Malcolm Baalman – PHAA
The circus that was the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow has come and gone. The results in terms of protecting the health of the world’s people look like being, well, just about net zero.
COP26 – more accurately, the 26th annual conference of the 197 member state parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – had a specific purpose. The UN framework was comprehensively revised at COP21 in Paris in 2015, and nations are all supposed to be obliged to declare their ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NCDs) to emission’s reduction in five-year blocks.
The Glasgow conference, originally scheduled for last year, was meant to be the year in which commitments for the period ending 2030 were revised.
Many have done so. The US, under President Biden, sharply revised its commitment to 2030, and also signed up to the symbolic commitment to reach net zero by 2050.
But Australia’s government stubbornly stuck to a committed target of only 26% reduction by 2030, and struggled embarrassingly within itself even to agree on how to pretend that it had a policy commitment to the 2050 net zero goal.
The Australian government position is that it now projects exceeding the meagre 26%/2030 target, but the maths behind Australian pollution-reduction outcomes are deeply contested, with a large part of our ‘reduction’ claims being tangled up with statistical bonuses against a 1990 land clearing reference point, which our governments have claimed as arising from agreements back to the 1990s.
Our actual emissions – as in, our literal emissions of pollutant gases into the atmosphere, actually driving climate change – appear to have reduced by just around 3% since 2005.
Australian politics on this issue has long been bizarre, and understandable only through the influence of the fossil fuel mining and export lobby. Our conduct does major damage to our international diplomatic standing. The only award we won in Glasgow was from an independent review – the Climate Change Performance Index – of the largest 60 emitting nations, which gave us their only ‘zero’ rating on the quality of national policy settings, and ranked us 54th of the 60 nations on overall results.
The decades-long fiasco of Australian atmosphere pollution and climate change policies highlights the malign culture of political lobbying in our country. It’s long past time that Australia’s national level of government saw reforms to financial donations laws, at the very least relating to resource sectors and other industries with adverse health impacts on the population.
As PHAA argues in its Vote For Public Health election campaign, we need to also much better regulate the free-ranging, vast and secretive world of industry lobbyists – who flood the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra – and restrain and make transparent third party corporate advertising and social media campaigns to influence governments. And we need a federal ICAC to make sure such rules are working properly.
As for the impact on health, there’s nothing much to feel good about coming out of Glasgow. For years groups such as the Climate and Health Alliance – which PHAA helped establish in Australia in 2011 – have warned about the health impacts on us all from climate change.
CAHA’s latest report Healthy, Regenerative and Just, out just a few weeks ago, should be read by anyone concerned about public health. The report highlighted the problem:
“Climate change affects health in many ways: directly by the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as prolonged heatwaves, floods and bushfires; and indirectly through worsening air quality, changes in the spread of infectious diseases, risks to food safety and drinking water quality, and effects on mental health. The negative health impacts of climate change range from impacts on every human organ system, to disruption of the healthcare supply chain, damage to health infrastructure and threats to the safety and quality of care.”
Some international organisations are certainly working to help. The World Health Organization released its own COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health four weeks ago.
The WHO report “spells out the global health community’s prescription for climate action based on a growing body of research that establishes the many and inseparable links between climate and health.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people. WHO calls on all countries to commit to decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests. WHO’s new report highlights 10 priorities for safeguarding the health of people and the planet that sustains us.”
The WHO’s 10 prescriptions – covered previously on Intouch by Anna Alex – included guiding an inclusive transition to renewable energy sources, promoting healthy and sustainable food systems, and placing health and social justice at the forefront of climate action negotiations.
By the test of these health policy proposals, the Glasgow conference resolutions are not impressive. The aggregate of the revised national 5-year commitments will not be sufficient to keep the world climate to a 1.5°C increase, as hoped. The Conference even struggled to clearly recommit to that basic goal.
A resolution confirming that coal energy generation, which is responsible for 40% of all emissions, would necessarily need to be phased out eventually if ‘net zero’ emissions was to be achieved, whether by 2050 or later, was almost adopted. This at least became the first hard agreement on the coal sector ever adopted by a COP meeting. But at the last minute China and India forced a wording change from ‘phased out’ to only ‘phased down’.
Australia’s representatives apparently supported the blocking of the ‘phase out’ coal proposal, while keeping its diplomatic head down – our ministers had already left the Conference. In fact, our ministers were back home celebrating that Australia’s position in the top four coal producing nations would be able to continue unhindered, or even grow.
The impacts of climate disruption on health have long been of interest to PHAA members. The organisation’s policy on climate disruption was revised during 2021 and, in addition to calling for policies to restrict global warming to below the 1.5°C scientific threshold into dangerous change, focuses on the effect of climate disruption on our food system and its impacts on health. The policy calls for a new national food and nutrition policy, which should incorporate action to protect agriculture, fisheries and the food supply chain from climate disruption.
The PHAA Safe Climate policy goes further, calling for “action to ensure a safe climate, and a just, equitable and ecologically sustainable society, is a critical and urgent public health priority requiring evidence, advocacy and policy guidance.” It highlights that “response measures must rely fundamentally on mitigation to restore a habitable climate”.
“The inevitable ongoing and intensifying warming necessitates societal transition to adapt and prepare for the coming storms, floods, fires, heat, droughts, and sea-level rise.
Government should facilitate adaptation and provide active assistance to those least able to adapt on their own, such as transitioning to renewable energy and a low carbon economy, promoting energy efficiency, reducing energy demand, and pricing carbon.
Australia’s public health community will initiate new and traditional public health actions promoting well-being, increased uptake of physical activity (active transport), improved community amenity (greenspaces), and healthier diets.”
These goals will need a thorough energisation of political commitment from our governments. Our nation is currently not making the progress it needs to protect our health long-term.
Curiously, the state and territory governments are in some ways replacing the national government’s leadership role. Five – South Australia, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, and Tasmania – signed on separately to the COP26 option for sub-national governments to commit to net zero by 2050, and the other three jurisdictions also publicly do so. So at state level, the whole country has a net-zero-by-2050 target, even if the national government doesn’t.
And the state targets for the earlier date of 2030, if achieved, would aggregate to around a 42% reduction in Australia’s emissions compared to 2005 levels – a target sharply higher that the national government’s nominal policy for the nation.
But state policies – while vital – will be undermined if the federal government does not get on board, especially with a large-scale transformation of our energy generation system and our fossil fuel production and export.
Climate politics has been described as unavoidably a balance between mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. For lack of effort at atmosphere pollution mitigation, we must bear greater burdens of adaptation to a changing and disrupted climate. But if we can’t adequately (or equitably) adapt, the result is unavoidably more suffering. Much of that suffering will manifest as health problems – increasing serious, and increasingly inequitably spread.
As delegates return home from Glasgow, the world’s governments have clearly not done enough to avoid such suffering.
Since most of them are supposed to be democratic governments, advised by clear scientific advice, you have to ask why they keep on failing.
Image: Felipe Ward, Minister of Housing and Urban Planning in Chile, Krista Mikkonen, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change in Finland, Moderator Cassie Sutherland, Programme Director of C40 Cities, Carlos Eduardo Correa Escaf, Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development in Colombia and Carlos Eduardo Correa Escaf, Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development in Colombia and Siri Hellion Stav, Deputy Mayor of Environment and Mobility in Oslo on a panel at the Ministers and Mayors on Buildings as Critical Climate Solution event, part of COP26, at the SEC, Glasgow. 11 November 2021. Photograph: Justin Goff/ UK Government/Flickr.