Climate emergency is the biggest health crisis of our time. Bigger than Covid | Pascal Soriot
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is a grim, yet unsurprising, reminder of the catastrophic effect global heating is having on our planet. The message from leading climate scientists is clear: action is needed now. Not tomorrow, not next year, not by the end of the decade.
Even drastic carbon reduction today that limits temperature increases to the 1.5C agreed in Paris will alter the world we live in for ever. The IPCC concludes that every fraction of a degree more will edge us towards tipping points that will leave deep scars on our planet.
While much has been said about the damage to weather patterns, crop yields and coral reefs, less well understood is the effect a hotter world has on our health. The reality is that the climate crisis is the biggest health crisis of our time, bigger even than Covid-19.
Heat-related deaths are expected to treble by 2050. Currently 7 million people die prematurely each year from air pollution, more than the death toll during the entire pandemic.
There has been a rise in chronic diseases linked to air pollution, and evidence suggests it is driving up cancer rates, too. Lung cancer and respiratory-related deaths linked to air pollution are up 160% over the past 30 years and it causes genetic mutations in some lung cancer-linked genes.
The toll on loved ones, public health and the economy is large and rising. It has been estimated that poor health costs the global economy 15% of global GDP. It is not only oil companies, carmakers and airlines at fault. Healthcare alone contributes 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, up to 8% in advanced economies.
Investing in greenhouse gas reduction is now proven beyond doubt, equalled or outweighed by the economic benefits of a healthier population, the IPCC says.
Increasingly investors are focused on those companies that are taking bold and science-driven action to mitigate climate warming. While this is the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
Decarbonising the economy is an opportunity and a driver of growth, which is why the backlash against environmental, social and governance focused investing is so misguided. As we saw during the pandemic, science finds a way, ingenuity triumphs and is duly rewarded.
At my company, AstraZeneca, we are on track to meet our targets to: reduce scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions – those from burning fuels and energy use – by 98% by 2026; halve our absolute total emissions across our value chain by 2030; and be net zero by 2045. In addition, we have planted millions of trees as part of a large reforestation and biodiversity restoration programme.
Like it or not, regulatory requirements are moving towards stopping companies selling products that are not sustainable. In Japan we have converted paper leaflets to e-leaflets for all our products, reducing costs, simplifying operations and saving 180 tonnes of waste and 30m tonnes of paper – the equivalent of 4,500 trees.
But companies cannot act alone. Together we must make public health more resilient, so that it can cope with change and become truly accessible. A forum such as the Sustainable Markets Initiative established by King Charles when he was Prince of Wales, convening stakeholders from across industries, is a good example of collaboration to take shared action at scale.
The toll on human health is huge and likely to get worse. Healthcare companies will do all they can to treat patients suffering from climate-related disease. Prevention, however, will have the biggest impact on health. Only by taking radical action on greenhouse gas emissions will we be able to say that we are doing everything we can for the health of humanity.