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Critical air quality over the past month has forced the public to take to the streets, with an increasing number of protests reported from across north India demanding urgent action by authorities | Photo: Times Union

Lancet report: India’s children bearing brunt of climate casualties and health risks

With north India on the verge of a second air pollution emergency in just 10 days, Lancet’s annual global report on health impacts of climate change is a blaring wake up call for India. The burden of air pollution and infectious diseases linked with extreme heat and climate change are becoming heavier by the year on the world’s children, especially in developing countries like India. The deadly trend can still be reversed if countries significantly cut down their carbon emissions, says the latest annual Lancet Countdown 2019 report on global impacts of climate change. 

The report has been compiled on 41 key indicators and notes that current trends indicate the potential of climate change to undermine the hard-won public health gains of recent decades, particularly around malnutrition and the spread of infectious disease, and especially among children in low-income countries.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants”, said Dr Nick Watts, Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown. “The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime. Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in well-being and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation,” he added.

The report points out that with continuous rise in global temperatures- 8 of 10 hottest years all in the last decade, India is facing increase in wildfires and a rapid decline in crop yields. In just last 50 years maize and rice yields have fallen 2% in India, two-third of deaths of infants under 5 are because of malnutrition, says the report.

The report also notes with grave concern the increased risks from infectious diseases. According to findings published in the report, changing weather patterns are creating favourable environments for Vibrio cholerae bacteria, with global suitability rising almost 10% since the early 1980s while the number of days suitable for the Vibrio pathogens has doubled. In India, this climatic suitability has been rising 3% every year since the 1980s.

“With its huge population and high rates of healthcare inequality, poverty, and malnutrition, few countries are likely to suffer from the health effects of climate change as much as India. Diarrhoeal infections, a major cause of child mortality, will spread into new areas, whilst deadly heatwaves, similar to one in 2015 that killed thousands of people in India, could soon become the norm”, said co-author Poornima Prabhakaran from the Public Health Foundation of India.

The report goes on to attribute extreme changes in weather and their implications to the burning of fossil fuels. The magnitude is hard to fathom: Per second the world burned 171 000 kg of coal, 11 600 000 litres of gas, and 186 000 litres of oil per second. When governments should be declaring climate emergency, they are following business-as-usual approach. Which is why CO2 emissions continuing to rise in 2018, says the report.  Consider this- from 2016 to 2018, world’s primary energy supply from coal increased by 1.7%, reversing a previously recorded downward trend. The health-care sector, beginning to feel the added pressures of climate change impacts, is responsible for about 4·6% of global emissions- a value which is steadily rising across most major economies. According to authors, nothing short of a 7.4% year-on-year cut in fossil CO2 emissions from 2019 to 2050 will limit global warming to the goal of 1.5°C.

Lancet says throughout adolescence, India’s children will bear the worst impact of air pollution. Report points out that total energy supply from coal in the country increased 11% in India from 2016 to 2018; and dangerous levels of outdoor fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) contributing to over 529,500 premature deaths in 2016—over 97,400 of these from coal.

Speaking at TERI-NRDC conference, C K Mishra, secretary ministry of environment,  said India is an aspirational country and it must strike a balance between environment and growth. “If electricity has to reach those who don’t have it, no political system or civil society will say we shouldn’t do it. Issue is how to do it.” he said adding that  40% renewable energy is the correct path to take for India. However, while the secretary advocated for collaborative action between all stakeholders to ensure better air quality, but expressed doubts when it came to the effects of air pollution on mortality. “Issues related to air are not just about environment, they are about life. Although, I don’t know if we can put numbers of mortality- that’s a technical problem. But we know it causes mortality and morbidity. We should instead of concentrating on quality of life. That should be the underlying factor,” Mishra added.

Majority of the world (77% countries) are already under the baking grips of extreme heat. Between 2001-2004 and 2015-2018 India and China has lived through massive increases in wildfires. The figures are staggering: of the 45 billion work hours lost globally since 2000, 22 billion were lost due to extreme heat in India alone. Agriculture lost over half of the work hours 12 billion). Largest amount of daily population exposure to wildfires was in India at 21 million people since 2001-2004, followed by China at 17 million. Economic cost of wildfires 48 times that of flooding, says the report. What’s more, 99% if the economic losses from extreme weather were found to be uninsured in low-income countries.

Mishra added that India is on the right track with policies such as changing fuel due to BS6, Ujjwala gas connections for rural households to replace polluting wood as cooking fuel, moving to Led, but work must happen at local municipal level for things go improve. First we have acknowledge that we have a problem, many of us are in denial mode in one way or the other. “There are solutions, but they are not easy ones,” he said.