“The future of health must be built on health systems that are resilient to the impacts of epidemics, pandemics and other emergencies, but also to the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events and the increasing burden of various diseases related to air pollution and our warming planet,”(1) – Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization
In the past 6 months, British Columbia has experienced a heat dome, wildfires, and most recently an atmospheric river that brought widespread flooding and landslides. These environmental changes have caused a loss of life, catastrophic destruction, mass community evacuations, and severe economic repercussions. In 2020, severe weather events cost Canadian insurance companies an estimated $2.4 billion.(2) The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) recognized the importance of building resilience to the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events and disruption to agricultural systems.
In the first global climate meeting since the Paris Agreement, COP26 was timely given the increasing effects of climate change and ecosystem disruption already occurring at our current 1.1°C global warming rate. The goals of COP26 were lofty, some of which included: securing global net-zero emissions by 2050 by accelerating the phase-out of coal; curtailing deforestation; planning to develop and implement carbon markets; and collaborating towards a plan for climate finance.(3) In the lead-up to the event, 150 countries submitted new or updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as pledges to take action against climate change. In July 2021, Canada submitted its long-anticipated updated NDC as the nation seeks to meet the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement. The new commitments include a 40-45% target reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, a 10-15% greater reduction from the previous target.(4) While this is an important indication of increased commitment, the Canadian government has been chastised for failing to meet every climate target previously set, being the only G7 country to actually see an increase in overall emissions since the Paris Agreement was signed.(5) In light of these upsetting statistics, the COP26 summit posed a significant opportunity to get the country back on track with its climate goals and shared responsibility for global warming impacts.
Against the backdrop of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report outlining the current trajectory of the world to likely hit the 1.5°C mark by the early 2030s, the COP26 decision-makers set out to pledge more substantial collaborative efforts. Several notable outcomes from COP26 are as follows (6,7):
- Maintain the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C
- Call for countries to revisit and strengthen their 2030 targets by the end of 2022 in alignment with the Paris Agreement global temperature goals
- Consider actions to reduce emissions through curbing coal use and transitioning out of fossil fuels
- Climate finance
- Developed countries failed to meet the 2009 goal of mobilizing $100 billion to support climate efforts for developing countries by 2020 – but they are still on the hook; progress must be reported
- Doubling funding for adaptation by 2025, an increase amounting to $40 billion
- Compensation for loss and damage due to climate change
- Emissions reporting and transparency
- Reduced timeline and standardization of emissions reporting to make it easier to make sense of the data
- Carbon trading
- Ability to buy carbon credits from countries that have cut down more than their share of pollutants in order to support countries where it is difficult and expensive to cut greenhouse emissions
- COP26 Health Program
- 50 countries have signed on to build climate-resilient health systems and increase the voices of health professionals and advocates
So, what do these newly refined international pledges mean for rural communities? Nearly half the global population (3.2 billion) live in rural regions and are indirectly or directly financially dependent on agriculture. Rural adaptability to climate change will be essential to ensuring global food systems remain intact and productive. Rural communities require support to mitigate the effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and ecosystem disruptions that reduce earnings or increase conflict over natural resources.
In addition to the pressing resource constraints, the increased pressure on rural physicians and health care professionals to deliver adequate and timely care to patients will not only be affected by active climate disasters but also by the changing nature of climate-related medical conditions. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths annually from malnutrition, malaria, heat stress, and diarrhea.(8) The areas most affected will be those with already weak health systems, including many rural areas.
So, what can be done? Further research into building resilient health systems with greater capacity to absorb climate shocks, community-led engagement in establishing and strengthening systems of adaptation based on local needs, and leadership buy-in to implement green innovation are all important components. COP26 represented an opportunity for our world leaders to come to a common consensus on our mutual path forward – rarely in history has there been a pressing issue that requires such a coordinated effort to curtail. In the wake of the summit, many are left waiting for clearer direction and more stringent action, with the voices of youth and women noticeably absent from many of the negotiation tables. As with all past climate decision-making, only time will tell if the headway made at COP26 will be adequate. With so much on the line, it’s more important than ever that we get this right.
- World Health Organization. Countries commit to develop climate-smart health care at COP26 UN climate conference [Internet]. WHO; 2021 November [cited 2021 Nov 18]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/09-11-2021-countries-commit-to-develop-climate-smart-health-care-at-cop26-un-climate-conference.
- Cousins, Ben. Severe weather events cost Canadian insurers $2.4 billion in 2020 [Internet]. CTV News, 18 January 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 18]. Available from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/business/severe-weather-events-cost-canadian-insurers-2-4-billion-in-2020-1.5270815.
- United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021. COP26 Goals [Internet]. UN, 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 18]. Available from: https://ukcop26.org/cop26-goals/.
- Environment and Climate Change Canada. Canada’s 2021 nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement [Internet]. Government of Canada, 23, April 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 18]. Available from: https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/ndcstaging/PublishedDocuments/Canada%20First/Canada%27s%20Enhanced%20NDC%20Submission1_FINAL%20EN.pdf.
- International Institute for Sustainable Development. Canada’s new nationally determined contribution shows progress but misses key opportunities [Internet]. IISD, 13 July, 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 19]. Available from: https://www.iisd.org/articles/canada-updated-ndc-response.
- Hill, Alice, Babin et al. What COP26 did and didn’t accomplish [Internet]. Council on Foreign Relations 15 November, 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 17]. Available from: https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/cop26-climate-outcomes-successes-failures-glasgow?gclid=CjwKCAiA7dKMBhBCEiwAO_crFElwhMfXyvYyJdWgQ12zQ0Zq9QYmXqpShHf9y3HNTUYZgnl3GFYnohoCAckQAvD_BwE.
- Evans, Simon, Gabbatiss et al. COP26: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Glasgow [Internet]. Carbon Brief 15 November, 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 17]. Available from: https://www.carbonbrief.org/cop26-key-outcomes-agreed-at-the-un-climate-talks-in-glasgow.
- World Health Organization. Climate change and health [Internet]. WHO, 30 October 2021 [Cited 2021 Nov 19]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health.