actionable pragmatic and impactful strategies are summarized further:

  1. Acknowledge, assess and act on the risks—Climate impacts are materially affecting business facilities, operations and supply chains. It is imperative to assess investing in projects, infrastructure, policies, etc. using a climate lens.
  1. Shaping research and driving innovation—Research needs must  be  identified  and  knowledge  must be translated  to  fill critical  knowledge  gaps  through  the  coordinated  facilitation  of research.
  1. Ensure adequate funding allocation and engage investments—Scaling up health-protective action for safer environments requires adequate funding and reorientation of investments. Funding  allocation,  and  pricing  structures  and  subsidies,  should  be  guided  by evidence-based assessments.
  1. Garner support from stakeholders at various levels via mass awareness and community engagement movements, etc.
  1. Environmental monitoring and health surveillance—what gets measured, gets done! Thus ramping up monitoring and surveillance and sustaining these efforts will keep us informed and prepared for future emergencies.
  1. Convergence—Partnerships for a social movement for a healthier environment are vital to make this fight against climate change successful. Public health agencies must address climate change as a health emergency to protect and promote the health of communities. Similarly, the agriculture sector should think about climate-smart or climate-resilient crops and food supply value chain. The nutrition technologists should help reformulate products to help mitigate nutrient deficiencies and prevent food losses. The collective wisdom of several stakeholders from diverse sectors is the key to designing coordinated concerted responses to maintain health and nutrition while tackling climate change crisis.
  1. Stepping up demand and leadership for health—Leadership in climate adaptation needs to influence the policy, enhance connectivity across different policy-making levels, sectors and actors. Increase adaptability of governance networks also enhance the capacity of society to learn and respond to climate adaptation.

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  1. Establish ambitious, aggressive goals and timelines for renewable energy—energy efficiency and energy conservation in power, buildings and transport sectors, for example, emphasize active transportation in the transition to zero-carbon transportation systems. It is vital to develop an economy-wide green industrialization strategy towards zero-emission technologies, etc.
  1. Promote healthy, sustainable and resilient farms and food systems, forests and natural lands—Reducing food loss and waste would also help meet future demand. Nearly one-third (1.4 billion metric tons annually) of global food production is either lost or wasted.
  1. Capacity building and strengthening—who will be our army to put our plans to fight and/or adapt to climate change in action? We need high quality mentors, experts and leaders to conduct academic training at various levels, short term refresher courses, dynamically update repository of online resources, etc. Also, youth leaders need recognition and inclusion for enhanced visibility and outreach.

India along with the rest of the world should rise to address climate change in a cost-effective, equitable way urgently. The commitment to tackling overuse of natural resources, large-scale waste production, and undue influence and vested interests going against public interests should allow more sustainable economic activities to be carried out besides the creation of public goods for health. Delay in acting on climate change now will mean that the costs of addressing it later will be significantly greater. A stitch in time will definitely save nine, so let us not our ignorance or arrogance lead us to a doomed future.