Our Burning Planet


SA doctor adds voice to urgent pleas for COP28 to act faster against climate change

SA doctor adds voice to urgent pleas for COP28 to act faster against climate change
International research has identified corporate climate lobbying in South Africa as a significant threat to effective national climate change policy. (Photos: From left: Adobe Stock | Unsplash / Mike Marrah | Adobe Stock)

In an open letter to COP28’s president-designate, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, healthcare professionals from around the world – including South Africa – are demanding that ‘countries commit to an accelerated, just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels as the decisive path to health for all’ at the UN climate summit to be held later this year.

‘We call on the COP28 presidency and the leaders of all countries to commit to an accelerated, just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels as the decisive path to health for all. Ending our dangerous dependency on fossil fuels will improve the health prospects of future generations and will save lives.” 

This is the demand health and medical organisations representing 46.3 million healthcare professionals have made to COP28 president-designate Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber in an open letter ahead of the UN climate summit to be held later this year in Dubai.

cop28 al jaber

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, president-designate of the UNFCCC COP28 climate conference and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. (Photo: Christian Marquardt / Pool / Getty Images)

The letter is supported by organisations including the World Medical Association, World Federation of Public Health Associations, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Council of Nurses. It is also endorsed by leading publications such as the British Medical Journal. Closer to home, the letter was endorsed by the board of the Public Health Association of South Africa and its president-elect, Dr Lwando Maki. 

In a statement on Wednesday, Maki said: “As a young medical doctor from South Africa, I bear witness to the profound and devastating impacts of climate change. I implore health professionals to be the beacon for a just transition away from fossil fuels, for in our hands lies the power to heal both the health of individuals and our ailing planet, forging a healthier world for all.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate change also a healthcare crisis: we must start preparing ourselves

The letter to COP28 and world leaders continues: “As global health leaders, we are committed to achieving health and well-being for all – this is not possible without a safe and stable climate. The Paris Agreement enshrined the ‘right to health’ as a core obligation for climate action. Yet, communities, health workers and health systems around the world already face the alarming impacts of a changing climate.

“Climate change-induced extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe – many countries are grappling with the health consequences of extreme heat, unprecedented storms, floods, food and water insecurity, wildfires and displacement.

“For COP28 to truly be a ‘health COP’, it must address the root cause of the climate crisis: the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels including coal, oil and gas.

“Keeping the global temperature increase within the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement is essential to ensure good health and economic prosperity for all. This will only be possible if we rapidly phase out fossil fuels. 

“Fossil fuel phase-out will limit global warming, thereby protecting health from the devastating impacts of extreme weather, and preventing further ecological degradation and biodiversity loss.” 

“In addition to climate-related health impacts, air pollution – caused in part by burning fossil fuels – causes seven million premature deaths annually.

“The economic costs of air pollution-related health impacts amounted to over $8.1-trillion, or 6.1% of global GDP, in 2019. By improving air quality, governments can reduce the burden of disease from multiple cancers, heart disease, neurological conditions including strokes and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Investments in clean energy sources will save hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs associated with air pollution every year, while reducing economic losses from extreme weather events with damages worth $253-billion (in 2021).”

The letter comes days after a report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that if the decommissioning of SA’s coal plants begins only in 2030 or beyond, it would cause a projected 15,300 excess air pollution-related deaths.

Among the other findings of the report are that if the rate of decommissioning in the 2030s and 2040s is not accelerated from current plans, further delays to the decommissioning of other units would increase the health impacts of the delay to 32,300 deaths from air pollution, and economic costs of R721-billion.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Above 15,000 excess deaths feared if SA further deviates from coal shutdown plan

In a statement on Wednesday, accompanying the open letter, Dr Christos Christou, the international president of Médecins Sans Frontières, said: “We think it is important to sign this letter because, as health workers, we are treating patients experiencing the health impacts of the climate emergency first-hand.

“It is very clear: this crisis is disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable people. We work in some of the most climate-vulnerable settings in the world where people already lack access to or are excluded from basic healthcare.

“These people are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, yet they are the least responsible for the emissions that generate the climate crisis. Failing to stay well under 2°C of warming is an existential threat for many people in the humanitarian contexts where we work.” DM

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