New data from the 2023 Report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change underscore the critical need for immediate action to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The report warns that delays in mitigation efforts pose an imminent threat to the health and survival of billions worldwide. With the world already on track for 2.7°C of heating by 2100 and energy-related emissions reaching record highs in 2022, the lives of current and future generations hang in the balance.
Dr. Marina Romanello, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown at University College London, emphasizes the dire consequences, stating, “The growing hazards of climate change are costing lives and livelihoods worldwide today. Projections of a 2°C hotter world reveal a dangerous future, and are a grim reminder that the pace and scale of mitigation efforts seen so far have been woefully inadequate.”
“With 1,337 tonnes of carbon dioxide still emitted every second, we aren’t reducing emissions anywhere near fast enough to keep climate hazards within the levels that our health systems can cope with. There is an enormous human cost to inaction, and we can’t afford this level of disengagement – we are paying in lives. Every moment we delay makes the path to a liveable future more difficult and adaptation increasingly costly and challenging,” said Romanello.
Led by University College London, the 8th Lancet Countdown report represents the work of 114 experts from 52 research institutions and UN agencies globally. Released ahead of the 28th UN Conference of the Parties (COP), the report presents 47 indicators, including new metrics monitoring household air pollution, fossil fuel financing, and international organizations’ engagement on health co-benefits of climate mitigation.
The report highlights the urgency of the situation, with yearly heat-related deaths projected to increase by 370% by mid-century if the 1.5°C target is missed. The increasing destructiveness of extreme weather events jeopardizes water security, food production, and puts millions at risk of malnutrition. Changing weather patterns are accelerating the spread of life-threatening infectious diseases.
Despite the global urgency, the report reveals that investment and lending in fossil fuels are on the rise. Carbon emissions from the global energy system reached a record 36.8 Gt in 2022, while fossil fuel subsidies continue. The finance sector’s contribution to health threats includes private banks collectively investing US$489 billion annually in the fossil fuel industry.
Romanello says there is still room for hope. “The health focus at COP28 is the opportunity of our lifetime to secure commitments and action. If climate negotiations drive an equitable and rapid phase out of fossils fuels, accelerate mitigation, and support adaptation efforts for health, the ambitions of the Paris Agreement to limit global heating to 1.5 °C are still achievable, and a prosperous healthy future lies within reach.
Unless such progress materialises, the growing emphasis on health within climate change negotiations risks being just empty words, with each fraction of a degree of heating exacerbating the harms felt by billions of people alive today and the generations to come.”
For the first time, this year’s report provides a troubling glimpse into the potential future of a warming world. New projections, developed with support from the Climate Vulnerability Forum (CVF), outline the escalating risks to population health if the 1.5°C target is not achieved. Every health hazard monitored by The Lancet Countdown is predicted to worsen if temperatures rise to 2°C by the end of the century.
Under this scenario, yearly heat-related deaths are projected to surge by 370% by mid-century, accompanied by a 50% increase in the global hours of potential labor lost due to heat exposure. More frequent heatwaves could result in approximately 525 million additional people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity by 2041-2060, exacerbating the global risk of malnutrition .
Life-threatening infectious diseases are also anticipated to spread more extensively by mid-century. The length of coastline suitable for Vibrio bacteria is projected to expand by 17%–25%, leading to 23%–39% more cases. Additionally, the transmission potential for dengue is expected to increase by 36%–37%, contributing to its rapid global expansion.
“In the face of such dire projections, adaptation alone cannot keep up with the impacts of climate change, and the costs are rapidly becoming insurmountable,” says Professor Stella Hartinger, Director of the Lancet Countdown Regional Centre for Latin America.
“We must move beyond treating the health symptoms of climate change and focus on primary prevention. The root causes of climate change must be addressed through rapidly accelerating mitigation across all sectors to ensure that the magnitude of health hazards does not exceed the capacity of health systems to adapt. Unless governments finally act on these warnings, things will worsen significantly.”
The failure to seriously mitigate climate change is self-evident, with health-related losses and damages soaring globally. In 2023, the world experienced the hottest global temperatures in over 100,000 years, and heat records were broken on every continent, exposing people all over the world to deadly harms.
Even at the current 10-year global average 1.14°C of heating, people experienced on average 86 days of health-threatening high temperatures in 2018-2022, over 60% of which were made more than twice as likely to occur because of man-made climate change. Heat-related deaths in people aged over 65 increased by 85% in 2013-2022 compared to 1991-2000, substantially above the 38% increase expected had temperatures not changed (i.e., accounting only for changing demographics).
The increasing destructiveness of extreme weather events jeopardises water security and food production, putting millions at risk of malnutrition. More frequent heatwaves and droughts were responsible for 127 million more people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity in 122 countries in 2021, than annually between 1981 and 2010.
Similarly, changing weather patterns are accelerating the spread of life-threatening infectious diseases. For example, warmer seas have increased the area of the world’s coastline suitable for the spread of Vibrio bacteria that can cause illness and death in humans by 329km every year since 1982, putting a record 1.4 billion people at risk of diarrhoeal disease, severe wound infections, and sepsis . The threat is particularly high in Europe, where Vibrio-suitable coastal waters have increased by 142km every year.
Healthcare systems are the first line of defence for protecting people from the growing health harms from the changing climate. But even the current 1.14°C of heating is putting serious pressure on health services, with 27% (141/525) of surveyed cities reporting concerns over their health systems being overwhelmed by the impacts of climate change.
Transformative opportunities of health-centred climate action
Despite the scale of the challenges, the report underscores the transformative opportunities of a health-centered transition to a zero-carbon future. By prioritizing equity and justice within climate action, the report envisions life-changing health benefits, including improved air quality, active travel, and low-carbon diets.
Key aspects include enabling clean energy transitions in low-income countries, reducing air pollution-related deaths, promoting sustainable travel, and encouraging healthier, low-carbon diets. Despite urgent action requirements, positive signs emerge, such as a notable decline in deaths from fossil fuel-derived air pollution and substantial growth in global clean energy investment and employment.
At the heart of this ambition is a commitment to enabling and supporting an accelerated transition to clean energy and energy efficiency in low-income countries.
“Empowering countries to transition from dirty fuels towards local, modern renewable sources of energy, would not only bring immediate health benefits, but also reduce socioeconomic and health inequities, by developing local skills, generating jobs, supporting local economies, and delivering energy to off-grid areas to electrify homes and health-care facilities, particularly in areas where energy poverty still undermines people’s health and wellbeing”, says Professor Ian Hamilton, Lancet Countdown Working Group Lead on Mitigation Actions and Health Co-benefits.
The report underscores the crucial need for unprecedented global collaboration and immediate transformative climate action to ensure a thriving future for present and future generations, a sentiment echoed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
In response to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urges immediate action, stating, “Climate breakdown has begun, and humanity is staring down the barrel of an intolerable future. There is no excuse for our collective inertia. Only powerful and immediate action will limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert the very worst of climate change.”
“There is no excuse for our collective inertia. Only powerful and immediate action will limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert the very worst of climate change. The evidence is unequivocal—a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewables together with a global surge in adaptation investment will save millions of lives and help protect the health of everyone on earth.”