Environmental causes of ill health: Part One …‘pollution is deadly’


ZIMBABWE’s economy relies on the agriculture, forestry, energy, tourism and industry sectors.  

In the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), Zimbabwe outlines opportunities for climate change mitigation through climate smart agriculture and sustainable agro-forest-based adaptation and management and pledges to achieve energy emissions per capita that are 33 percent below the projected ‘business as usual’ level by 2030.

For decades, to promote economic development, governments have struggled to improve access to energy.  

But the unsustainable energy path that the world has followed since the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century resulted in an unacceptable cost.  

Air pollution, resulting from energy production and use, causes heart and lung diseases and cancer, resulting in approximately 6,5 million deaths worldwide each year.  

Energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. 

Be it for jobs, security, climate change, food production or increasing incomes, access to energy for all is essential. 

Sustainable energy fuels lives, economies and the planet.  

After COVID-19, climate change requires a rethink and a bold move towards renewable energy sources.  

Thus, the sustainable management of land and water is pivotal to ensure a reliable, affordable and sustainable energy supply for all.

As carbon emissions continue to rise unabated worldwide, there are many compelling reasons to clean up the global environment.  

One of the most pressing is that our most basic need, the air we breathe, is now the single greatest environmental risk to human health.  

Human-induced higher temperatures, flooding and reduced rainfall are likely to increase human health problems.  

The lack of clean water and flooding will raise the risk of diseases associated with poor hygiene.

A polluted environment is deadly.  

Worldwide each year, almost 12,6 million people, or one-in- four deaths, die from diseases associated with environmental hazards, such as air, water or soil pollution and climate change.  

By 2030, the direct damage cost to health, excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation, is estimated to be between US$2-to-4 billion a year.

The energy sources that cause the release of deadly air pollutants, such as black carbon, also release greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide are mostly  human-induced (from factories, vehicle emissions and hydro power). 

Together, these drive climate change, which threatens to undermine all the social and environmental determinants of health on which human lives depend on – i.e., clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.  

Unfortunately, countries with weak health infrastructure, mostly in developing countries, like Zimbabwe, will be the least able to cope with climate change without assistance to prepare for and respond to the foreseen impacts of the impending crisis.

To finance climate change adaptation and mitigation activities, Africa will rely heavily on the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was created by parties to the UNFCCC to assist developing countries. 

However, developed countries were slow to fulfil their financial commitments.  

For example, by 2015, Japan and the US disbursed US$15 million of the US$4,5 billion each country pledged to support Africa’s efforts which may need between US$20 billion and US$30 billion per year for adaptation.

Extreme weather variations like rising sea levels, excessive rainfall, floods, encroaching desertification and land degradation (mostly human-induced), on the continent led to devastating human costs, food security, livelihoods and the very survival of the African people.

For decades, the most industrially-developed and wealthiest countries were those that released the greatest amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  

China currently produces around 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), while the US is responsible for 12 percent.  

Excluding figures for South Africa and Nigeria, the rest of Africa contributes to only 4,6 percent of the average global total of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Although China is at present the largest emitter, historically the US and Europe contributed the highest greenhouse gas emissions and to climate change.  

The 196 countries that are parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), negotiated the details of an agreement (the Paris Agreement), that put the world on a pathway to meeting the goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to less than 2oCelsius, which is the point at which climate change’s worst impacts can be prevented, and reducing greenhouse emissions blamed for causing extreme weather variations.

In Zimbabwe, greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 10 percent from 1990-to-2011. 

In 2011, Zimbabwe emitted 64 million metric tonnes  of greenhouse gases. 

The land use change and forestry sector was the primary emitter, contributing 59 percent to overall emissions. 

The energy sector was responsible for 20 percent of emissions, followed by the agriculture sector (18 percent), industrial processes (two percent) and waste (one percent). 

Changes to agricultural and resource extraction practises must be founded in sustainable land management (SLM) and land restoration techniques.  Restoring degraded land globally could lock away three billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon into the soil every year – offsetting around 10 percent of the world’s current annual energy-related emissions.  

Actions to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation can provide over one-third of the climate mitigation needed to keep global warming below 2° Celsius by 2030.

Taking action to address climate change is essential for promoting sustainable development and adopting the UN’s global agenda of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — i.e., to end poverty, promote prosperity and protect the environment.

Climate change is already impacting health in countless ways, including death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heat waves, storms and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in zoonoses, food- water- and vector-borne diseases, as well as mental health issues.  

Furthermore, climate change is undermining many of the social determinants of good health, such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures.

By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, which are often characterised by pollution as well as heavy traffic, poor housing, limited access to water and sanitation services and other health risks.  

For example, research indicates that surface water resources within the country will reduce significantly by 2080; condemning a major part of Zimbabwe’s population at risk of water shortages and water-borne diseases.  

The western and southern parts of Zimbabwe are projected to dry up, leaving millions of Zimbabweans to face hunger.  

Additionally, by 2040 an estimated one-in-four children will live in areas with extreme water shortages as a result of climate change.   

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  

For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com


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