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Insights 1 Sep 2016

On Our Radar: The Accelerating Health Impacts of Climate Change

By Bron York
Health workers stand in the Rio 2016 Olympic Park spraying insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus. Image © PA images

Health workers stand in the Rio 2016 Olympic Park spraying insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus. Image © PA images

This series of articles tracks and explores emerging issues that are shaping the corporate sustainability agenda and should be on the radar of business executives and corporate sustainability professionals. For an in-depth analysis of key sustainability trends for 2016, read our report Global Trends and Opportunities: 2016 & Beyond.

Climate change is having measurable effects on global human health with both climate change impacts and awareness among governments and businesses expected to accelerate in the second half of 2016 and over the coming decades. Some of the most acutely felt impacts include added strain on healthcare systems and reduced labor productivity, especially in South East Asia.

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause over a quarter of a million deaths from impacts including extreme weather, water and food supply impacts, forced migration and the spread of tropical diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Developing countries will be most poorly positioned to adapt to climate-related health impacts and will face increasing pressure on already inadequate health care systems.

The impacts of climate change on human health. Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. June 2015.

The impacts of climate change on human health. Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. June 2015.

Recent events demonstrate that health impacts from climate change are not merely a distant prospect, the effects are already being felt. At the Olympic Games in Rio, hot temperatures and air pollution have been interfering withathlete’s performances. In the United States, Zika virus now has a firm footing, with over 20 cases spread by local mosquitoes in Florida in recent weeks. Warmer global temperatures make it possible for disease-carrying tropical mosquitoes to live as far north as Washington DC.

Health effects of air pollution from coal-fire power stations and fossil fuel burning transportation has been gaining greater public attention in both the US and China. In China, air pollution became one of the most hotly discussed political topics of 2015. A viral documentary on Beijing’s air quality was watched over 150 million times in 24 hours. In 2016, the Obama administration announced amoratorium on new coal leases on public land, which is likely to lead to a closer examination of the social costs of coal. Community solar and wind initiatives are increasingly being recognized for their health benefits, with a recent HarvardUniversity study finding that wind and solar energy systems in the US were responsible for millions of dollars in regional health benefits, reducing disease and premature deaths.

Too Hot to Work. Source: Health and Environment International Trust.

Too Hot to Work. Source: Health and Environment International Trust.

Rising temperatures due to climate change may cost global economies more than $2 trillion by 2030 in lost productivity, according to recent research by the United Nations. South East Asia is predicted to be one of the regions most at risk of increased human heat stress. Global manufacturing hubs in the region are likely to face declines in labor productivity of up to 25% over the next 30 years according to new data from Verisk Maplecroft. This will have significant supply chain impacts for hundreds of global companies with factories in South East Asia.

At the United Nations Global Conference on Health and Climate in July 2016, the UN called on countries to focus on the economic costs of climate-related health impacts when assessing the economic viability of mitigation and adaptation.

Health costs and outcomes from climate change impacts provide an accessible angle for both governments and businesses to engage stakeholders on both the cost savings and risk reduction benefits of GHG reduction and climate adaptation policies. Corporate leaders include California based healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente who has been working with energy company NRGto roll-out solar panels on its facilities as part of broader initiative reduce the company’s emissions by 30% by 2020 and increase public awareness about the increasing health impacts of climate change. As climate-related health data and projections continue to improve, expect to see the nexus of health and climate change increasingly in the media spotlight.

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