UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Climate crisis will profoundly affect lifelong health, especially for children, report suggests

15 November 2019

We are already seeing damage to our health from the climate crisis and it will only worsen without change says Lancet Countdown Report, released yesterday.


The climate crisis is already damaging our health and could determine the health of a whole generation unless the world meet’s Paris Agreement targets to limit global warming below 2˚C, warns new report published by the Lancet Countdown. We are already facing a multitude of climate-related threat to our health and, as temperatures rise the children of today will be worst effected over the course of their lifetimes if we continue business as usual.

Air pollution

PM2.5, or tiny particles known as particulate matter, is generated by burning fossil fuels and can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases when entering the lungs and bloodstream. Researchers found premature deaths from PM2.5 stagnated in 2016 at 2.9 million worldwide, with 440,000 associated with coal alone. From 2016 to 2018 the total global energy supply from coal rose 1.7%, reversing what was previously a downward trend. The report suggests this could be a large-scale ongoing global issue, illuminated by the example that if the 2016 levels of PM2.5 remained the same for the next 100 years, the average European lifespan could be cut by 5.7 months.

Crop failures

The report outlines that as temperatures rise, harvests will shrink threatening our food security and increasing food prices. In the last 30 years we have already seen a decline in average global yield potential of key crops such as maize (-4%), winter wheat (-6%), soybean (-3%), and rice (-4%). Children and infants are among the worst affected by malnutrition and related health problems.

Intensifying extreme weather 

The report shows that we are already seeing the effects of extreme weather. With older generations being more vulnerable to heat-related illness, a record-breaking 220 million more over 65s were exposed to heatwaves in 2018, the fourth hottest year on record. 

Additionally, authors found we have also seen an increase in exposure to wildfires since the early millennium. 152 out of 196 countries have experienced an increase in people exposed to wildfire resulting in direct deaths, respiratory illness and loss of home as well an associated cost per person 48 times more than flooding.

As temperatures rise the report suggests that children born today will face increased risk from severe floods, prolonged droughts, and wildfires.

The spread of infectious diseases

Over the past 30 years the number of days that it is climatically suitable for bacteria that spreads diarrhoeal disease have doubled sccording to the report, and changing weather patterns are also creating favourable environments for cholera bacteria, increasing the likelihood of exposure and infection. 

Mostiquito-borne viral disease is also on the rise as the report suggests that around half of the world’s population is now at risk of illness as mosquitos make their way to new territories in Europe. 

Urgent action needed

In order to tackle these issues and keep global warming to below 2˚C the report calls for bold actions over four key areas:
1)    Delivering rapid, urgent, and complete phase-out of coal-fired power worldwide.
2)    Ensuring high-income countries meet international climate finance commitments of US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help low-income countries.
3)    Increasing accessible, affordable, efficient public and active transport systems, particularly walking and cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes and cycle hire or purchase schemes.
4)    Making major investments in health system adaptation to ensure health damage of climate change doesn’t overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services to treat patients.
Whilst there is a long way to go the report gives some potential optimism, outlining growth in renewables accounted for 45% of total growth in power generation in 2018 (27% from wind and solar power); while use of electricity as a fuel for road transport grew by almost 21% globally from 2015 to 2016; and low-carbon electricity accounted for a third of total electricity generation in 2016.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a comprehensive yearly analysis tracking progress across 41 key indicators, demonstrating what action to meet Paris Agreement targets—or business as usual—means for human health. The project is a collaboration between 120 experts from 35 institutions including the World Health Organisation (WHO), World Bank, University College London, and Tsinghua University. 

Authors from the Bartlett School of Environment Energy and Resources

UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources
Paul Ekins
Carole Dalin 
Paul Drummond

UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering
Michael Davies 
Jonathon Taylor

UCL Energy Institute
Tadj Oreszczyn
Ian Hamilton
Steve Pye