New Delhi: At current emission rates, a child born today will face lifelong health impacts of climate change, according to a new report. By the time he or she turns 71, the world will be 4 degrees-Celsius (deg-C) warmer than the pre-industrial levels of the mid-1700s.

Indian children, who are already exposed to bad air and are particularly susceptible to malnutrition and infectious diseases, will experience greater impacts of climate change, as we explain later.

Here are some of the ways in which climate change will impact the lives of children from infancy to old age, as per the 2019 The Lancet Countdown report published in The Lancet, a medical journal:

  • Shrinking average yields of rice and maize will inflate the price of these crops, increasing the malnutrition burden, which is already higher among Indian children
  • Changing weather will increase the prevalence of infectious diarrhoeal and mosquito-borne diseases to which children are particularly susceptible
  • Air pollution will worsen, increasing the number of deaths attributable to fine particulates
  • Incidence of severe floods, prolonged droughts and wildfires will increase with rising temperature, putting lives at risk

The Lancet Countdown, which launched its first edition in 2016, is a comprehensive yearly analysis that tracks progress across 41 key indicators, demonstrating the health impacts of climate change.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate,” said Nick Watts, executive director, The Lancet Countdown, in a statement. “Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants. The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.”

About 600 million Indians are at risk from the fallout of a rise in global mean temperature, IndiaSpend reported on October 8, 2018.

For the world to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and protect the health of the next generation, the energy landscape will have to change drastically and soon, the report said. Countries have to try and limit global warming to 2 deg-C by ramping up efforts to decrease carbon emissions through nationally determined goals under the agreement.

Nothing short of a 7.4% year-on-year cut in fossil CO2 emissions between 2019 and 2050 will limit global warming to the more ambitious goal of 1.5 deg-C, the report said.

“The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation,” said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, in a press statement. “With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can’t afford this level of disengagement. The clinical, global health and research community needs to come together now and challenge our international leaders to protect the imminent threat to childhood and lifelong health.”

Malnutrition will worsen

As temperatures rise, harvests will shrink--threatening food security by driving up food prices, making it unaffordable for the poor. Infants and small children are worst-affected by malnutrition and related health problems such as stunted growth, weak immune systems, and long-term developmental problems, as per the report.

Over the past 30 years, the global yield potential of grains has fallen due to rising temperatures--of maize by 4%, winter wheat 6%, soybean 3% and rice 4%. In India, the average yield potential of maize and rice has declined by almost 2% over the past 58 years--since the 1960s--with malnutrition already responsible for up to two-thirds of deaths among children under five years of age, the report said.

Climate change is lowering India’s agricultural output, according to an index developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, a think-tank, IndiaSpend reported on March 22, 2018. The index scores output against 2010 levels: If in 2010, output was pegged at ‘1.0’ on the index, it could increase to ‘1.63’ by 2030 without the effects of climate change. But if temperature-rise is taken into account, output could increase only to, say, ‘1.56’ on the index, seven points lower than the earlier condition, the report said.

Similarly, the number of hungry people was projected to be 22.5% higher at 90.5 million with the impacts of climate change in 2030, against 73.9 million without it.

Along with shrinking yields, climate change could cause food insecurity in countries by decreasing the nutrient content of food and affecting the growth and productivity of pastoral animals, according to the latest special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ supreme scientific body for climate action. Cereal prices could rise up to 23% by 2050 due to climate change, making cereals unaffordable for the poor, it said, as IndiaSpend reported on September 2, 2019.

Deadliest impact of disease outbreaks

Children will be particularly susceptible to infectious diseases in the wake of rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. Over the past 30 years, the number of climatically suitable days for Vibrio bacteria that cause much of diarrhoeal disease globally has doubled, as per the Lancet report.

Similarly, changing weather patterns are creating favourable environments for Vibrio cholerae bacteria, with global suitability rising almost 10% since the early 1980s--increasing the likelihood of cholera outbreaks in countries where the disease does not regularly occur. In India, cases of the disease have been rising 3% a year since the early 1980s and climate change could exacerbate this.

Spurred on by climate change, dengue has become the most rapidly spreading mosquito-borne viral disease in the world, as per the report. Nine of the 10 most hospitable years for dengue transmission have occurred since 2000. Around half of the world’s population is now at risk.

Air quality will damage heart, lung health

Through adolescence and into adulthood, a child born today will be breathing more toxic air, driven by fossil fuels and made worse by rising temperatures, as we said earlier. This is especially damaging to children as their lungs are still developing. In later life, this will mean reduced lung function, worsening asthma, and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels continue to rise--up 2.6% between 2016-2018. Energy supply from coal is also increasing--up 1.7% between 2016-2018--reversing a previous downward trend.

Particulate matter--particles 30 times finer than a human hair that can enter the bloodstream and sicken or kill people--caused 2.9 million deaths worldwide in 2017. Coal contributed to over 440,000 premature deaths from PM 2.5 (particulates measuring up to 2.5 micrograms) in 2016, and possibly more than one million deaths when all pollutants from coal combustion are considered.

India’s PM 2.5 levels are the fourth highest in the world and nine times the World Health Organization’s safe limit, making India one of the most polluted countries in the world. Upto 14 of its cities made it to the list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

High levels of PM 2.5 contributed to over 529,500 premature deaths in India in 2016--over 97,400 of these were attributable to coal.

Through adult lives, extreme weather events will intensify

Later in life, a child born today will be put at increased risk from severe floods, prolonged droughts and wildfires. Around 152 out of 196 countries, as per the Lancet report, have experienced an increase in the number of people exposed to wildfires since 2001-2004. India alone saw an increase of more than 21 million exposures, and China around 17 million, resulting in direct deaths, respiratory illness and loss of homes, said the report.

The global economic burden per person affected by wildfires is more than twice that of earthquakes and 48 times higher than that of floods, although the global number of events and number of people affected by floods is much higher than for wildfires. Further, climatic changes, including increasing temperatures and earlier snowmelt contribute to hotter, drier conditions, raising the risk of wildfires, the report said.

As the fourth hottest year on record, 2018 saw a “record-breaking” 220 million people exposed to heatwaves globally. This is 63 million more than in 2017 and 11 million more than in 2015--the year of record heatwaves. In 2018, India was also one of the countries driving up the number of heatwave exposures--with an additional 45 million exposures in the year.

Older city dwellers with chronic health conditions are most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses such as stroke and kidney disease. More frequent and longer heatwaves will redefine global labour capacity, the report warns. In 2018, a potential 45 billion additional hours of work were lost due to extreme heat globally compared to 2000. In India, 22 billion additional hours of work were lost due to extreme heat since 2000, with agriculture alone contributing 12 billion, about 54% of additional hours of work lost.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)

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